Blu Aubergine Blog

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Citrus

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Normally, at this time of year, the citrus season is winding down. But with the numerous nor'easters to hit us in late March, a lot of the U.S. still looks like it's in the throes of winter. The especially awful flu season this year has run unabated, too, so our need for the Vitamin C that citrus provides is still as relevant now as it was in mid-January. Sigh.

Still, the days are thankfully longer now that we've sprung forward, and at least with April's approach, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, the variety of citrus fruits available to us is a great bridge to get us from cold months and snowy storms over to budding life and milder weather. Citrus just tastes like the sun, doesn't it? And I've found that using it in unexpected ways, in both savory and sweet dishes, allows us to sprinkle a little sunshine throughout our meals, throughout our weeks.

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We've long had winter access to Florida and California citrus (I'm partial to Florida, as I'm an east coast gal myself). My father occasionally sends me "care packages" of wooden crates filled with grapefruits and oranges, salve for my soul during my months of harsh hibernation in Manhattan. I eat these out of hand, or scoop out the sections of a grapefruit as a mid-morning snack. But I also use the grapefruit (ruby red, mmm) in my work, like in the homemade grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that I paired with the pine nut tart at left.

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A close sibling of the grapefruit in use and flavor is the pomelo. It's more dry than the grapefruit, so the sections peel out with less mess. And the actual pieces of pulp are large and pull apart easily. Pomelo is used in a lot of southeast Asian cooking, often paired with savory and spicy dishes like the spicy grilled river prawns and pomelo salad I once ate poolside in Bangkok. Pomelos are also a part of the Vietnamese salad with shredded chicken and cabbage that I love so much -- it's often replaced by grapefruit here in the States, but the original uses pomelo. Other large citrus that we use mostly for their skin or rind or juice -- and really, above all, we often use their scent -- are the citron, bergamot, calamansi, ugly fruit, and the etrog. Since we're focusing on what we eat and drink from the citrus species, we'll skip the details on these guys. They do provide the flavor for some delicious drinks, liqueurs, and vinegars however. Another time, another post.

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In Italy, I look forward to two types of citrus showing up in the markets. One is clementini, or clementines, which always signal to me the approach of the winter holidays. Christmas in Italy means that pretty much every household has a gorgeous painted ceramic bowl full of clementini on the kitchen or coffee table. The second type of citrus I pine for until winter is the Sicilian blood orange, known as arancia rossa in Italian. Their flesh ranges in color from fuchsia-tinged bright orange to deep, dark magenta. These sweet, barely-acidic babies become happily ubiquitous at the end of the calendar year and throughout winter. They're in salads -- particularly those of Sicilian origin, like the blood orange-fennel-olive salads I love at this time of year. They're in desserts. They go into spremute, or freshly-squeezed juices sold in bars and in markets all over Italy. They're also great paired with prosecco, for a gorgeously colored aperitivo cocktail that's better than any mimosa you've ever experienced.  

They're squeezed into vinaigrettes and made into sauces -- they happen to pair really well with steak fish to brighten a typical white wine sauce. They're an unexpected touch anywhere you'd normally use lemon or regular orange. They're delicious seared on the grill and paired with pork or duck. They're also great candied, dipped in chocolate. The possibilities are pretty endless, actually. And they're accessible now that they've become popular in the U.S.

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And then we have the other categories of orange-skinned citrus. Mandarins and tangerines are often slightly sweeter versions of oranges, larger than clementines but just as delicious and versatile. They're great paired with pomegranate in a spremuta, and my vendors in Campo de' Fiori in Rome have been selling these alongside their market stall now for years. Of course, the smallest of all these orange cousins is the kumquat -- a slightly tricky fruit, but one that can actually be eaten whole, peel and all (these are thin-skinned little guys), and do really well sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup so they're softened, half way to marmalade. 

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This kumquat syrup can be made into a compote with the addition of other fruits, it can be made into a chutney with spices and some savory elements, or used as a flavoring syrup with an herb or two to be used as the base for a cocktail or to be topped off with sparkling water. Kumquats also do well included in other dishes like the composed salad here, with shaved fennel, beets, wild asparagus, avocado, and sunflower seeds on a bed of Greek yogurt. Other varietals of orange-skinned citrus like the satsuma, the tangelo, and various cross-breeds have been flooding the citrus market in recent years. I try to sample these fruits when I see a variety I've not yet tasted, and I have to say I've liked just about everything I've tried.

