Thursday, June 14, 2007

A New Take on the Open Faced Sandwich: Pa Amb Oli

Lunch in Mallorca was always a sunny, pleasant affair usually involving nice glasses of wine. . . a topic I'll hopefully cover soon before jumping into South African culinary adventures (hint: what's coming next!). . . but I digress.

Mallorcans are big on
pa amb oli, a local specialty eaten as part of a light lunch or for breakfast. In the island's trademark style, the dish is simple, showcases local products, and has a hearty farming origin. Balearic farmers apparently eat it as a staple, using rustic leftover breads and sliced meats and cheeses.

The dish is basically an open faced sandwich, where ripe tomatoes and rich cheeses and cured meats are the highlight upon a hearty slice of whole grain bread. It's easy to make and be creative with too. One restaurantwe visited in Palma de Mallorca's up and coming Portixol neighborhood, ENCO, did a wonderful new take that involved local pickled peppers and tomato paste instead of the traditional sliced tomatoes.

I've included a version of the recipe below. It doesn't take longer than 10 minutes to throw together, so long as you've made the paste ahead of time. But don't skimp on the toppings - it's worth investing in great Spanish cheeses and cured meats from your local specialty deli if possible, to try and recapture some of the dish's local flavor!

A loaf of dark rye bread (ideally a rustic loaf of farmer’s bread)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced in half
1 cup tomato paste (see recipe below)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
¼ lb of soft white cheese, Manchego, Maó, Malorquin or Mahón recommended

¼ lb of Serrano ham

Pickled peppers (optional)

Pitted, red Spanish olives (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF

2. Slice the loaf thickly into ¾ or 1 inch slices

3. Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 5 minutes, or until golden and crisp.

4. Remove from the oven and immediately rub 1 side of each slice with a cut side of the garlic.

5. Spread about 2 tbspn of tomato paste (see below) or more if desired, onto one side of each bread slice.

6. Drizzle olive oil over the tomato paste and sprinkle with sea salt.

7. Top with 1 or 2 slices of cheese and ham, as desired. Place back in cooling oven for 1-2 minutes to warm slightly.

8. Remove from oven. Garnish each pa amb oli slice with peppers and/or olives and serve immediately, while bread is still warm and crisp.

Tomato Paste
6 large thin-skinned tomatoes, perfectly ripe (tomato enthusiasts, Heirlooms work well in this recipe)
1 teaspoons salt or to taste
extra virgin olive oil
1 tspn. crushed chillis
½ tspn ground paprika
¼ tspn oregano

1. After rinsing tomatoes, score a cross on the bottom of each fruit using a sharp knife. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water (for less than a minute), then drop into a bowl of ice cold water.

2. After this the tomato peel should almost fall off. Pull the peels off the tomatoes and discard. Cut the core out and remove all the seeds, discard these as well. Chop the remaining flesh into small pieces.

3. Place pieces in a medium sauce pot. Add salt to taste, as well as crushed chillis and ground paprika. Simmer over a low heat for around 1 hour, stirring often to prevent tomatoes from burning.

4. Remove from the heat and press through a fine sieve into a smaller sauce pot. Discard flesh from sieve. Add oregano to remaining mixture.

6. Continue to cook mixture very slowly until the paste holds its shape without running on a spoon, approximately 2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally to prevent any sticking.

7. Remove and cool. Store in a sealed jar in fridge until ready to use.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Start Your Day the Mallorcan Way: Ensaimadas

The travel guides we took with us to Mallorca insisted we try ensaimadas, a local specialty for breakfast. I’ll be honest, some of the descriptions left something to be desired – “a larded swirl pastry” served full of cream for breakfast? I prefer to start my day lardless; my heart hurt just reading the description! But on our first morning, delicious buttery wafts lured us into the local patisseria where we were staying in Palma de Mallorca. There, in the display case, were dozens of perfectly golden, puffed pastries curled delightfully on their side. They looked too delicious to pass up. . .

Ensaimadas are the traditional breakfast fare of Mallorca. By some accounts, written mention of the pastry dates back to the 17th century! The use of lard in ensaimadas ties them to the island’s farming heritage, since they’re usually made with homemade pork lard in Mallorcan kitchens. It’s also historic – the pastry’s name comes from the Arabic word for pork lard, saim. Making ensaimadas is practically an artform - a Regulatory Council actually certifies certain bakers around the island for making "ideal" versions of this Mallorcan delicacy!

