I discovered Spanish “Fig Cake” not too long ago and have been a devotee ever since. It is pure figs mixed with almonds and anise flavoring. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Spanish fig cake is sold in plastic-wrapped wedges and is available in specialty food stores. I get mine in the Italian produce market in my neighborhood. Hope you can find it in your neighborhood. Let me know!
I call this a Sicilian Supper because (a) the eggplant variety I used is called Sicilian and (b) staying with the theme, I used some ingredient pairings more common to the cuisine of Sicily — like mixing pignolis and raisins in a savory dish and making a salad with oranges, fennel and zucchini. So uncork the chianti and follow me.
Put small amount of brown rice up to cook. Meantime, chop scooped out eggplant and saute on stove top with a little olive oil, minced garlic, chopped sausage, raisins, sun dried tomatoes and pignoli nuts until softened. Add a little chicken broth if liquid in the pan dissolves (less calories than more olive oil).
Add cooked rice to saute mixture with a liberal amount of freshly-grated parmesan cheese and chopped basil. Add thyme and red pepper flakes.
Remove eggplant from oven and fill cavity covering top with a sprinkle of bread crumbs. Return to oven for about another 15-20 minutes till top is brown and shell is tender.
Peel and slice one orange in rounds. Peel zucchini skin and then use peeler to create ribbons. Layer on plate, top with slices of fennel, a drizzle of olive oil and lots of black pepper. Finish plate with olive salad and fresh fennel.Mangia bene!
You’ll be seeing them in lots of my recipes…lots!Chicken Broth: I use it for anything that requires liquid but, most especially, with vegetables. Why cook in water, butter or oil when you can add a non-fattening layer of flavor from the onset? The new container packaging makes it easy to use and store in the refrigerator for the next time. Meet a few of my other ‘can’t-live-without” pantry staples: olive oil (extra virgin, like everyone else), nuts (walnuts & almonds in particular), olives (all kinds), honey, Goya Sazon (dry seasoning) and, of course, pasta. With pasta in the pantry, there’s always a meal on the table! From the Fridge: No-fat sour cream (tastes just like Greek yogurt), hummus, whole grain tortilla wraps, Parmigiano Reggiano.
And, did I mention wine? It’s a staple here, no different than the others mentioned…medium-bodied smooth reds (the house ‘fave’) and crispy whites like the Sauvignon Blanc from Nobilo in New Zealand. Wine completes the meal…unless, of course, we’re talking breakfast! (…and then it’s Cafe Pilon.)
Mezzo Giardinera (all vegetables) and Mezzo Panzanella (with bread)
I’ve been savoring and sparingly using a jar of Olive Salad I bought at the Central Grocery in New Orleans (home of the muffaletta sandwich). When I began to pass the jar’s midway point on the way south, I thought about trying to make my own olive salad, but then I immediately took it to the next level and decided to expand the whole concept into a fresh salad. The mind is a wonderful thing…yum.
Reprinted from November 2002
I don’t know about you, but I am never more desirous of traveling than immediately after returning from a trip. Once I’ve touched base with family, home, things familiar and convenient(!), the wanderlust kicks in BIG TIME. I’m even more anxious to travel than the day I left on my latest journey. I’ve traveled a fair amount – over more years than I care to admit to – and always have the same reaction.
My latest trip was also my first trip as an escort for a women’s travel club. On November 1, I escorted 20 great women to Florence and a surprise visit to Montecatini (but that’s a whole other story.) During the trip – I think on a bus ride from Chianti to Rada – one of my travelmates, Kathy from Minneapolis, introduced me to travel essays. Now I’m not the type of person to leave home without a fair amount of research about my destination. My pretrip modus operandi usually includes (at a bare minimum) purchasing one or two guidebooks — and that’s after spending hours in Barnes & Noble reviewing them all. I will have gone online a gazillion times to check weather, special events/happenings. I will definitely know all the best restaurants and where the shopping deals are – and I almost always purchase an audio cassette and dictionary to familiarize myself with a new language. But travel essays? That was new to me.
So upon my return and still deep in the throes of the travel bug, I purchased A Woman’s Passion for Travel and there in the introduction I found a passage that set my recent trip in perspective.
“…what makes a journey rich and memorable for most women is not so much the places we visit, but the people we meet. Indeed, developing or deepening a relationship can be the most important aspect of a journey; that relationship may be with ourselves, a travel companion, or someone met along the way.”
And so that set me to thinking about the trip to Florence and some special moments that made the trip memorable. I’ll start with Janice who pre-trip almost had to cancel. Then due to a snafu with her connecting flight from Minneapolis wound up having to take a later transfer flight from Milan to Florence than the rest of the group. Though we just barely got to know her in JFK and on the flight over, we were uniformly sympathetic and dedicated to retrieving her luggage (which made our flight even though she couldn’t). Ironically, when we landed in Florence, we were stunned to find we had Janice’s luggage but most of the rest of the groups’ luggage was left in Milan (but that, again, is a whole other story). Later that day, there was a collective and very warm welcome when she showed up at the hotel in time for our first dinner together.