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When it comes to a delicious acidic kick in cooking, limes are probably my star ingredient. They bring ceviche to life, they cut the richness of grilled meats in Mexican tacos and fajitas, they are pivotal in Southeast Asian marinades and dips, and they're the perfect finishing agent for freshly cooked seafood and freshly grilled veggies like corn on the cob -- I love smothering corn in a miso-lime butter. Limes are a must on any cocktail bar (dark and stormy, anyone?). Lime is also a wonderful ingredient for desserts. 

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A truly well-made slice of key lime pie is hard to beat. The key limes are deliciously tart and work well in tropical cuisine that matches the environment in which they're grown. Lime sorbetto is ultra-refreshing. And lime curd is delicious, and pairs well with berries, like in my raspberry-lime-ginger tart at right. We're now starting to see the availability of other varieties like finger limes in specialty markets these days. These are to regular limes what pomelos are to grapefruit, and are excellent when the pulp is used in savory preparations. Kaffir limes are amazing, particularly in southeast Asian cuisine, but they're relatively dry and so are best used for their aromatic zest and above all, for their gorgeous fresh leaves. Nothing, for me, compares to the flavor kaffir lime leaves impart to curries and stews and soups. And dried limes are a big part of the flavor profile in Persian cooking, a cuisine I love and am learning more about all the time.

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And then, of course, we have the lemon. I could write an entire post alone on lemons -- and I will, at some point. Having honeymooned last year on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, we walked through a pergola of lemon trees just to get from our suite to breakfast each morning in Anacapri. My friends had luscious lemon trees in the back yard of their B+B in Puglia. Even my friends with more than a corner of terrace space in Rome have citrus trees. And I've used lemon leaves in my cooking as well - they're great for wrapping things in and grilling. The amazing Italian lemons themselves go into everything from a light salad dressing to sauces for seafood to desserts and cakes and gelato and sorbetto and mmmmm, granita. They are served alongside tea (tè al limone) as well as a bistecca alla fiorentina. But lemons from all over the world help to add flavor to marinades and ceviches and meringue pies and tarts and candies, and anything at all that needs a little brightening of flavor.

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They are a part of the sgroppino, an after-dinner drink which I've already highlighted on this blog here: http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/search?q=sgroppino -- but it's so delicious it's worth mentioning again. And the lemons of the Amalfi coast have long donated their rinds to the best cause of all: limoncello.  What lemons have added to our world of drinks alone makes them worthwhile! Limonana, the Israeli slushie drink of lemon and mint, is a refreshing glass of wonderfulness, improved upon by the addition of a little vodka. And the coccolimone drink and grattachecca sold on the streets of Rome in warm weather are a revelation.

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With the creation of the meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange, we have a best-of-both-worlds situation which allows us an interesting, mellowed citrus flavor to utilize in both sweet and savory. Lemon bars are given a tweak, and meyer lemon curd adds interest to the coconut cake and chocolate tuile at left. They're great in sauces and to make an aioli ethereal. Grilled and squeezed on seafood, they lend amazing dimension. There's very little a regular lemon can do that a meyer lemon won't improve. Give them a try the next time you find them in the market. In fact, pick up as many citrus varieties as you can get your hands on, then store them in the fruit bin in your fridge, and go in search of recipes that utilize these wondrous, versatile fruits. They'll help you bring on the spring!

 Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

 Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

 Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

 Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

 Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

 Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

 

 

 

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the underdog...in sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

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By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 

When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.

I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matched to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween! Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here.

It's dubbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.

My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake.

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack".

This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try.

We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.

This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli.

Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

Ēma
74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL60654
(312) 527.5586
www.emachicago.com

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL60607
(312) 492.6262
www.girlandthegoat.com

Dopo Il Giorno di Ringraziamento: After-Thanksgiving in Rome

Ah, life as an expat in Italy. Though not always easy, of course, it is a sweet life on the whole. One of the upsides of living so far from home was the closeness this bred among friends. And nowhere was this bond more evident than over a huge meal -- which, for those of us who are or were Americans living in Rome, means Thanksgiving.

