Foodie Tuesday: Fork It Over

photoThe stick-up artist and the greedy eater alike may demand that someone should ‘fork it over‘ or relinquish the object (monetary or comestible) of affection, and that, at speed. But besides cramming edibles into one’s mouth, the fork can serve a number of other useful purposes in the kitchen and at table. Not least of these commendable actions is the release of air. I shall leave it to your imaginations to determine whether some excessively greedy fressers mightn’t do well to have the fork impale them directly and thereby release some of the pent-up methane or other dangerous-to-diners gases, but there are some ways to use a fork for more benign and neighborly expulsions of atmospheric pressure.

photoThe first is to pierce pastry before baking, so that heated air inside or underneath a pastry layer can escape during the process without tearing or exploding the baked goods and their contents throughout the oven or, more excitingly yet, onto unwary bakers lifting said goodies out of the oven. My mother, famous for making what I still believe is arguably the best pie crust in the universe–always exquisitely flaky and golden and crisp and fragile, never soggy or tough–blind baked crusts without ever using pie weights, and only pierced them thoroughly with a fork before the baking. Crust made this way will indeed rise up like an egotist’s inflated chest, but only before those little vents disperse the steam and let the pie crust relax back into the pan just as it should. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the added benefit of this approach is that when a filling is added that will bake further in the crust, it leaks into the piercings a little and caramelizes there, both stabilizing the crust and adding a little candy crunch to the pie. In the same way, venting the closed top crust of the pie with a fork before baking it keeps the dough from ballooning explosively (oh, the joy of spurting jammy fruit juices around like candy lasers!), and again, from holding in unwanted moisture that can defeat attempts to have a splendidly juicy pie interior without compromising the extravagant crispness of its crust.

photoBut enough about pie for the moment, I’ll get back to that soon enough, as you’d guess. I always tend to come back to desserts, don’t I.

photoMeanwhile, piercing other foods for pressure-control purposes is pretty effective too. If you happen to like baked or roasted squashes, root vegetables and tubers, I hope you’ve been informed in good time that pricking the skin sides of them before exposing them to high heat is a helpful way to avoid reenacting the demise of the Hindenburg. One of these many dreamy dishes made with the help of the humble fork: Baba Ghannouj.

This venerable meal-starter dip or spread is not much beyond roasted eggplant, crushed or pureed and well seasoned. But, like many classic dishes from around the world, that is an egregious oversimplification of the subtlety, complexity and variability of the concoction. What remains true is that it’s mighty tasty. My personal combo for it would be less garlicky or oniony than some, mainly because of how my kitchen palette has changed since my life became linked with Mr Spouse’s, but also because my personal palate followed suit and, further, because I think heavier, more intense flavors like those, if overused, can mask more subtle and delicate ones. I submit to you a version of it.

photoBaby Baba Ghannouj

Eggplant (1 large), tahini (4 tablespoons), preserved lemon (1/2, diced), fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons), lemon zest (grated peel of 1 whole lemon), cumin (1 teaspoon or more), olive oil (4 tablespoons) and roasted garlic (1 heaping teaspoon).

If you can, blacken and blister the eggplant’s skin over open flame and then roast it to softness in the oven. For this, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. If you haven’t flame roasted the eggplant, cut it eggplant in half, lay it on a baking sheet or pan greased with olive oil or lined with a silicone sheet, and pierce its skin all over with a fork before roasting it. Roast until it’s well softened, about 20 to 30 minutes (check with gentle pressure occasionally; you can use the back of the fork for that), and finish by blackening the skin under the broiler.
When the eggplant’s soft, rub off its skin. Needn’t be perfect; bits of blackened skin will heighten the smoky flavor of the Baba Ghannouj. Put the flesh in a bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients, and mash it all up together with the famed fork. Serve garnished with a further drizzle of olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of thyme, or a toss of za’atar.

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 4: Luxurious Tools

photoSome people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.

photoSimple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.

photoI’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.photoI like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved tool.photo

The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere sight.photo

Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New York.photo

All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme necessity.photo