Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Stuffed Dates -- The "No Kitchen" Challenge

The kitchen remodel is moving along well:  the new cabinetry is in along with the improved LED lighting.  All that is needed now is the counter top, touch up paint, some tiling, and the electrical outlets and light switches.

So my challenge for this post was to make something that didn't require an oven or stove, although using the microwave was acceptable.  The problem was lack of preparation space and keeping the number of dirty dishes to a minimum.  (I'm still washing dishes in the bathroom sink.)

After due consideration (honest, it wasn't a total panic!) I realized that I could make something I have made in my historical cooking demonstrations in the past.  Stuffed dates have always been a hit -- sweet, creamy, and with cinnamon.

Normally I make this with the green cheese I posted earlier on this blog.  You should try it, too!  I think it makes a better product.  For my challenge, though, I used cream cheese.

I know this recipe is medieval or Renaissance English.  If I can find it in a book some time, I'll post the reference.  Right now I'm working from memory.

Stuffed Dates

Pitted dates (I used about 1 pound)
Cream cheese (8 ounces was more than enough)
A plain sweet bread or cake (I used a purchased, frozen pound cake)
Cinnamon, ground (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
Pepper, ground (I used about 1/8 teaspoon)

Soften the cream cheese (10 seconds in the microwave was just right).  Mix in the cinnamon and pepper.

Crumble 6 to 8 ounces of the pound cake and mix the crumbs into the cream cheese mixture.  The idea is to make the mixture stiffer and drier than plain cream cheese.  *I had better results with the green cheese.  That turned into a dough-like consistency and the spices stayed as distinct specks. Very attractive.*  The cream cheese remained a bit sticky and the spices turned it light brown.  Still, I'm not complaining!

Taste the cheese mixture:  It should have the slight tang of cream cheese but the cinnamon should be dominant.  If not, add more cinnamon.  The pepper should not be obvious.  It just adds a depth of flavor to the cinnamon.

The cheese filling, complete
Put the cheese into the refrigerator for a little while.  In the mean time, slice the pitted dates lengthwise on one side into the pit opening.  Don't cut them in half!

Using a spoon, put some of the cheese mixture into the date.  Put in enough to have some of it poke out through the slit.  I tried to make mine decorative but was only partially successful.

Once the dates were all filled, I dusted them with an extra bit of cinnamon to give them a visual as well as a flavor boost.

The Verdict

Very tasty, as usual! The dates are certainly sweet enough and the cheese mixture adds a creamy, cinnamon-spicy counterflavor to make them special.  The size is just right for two bites or so.  That keeps it from being overwhelmingly sweet.  It is a good finger food, too, although somewhat sticky.  They could be served at a buffet as a curiosity.  People who like dates tend to enjoy them!

I had some cheese mixture left over, so I spread some on the left over pound cake.  Tasty but too soft for me.  I wanted some chopped nuts with it.  My guest taste tester and assistant preparer, who doesn't like chopped nuts, thought it was good as it was.

In the past when I have had left over cheese mixture, I added chopped raisins and rolled them into little balls.  That is another handy way to serve them.  They might be even more attractive with a dusting of cinnamon, too.

If I were to do this over again, I would probably use ricotta cheese and drain it first.  I like the tang of the cream cheese but mixture was stickier than I really like.

By the way, you can probably cut the dates in half and stuff each half.  There is nothing wrong with that!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Something Different: A Culinary Symposium

My kitchen does not exist right now.  It is four walls with new electrical work and lights but no cabinets, counters, or appliances.  The remodel is moving along well!  For this post, I thought it would be fun to tell you about the culinary symposium I attended last March.

The West Coast Culinary Symposium is an event put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).  Their web page promised "a chance for like-minded and enthusiastic people to get together and share their love and knowledge of pre-1600 period cooking and practices and share the tasty results.  It is also a time to gather as friends, make new ones, share ideas, and teach our skills to others hoping to learn."  All this came true and then some!  Excited historical cooks from all over the United States and some international travelers attended.

First, the Food 

The arrival evening was a "Traveler's Potluck" where we all brought something to share and the symposium supplied a variety of soups.  What an opportunity for showing off our skills! I brought my Deviled Eggs for Dessert, An Illusion Food which I posted on this blog on March 15, 2014.  But oh, the other offerings:  homemade cheeses, meat pies, pickled vegetables, artisan breads and spreads, fruit pies, Roman era gingerbread, and more.  Even taking small portions of these temptations didn't leave me enough room to taste all I wanted to try.

Asparagus Omelet
Onion Relish and Herbed Cheese Spread with pear slices
Meat Pie!  With pork, beef, chicken, and onions.
Meat Pie, the interior
Compost -- a medieval chutney

The groaning table
We also were served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast over the next two days.  These were cooked onsite by different groups and they all did fabulous jobs.  
Breakfast:  eggs, cheese, bacon, bread, apricot jam with rosewater, grapes, stewed greens
Lunch:  Porridge, cheese, red cabbage, sausages, onion relish, cheese, fruit, shortbread, various sauces
The lunch table:  I like how they served spreads in goblets
The dinner was particularly exciting as it was attended by the King and Queen of the kingdom.  Everyone went all out with the menu!