The first year I spent Thanksgiving in Rome, I was new, and bold enough in my kitchen job to ask for the day off of work. I made sure that our group of friends had our very own expat Thanksgiving to celebrate, with family favorite recipes and more side dishes than we could fit on any table. That first year started a tradition among us for the Big Rome Expat Thanksgiving. We had some basic rules to follow: everyone was to bring a dish (usually a side dish but sometimes an appetizer or a dessert), a small donation (to help pay for decor, plates and utensils, etc.), and a bottle of wine (in Rome in late November, that meant a lot of bottles of novello, the light, young wine perfect for drinking with turkey). The only guests allowed, with some degree of flexibility on a case-by-case basis, were Americans, close English-mother-tongue friends (often Brits), and significant others. The significant other category was usually the only way Italians were invited to join in our very American traditional feast.

This didn't mean that our table wasn't full of its fair share of italiani. So many in our famiglia romana had a spouse or S.O. who was Roman, or at least from somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Some of our Americans were half-Italian, our Italians half-American. But at the Thanksgiving table, everybody was an honorary American. 

Of course, Italians and particularly Romans are furbi: sly, especially when it comes to good food. So our Italian friends who knew they had no claim to a place at our expat Thanksgiving table also knew that there would be plenty of leftovers, and on a Friday, and really, that was the best part. 

"Thanksgiving," my friend Matteo once claimed, is the American holiday "piu' figo di tutti." It was a sentiment echoed year after year by my Italian amici: Thanksgiving is the best American holiday, by far. It's because it's a secular celebration that's ALL about eating -- certainly as much as any Italian saint day or celebratory feast day. Italians can really appreciate that. And so can we, as Americans! My favorite part of the whole production was enjoying the leftovers, whether simply reheated or made into one fabulous panino, or converted into a sort of shepherd's pie, American style. 

I remember with particular fondness one Thanksgiving in the mid-aughts, when my friend and stand-in for little sister, Tilly, ended up sleeping over after the Thanksgiving meal, and we stayed up late eating il secondo dessert (dessert, part two) and binge-watching the American version of the series The Office until the wee hours. And, we put a dent in the excess of wine we had left over. 

We woke up late the next morning (ok, afternoon) and my Italian friends began calling. What are you doing for lunch today? they'd ask. Are you at home, and might it be okay if I passed by to say hello?  Some would ask, how about doing an aperitivo at your place tonight? Can I come by around 5 pm? We all knew it was a put-on. We all knew what they were getting at. And anyway, I'd promised my dear Italian friends for whom we'd not had room at the expat Thanksgiving table, that there would always be room for them to enjoy our feast the next day (when everything tastes better, anyway). I'd walk them through all of our dishes -- some regionally-inspired, like Martin's creamed corn casserole, others personal family traditions, like my Mom's spinach pie, and others historically traditional, like sweet potatoes and succotash. 

Gareth always loved his glazed carrots. GB made cornbread. I insisted on making whole cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries (the search for which is worthy of a separate blog post!), and I always wanted a few different types of stuffing because, well, stuffing is personal. And the desserts! I always made something chocolate, an apple pie, and either a pecan pie or chocolate-swirl cheesecake (or Lizzy made a pumpkin one)...and on and on. My Italian friends' faces would light up when I'd go through the history of the dishes, and why they were served on our holiday table, and who made them and why. And then we'd all dig in. Many of the flavors on Thanksgiving were completely new to the Italians enjoying them (cranberry sauce, pecan pie, corn casserole). Some were familiar (stuffing is like a warm panzanella, with no tomatoes or cucumbers or vinegar! Corn bread is polenta-adjacent!) All were delicious, and devoured. In my not-so-humble opinion, my apartment in Rome was always the site of some of the best dinner parties anyone has attended, expat or no. But no organized dinners were quite so joyous as the meals we shared among friends-as-family, reheated in casserole dishes and Pyrex platters, heaped onto paper plates, and washed down with Italian wine and great conversation on those late November afternoons.

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh.

The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.

They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.