Sarah and I actually found ensaimadas to be great, light starts to the day – not as heavy or unhealthy as their lard-based recipe suggests. They’re like a cross between a croissant and sweet bread, puffy with a slightly crisped outside, but melt-in-your-mouth sweet and soft on the inside. They were a nice local replacement for my morning croissant and bagel – and perfect with a strong cup of coffee.

The pastry uses simple ingredients - strong flour, water, sugar, eggs, and lard. The trick to making perfect ensaimadas, though, is in the kneading and rising stages of the recipe. I wasn’t lucky enough to see any master pastry chefs work their manual magic, but I did my best to collect some tips from local bakers. A variant is served with thick cream in the middle, but I’ll stick to plain ensaimadas (my favorite) to keep things simple. And, for the more health conscious among us, I’ve also substituted butter for the traditional lard. If you have any advice or modifications to what I suggest in the recipe below, please share them!

4 tspn dry yeast
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar
1 tspn salt
4 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 eggs
2 tbspn olive oil
1 ½ cup butter, for coating
sugar for dusting
½ cup grated edam cheese (optional, for topping)

1. Warm milk slightly in microwave. Dissolve yeast in the warmed milk and set aside.

2. Combine sugar and salt in a large bowl. Gradually add the flour and warm milk mixture, interchanging each. Blend thoroughly. If using an electric mixer, mixture should just separate from sides of bowl.

3. Break and beat eggs together lightly in a separate boil. Mix in olive oil. Add egg and oil mixture to flour mixture, mix well, and knead until soft and well-blended.

4. Cover with a damp cheese cloth or paper towels and leave to rise in a warm place (just above room temperature) for about an hour, until dough doubles in volume.

5. Remove cloth, knead the dough again. Dust a clean, flat counter surface with flour to prevent dough from sticking. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough as thin as possible over a floured surface (1/4 inch thickness). Brush the entire surface of the dough with softened butter. Be generous!

6. Start rolling the dough, bit by bit, from one side all the way to the other, as though you were rolling up a sheet of paper – fairly tightly. When the dough has been rolled up, allow it to rest, covered again, for 1 hour.

7. Remove cloth and coil the risen dough loosely horizontally, making a snail shell shape. Transfer the coil to a greased baking sheet.

8. Cover one final time with an extremely large inverted bowl, large enough to ensure that the dough will not stick to the bowl's surface when it rises. Allow the dough to rise for 3-4 hours.

9. Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Uncover and bake the dough coil for around 45 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown. Brush the surface with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar. Add cheese if desired.

10. To serve, cool slightly till warm and cut into cake-like slices. Serve with a great cup of coffee!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

El Sabor de Mallorca. . .

I just got back from a great trip to Mallorca, Spain with my friend Sarah. We needed to escape the clouds and cold that were somehow still afflicting Oxford in early June so we decided to rent a car and drive around in another country. Couldn’t have picked a better place – there was lots of sun, beaches and great food on this largest of the Balearic islands! My rusty Spanish was put to good use as we navigated Mallorca’s winding roads along the northwest coast, with nothing on our agenda besides a search for interesting seasonal ingredients and creative cooking with an authentic touch.

Mallorcan food is closely tied to the island. The sea, sun, and sandy soils give rise to powerfully flavored local produce and sea foods. Olive trees cover the hillsides, their whimsical branches often forced into symmetric terraces – both the oils and fruits play big in local foods. Nestled between the mountains, citrus trees cluster into little groves with their branches literally dripping with lemons, loquats, or oranges. Balearic vineyards have begun, offering local wines that convey Mallorca’s sharp landscape and hearty environs at affordable prices. Local specialties like pa amb oli (rustic bread with olive oil, tomatoes and sliced meats or cheese) showcase these natural ingredients and use a simple, minimalist approach to flavors and spices.

But the island also has a large expat community, as a lot of Germans and Brits are moving to the island to buy up the rustic villas and beach homes. That’s having an interesting effect on the culinary options. As we traveled through major towns and smaller villages, it was hard to find purely Mallorcan cooking free from other influences. Quite a few of the visible restaurants cater to a tourist audience by offering up standards like grilled meats and fish or pastas infused with local ingredients and flavors.

So, this short trip provided a lot of taste bud-edifying experiences. I tried to recreate some of the flavors and experiences at home, although it’s hard to replace special ingredients like Mallorcan produce and home cooking. As demanding as the “research” was, I hope you can enjoy some of our finds in the ensuing posts. . .