Elderberry cheesecake -- yum!
Meat pie as a peacock -- a subtlety
A meat stew subtlety, too
Homemade cheeses
One of my servings  : )  The chicken was baked with bacon and there is a nice spinach dish, too
You might have noticed that some dishes ended up being offered at two meals -- a very efficient way to use the leftovers.  But what was particularly nice was having leftover elderberry cheesecake for breakfast the next morning!
A good morning start
Oatmeal with stewed fruit
Next:  The Food Classes

I took three classes but got the benefit of a fourth in that they shared their food creations. 

In the Ottoman Turk cooking class we made several dishes, all tasty!  Most of the time my hands were busy helping out so I don't have a lot of pictures showing the preparation steps.  Also, with the construction going on, I can't find my notes.  Once I do, I'll update this post.

One recipe involved eggplants and gourds.  They were hollowed out, stuffed with a lamb and mint mixture, then steamed.  For serving they were sliced and adorned with a yogurt sauce and chopped mint.

Eggplant sliced open lengthwise and hollowed out
The hollowed gourd
Getting ready to steam
Slicing in anticipation of serving
What a lovely presentation! 
We also used a lamb and mint stuffing to fill up grape leaves.  A special addition to the mixture was "Golden Prunes" which are dried and have a lovely tart taste.  It added a zing to the mixture that I liked very much.  The stuffed leaves were steamed at the same time as the eggplant and gourds.

Stuffed, rolled, and ready for steaming
Steamed and ready for eating!
Another dish, absolutely yummy and a surprising combination of foods, contained cooked chicken that was deboned and shredded then mixed with noodles, grapes, and almonds.  I can't recall the sauce but will look it up later.
The noodles, uncooked
The finished dish
We also made a sweet treat, a type of folded pastry filled with an almond mixture.  There was a professional pastry chef in the class who assisted in the rolling, cutting, and closing the treats.
The dough for the treats
Aren't they cute?
The finished product.  YUM!  Hard to save some for others.
The afternoon class was about outdoor cooking.  The instructor had a neat portable fire pit that assembles from boards and uses sand and bricks to insulate the wood from the fire.  A metal structure fitted around it to provide a place to hang pots and spits.  The advantage of it coming apart is that the otherwise very heavy pit can be broken into easily carried pieces.

The ceramic pots are used as cloches
Notice the spitted roast is off to the side of the fire and has a drip pan beneath it.  The sand you see is only a few inches deep.
There was also a portable all metal fire pit that was fun to look at.  The ceramic pot is being used to help heat the charcoal faster and also to warm the pot up before it is placed over cooking food.

Love the medieval styling
The warmed cloche will go over the chicken, making a little oven and cooking the meat faster and more evenly
The class next door on Roman Empire cooking generously shared the results of their cooking.  I got to try some food items that were entirely new to me!  One item I didn't get a picture of was fried pig's ears.  Yes, you read that right.  They were sliced into strips and fried until they were chewy, tasty treats.  Not exciting from my point of view but certainly fun to try and tell people about.

Another surprise was the grilled pig nipples.  They were marinated in some lovely sauce and then we helped to grill them.  They, too, were chewy but I liked the bacon-y flavor and would definitely try them again.

Heading to the grill.  The specks are seeds in the marinade
Cooking up nicely.
I don't want you to think the pig nipples were the big surprise, though.  No, that honor belongs to the dish containing leeks, pine nuts, and ... wait for it ... pig uterus.  That's right:  sow's womb.  The sauce on the dish really brought the flavors together and made my tastebuds sing:  a taste of olive oil and spices.  The uteri made me think of slightly chewy macaroni, which is what they looked like, too.  In all seriousness, I would eat this dish again.  If I couldn't get uteri, I would use macaroni. 
Very, very tasty!
My last class was on subtleties and illusion foods.  These are foods designed to "fool the eye" into thinking it is something it is not.  The instructor was very knowledgeable, experienced, and creative.  She had brought pictures of some of her past creations and also taught us how to work with sugar paste using a store-bought gum paste mixture and rosewater.

The carrots are made of meat loaf mixture and the shrimp are really marzipan.
This is made of sugar paste!
Adorable hard-boiled egg mice
Tools of the sugar paste sculpting trade
Mixing the gum paste with rosewater to make a smooth dough
More creations
Food Related Fun

The days were packed with good food, good learning, and good people!  We also had a keynote speaker and two competitions.  One was called "Mortal Peril" and consisted of categories with answers to which we had to provide the questions.  Anyone could participate in the first round and the top three winners went on to the final round.  Great fun!  The other competition was a spice identification challenge, where about 30 spices were put in numbered glass containers and the competitors were given a paper listing all the spice names.  We could look at, sniff, and taste the spices to identify them.  It was quite a challenge!  I was pleased with how many I got right.  

The Verdict

Overall it was exhausting, exhilarating, and worth every minute.  I'm so glad I was able to go!  Along with all the knowledge I got from the classes, I learned that I love elderberry cheesecake and anything with rosewater in it.  I came home with cookbooks, spices, a two-hundred year old sourdough starter, a ceramic alembic, and a strong desire to sculpt in sugar paste.  I met a lot of nice and interesting people, had conversations about all sorts of cooking styles and methods, enjoyed the mountain setting, and filled my stomach with tasty and exotic foods.  I am not a member of the SCA but everyone was friendly and welcoming and accommodated my lack of SCA social skills.  

This event has my hearty recommendation!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Eggplant, The Perfect Way -- Calabria

I have returned to A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford Wright.  I suspect it will become a favorite because of its diversity of recipes, and I've only read the first hundred pages!
ISBN 0-688-15305-4
In Part I:  An Algebra of Mediterranean Gastronomy, Chapter 2:  Harvest of Sorrow, Food of Dreams (page 77), I came across Melanzane alla Finitese, with an accompanying paragraph of:
Arab agriculturists brought the eggplant to the Mediterranean from Persia, or perhaps even from the Arabian peninsula, in the ninth or tenth century.  The eggplant was treated with suspicion at first, but soon became a favorite vegetable. ... Calabrians have seemingly hundreds of different preparations for eggplant and many might agree that this is the perfect way. The late American food writer Waverly Root claimed that this dish is so called because it is a specialty of San Martino di Finita.
Eggplant, The Perfect Way

8 baby eggplant (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Salt to taste
2/3 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
1/4 finely chopped fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Basil doesn't get any fresher than this!
1.  Slit each eggplant open in the middle, slicing it lengthwise and making sure you do not cut all the way through.  Hollow out a small amount of pulp with a small spoon such as a demitasse or baby spoon.  Save the pulp for making the recipe on page 531.* Open the eggplant with your fingers and salt the inside.  Leave them on a plate to drain of their bitter juices for 30 minutes, then pat dry the insides with paper towels.

2. In a small bowl, mix the pecorino, basil, and pepper.  Using your fingers, stuff each eggplant with the cheese mixture.  Close each eggplant with a toothpick if necessary so very little stuffing escapes.

3.  In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and cook the eggplant until soft, about 25 minutes.  Transfer to a serving platter, drizzle with a little olive oil, and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

* Eggplant Omelette Fritters

My Notes

I used only two baby eggplants so I reduced the cheese mixture quantities to match (about one fourth of the recommended amounts).

They didn't say anything about the stem end, so I cut it off as close to the stem as I could.  This turned out to be convenient for hollowing out the pulp.  I was careful to open the eggplants only enough for the work that needed to be done so the uncut part would not split.

Slit, scooped, and salted
Since I was only using two eggplants, I did not save the pulp to make the recipe on page 531. 

For each eggplant, I used about 1/2 tsp of salt which I poured into my hand then gently poured into the eggplant.  Closing and shaking the eggplant helped distribute the salt. They were placed cut-side down on the plate to make the draining easier.

The cheese mixture had a bit more than 1/8 tsp. of pepper, which I thought was too much but my guest taster liked.

The toothpicks went in at a slant to the cut.

The olive oil was heated until it started to smoke, then I turned the heat down until it was barely smoking.  Then I put in the stuffed eggplants.  My concern was knowing when they were done -- nothing happened for about 7 to 8 minutes after they sat in the hot oil.  Then some sizzling occurred and I felt like they were actually cooking!
See the toothpicks?
I turned the eggplants four times, letting them sit at least five minutes on each side before turning.  The skin turned dark and the flesh slumped, showing me it was getting soft.  It was pretty easy to see they were getting done. 

To serve them, I pulled out the toothpicks and opened them up, trying to get some of the stuffing on both halves.  That was hard; one half had most, if not all, of the stuffing.  I didn't drizzle more oil on them because they had oil on them still from the pan.  I did let them rest ten minutes, as directed.

The Verdict

This was very good!  At first I thought I should avoid eating the skin but it tasted fine -- not burnt or scorched or bitter.  Parts of it did slide off the flesh so you can look for that if you don't want to eat it.

The flesh was tender and mild; the cheese, basil, and pepper combination is tasty in its own right but a good accompaniment for the flesh -- the pecorino was strong but the basil was in enough quantity that their flavors blended and complimented each other.  No one flavor dominated even though I thought there was too much pepper.

I sincerely wished for more of the tasty stuffing.  I used all that I made but I felt the eggplants were modestly stuffed; I think the next time around I would fill them full.  Next time, too, I would consider serving them unopened (but without the toothpick) because I expect it to be easier to get the stuffing in every bite.

Success!  I would do this again and especially for company.  It is unique, simple, and impressive.  My guest taster was very suspicious of eggplant yet liked it enough to eat the whole thing.  I served it with broiled steak; fresh tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar, pepper, and basil strips; and pine nut couscous.  A very satisfying meal.
Hot enough to steam up the camera lens