Monday, June 4, 2007

II. Baked Lavender-Rosemary Chicken

2 2.5 lb. broiler-fryer chickens, cut up
Salt & pepper
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup minced onion (1 med.)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup water
1 packet chicken bouillon powder
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 tspn. leaf rosemary, crumbled
1 tspn. dried lavender
2 tspn. grated lemon rind
3 tbspn. lemon juice

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.

2. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat ¼ cup olive oil in skillet and brown chicken on all sides; remove chicken to a shallow baking dish.

3. Using grease in skillet, cook onions and garlic until golden. Add water and bouillon. Cook, stirring, until bouillon and all brown drippings in pan are dissolved.

4. Add parsley, rosemary, lavender, lemon rind and lemon juice. Pour over chicken.

5. Cover and bake for 45 minutes or until chicken is tender.

I. Lavender Creme Brulee

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
1 – 1 1/2 tbspn dried lavender flowers, plus buds for garnish
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, plus
3 tbspn for sprinkling on top
2 tbspn honey

1. Butter 6 6-ounce crème brule or custard ramekins and set them inside a large, shallow baking dish.

2. In a large, heavy saucepan, add the cream and milk and add the lavender. Bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the lavender stems steep for about 10 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor.

3. While the milk infuses, in a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks, the 1/2 cup sugar, and the honey until smooth. Whisk into the slightly cooled lavender-cream mixture. Temper this by pouring a bit of the egg mixture and blending well before adding the rest of the egg mixture.

4. Strain combined mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any lavender flowers and foam.

5. Divide the mixture evenly among ramekins and refrigerate for 3 hours.

6. Preheat oven to 325°F. Add enough hot water to the baking dish that holds the ramekins to reach 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking dish with foil and place in the oven.
7. Bake for 50 minutes or until set around the edges. Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

8. When you’re ready to serve, sprinkle the tops with a thin layer of sugar and caramelize with a small torch or under a broiler set on high. Hold the torch 4 to 5 inches from the sugar, maintaining a slow and even motion. Stop torching a touch early, as the sugar will continue to cook for a few seconds afterwards.

9. Refrigerate 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each crème brûleé with lavender blossoms.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Pretty, Purple and Palatable: Cooking with English Lavender

June 3, 2007
Oxford, UK

My inaugural post is on an auspicious ingredient, the flower of love and luck – lavender. Oxford, England is abloom with these fragrant buds this time of year, and while appreciating their elegant stems and dulcet smells in the University’s gardens, I was inspired to bring them into the kitchen. I didn’t have to wander too far from home to find this culinary inspiration! The flowers have a beautiful color, the plants smell great, and its in-season. English lavender, the type that grows around here, is apparently especially succulent and fragrant, and I’ve been experimenting with it in a few recipes.

I can hardly take credit for the idea. Most people may be familiar with lavender as it’s used in soaps, perfumes and potpourris. But it’s commonly used in cooking as well. As an herb, the plant has been in documented use for over 2,500 years. It’s closely related to rosemary, sage and thyme. In places like Provence , I've seen chefs use lavender in savory and sweet recipes alike for its soft, sweet flavor, which carries lemon or lime overtones.

Lavender buds are best used for cooking, particularly dried ones, which have a more concentrated flavor. But you can still cut stalks from your garden and use the healthiest, largest, most deeply colored fresh buds you see. But wash them well, then carefully dab dry between sheets of paper towels. The prescribed ratio is to use 1/3 as much dried lavender as you would fresh flowers. Take care not to overuse as a little goes a long way – too much can give dishes a bitter taste. If you want to make your own dried lavender to store, it’s best to harvest buds just when the flowers begin to open, when they contain the most essential oils.

Lavender sugar is another way of preserving the flowers’ flavor for future use. Just place 1-2 tbspn of ground, dried flowers into 1 cup of sugar, seal it tightly for a week or longer, and you’ll have lavender-infused sugar to use in baking or with beverages. If you want to use the flowers in savory dishes like the chicken dish listed here, it’s versatile – lavender compliments fennel, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage flavors. I also like using the flowers as a fragrant and elegant garnish for champagne, white sangria, cakes, fruit salads and sorbets.

I’ve experimented with a few easy recipes for using this dynamic garden plant, which I’m posting below. Please feel free to share more recipes or culinary uses for lavender. And I’d love feedback on these recipes too. . .