When traveling to a foreign place, you see so many sights…churches, museums, statues…and they often fade or blend in your memory. The Pitti Palace and the Bargello were fabulous institutions and we were lost in their splendor while visiting, as too was the wonderful Pintoriccio library in the Santa Maria Assunta church in Siena. But memorable, too, were the afternoons we spent at the farmhouse in San Gimignano and the castle/winery in Chianti that had more to do with people and lifestyles than history. On this trip, the group camaraderie was high. We did a lot of laughing, a lot of sharing…and, there were also some interesting encounters made along the way with people outside our group. Lois from North Carolina appreciated certain of the art hanging in a restaurant in Lucca and learned from the maitre’ d that the artist was local and had a gallery in town. Hopeful, and undaunted by the fact that most everything in town was closed till 4:00 P.M., Lois took off alone in search of the gallery. When we next caught up with her at the bus she had a wonderful adventure to tell us…she found the gallery closed but saw the artist’s name on a nearby door and ventured up a flight stairs where she met the artist in his home. With limited to naught commonality of language, Lois managed to explain she liked his art…and he, flattered by her visit, found a sketch and signed it for her as a gift.
And so it goes when you travel. You open yourself up to all kinds of experiences and meeting all kinds of people. For me, personally, I found it was great fun to travel with 20 women. Another passage that particularly caught my eye in this book:
“We [women] move more slowly through the world,
perhaps because we are tuned to the footsteps behind us.”
And that’s the way it was with our group in Florence. As Kathy said, it was great to have so many “sisters” to help her decide which leather coat to buy. Another woman observed, “no matter who you sat next to at dinner or strolled beside in the street, the conversation flowed.” Despite coming from so many regions across the country, it was just second nature to look after each other.
I can’t wait for my next trip!
Today, spur-of-the-moment with no planning and no recipe, I tried pouch cooking…and, boy, am I a convert! Not only is the flavor to die for, there are no pots to clean.
The formal culinary term is “en papillote” (paper, parchment paper to be exact), but aluminum foil works just as well. Since the package remains sealed through the cooking process, the flavors meld and the aromas are trapped until they are released when the pouch is opened…presenting a real sensory experience of sight, smell and taste.
My Ingredients: Salmon, onion, carrot, pimentos, pesto sauce, chicken broth. (I used a little broth to thin the pesto to create some liquid. White wine would work equally, if not better.)
Technique: Cut aluminum foil square. Salt & pepper all ingredients. Layer chopped onions, carrots, and pimentos on foil. Place salmon on top and pour pesto sauce over it. Close package and bake for about 30 minutes in 350 degrees.
The result was tender and moist. The flavor was so good, I’m embarrassed to admit I actually drank the remaining juice off the plate!
This is a really great dish for a light summer supper — or even for entertaining. What fun for your guests to get an aromatic surprise package on their plate! I plan to do this again…and soon (I’m still drooling). This time, perhaps, I’ll add shrimp and clams for a real frutti di mare — or perhaps put an Asian spin on it. I’m also thinking about trying it with chicken, prunes and couscous. Stay tuned for more pouch cooking…the variations are limitless!
Before lifting your fork to your mouth, try one or all of these ‘finishing touches’. It will add a whole new dimension to your home-cooked meals.
LEMON: I’ve always been a big fan of lemon. Perhaps you already add a little lemon juice to fish, but you may be surprised to learn that a last minute squeeze, even on seemingly unlikely dishes like steak or pasta, takes it to a whole new and fresh level. So try it on non-tomato sauce pastas, green leafy vegetables, other meats and rice dishes.
OLIVE OIL: In Spain I found almost everything I ate was finished with olive oil. A little off-putting at first for the calorie-conscious among us, but it really does add a richness and smoothness that seems to complete the dish. And, it’s not a strange concept. We already do it on salads. Try it on vegetables, pastas, rice, your toast!
SESAME OIL: A few drops to finish vegetables, rice, salmon or any Asian-inspired dish adds an aromatic nutty flavor.
FLAVORED SEA SALTS: I normally don’t salt food before tasting it. However, I’ve been experimenting with flavored salts, finding that a small sprinkle once the food is plated kicks up the flavor and adds the texture of crunch. The one I’m currently using is a ‘spicy citrus blend sea salt’.
PEPPER: Freshly ground black peppercorns or crushed red flakes adds yet another layer of flavor without too much heat if applied lightly.
NUTMEG: I always grind a little nutmeg to green leafy vegetables or the once-in-a-blue-moon casserole that contains cheese. Great background flavor. Use sparingly.
Do you have any last minute finishes that take your cooking to the next level?
I figure if your food tastes really good, you’ll be satisfied quicker and more able to effectively control portions. Another word about ‘all good things in moderation’. Then enjoy!
Think SPRINKLE, not slather.
Think DRIZZLE, not drown.
Think DUST, not douse.
TIP: A good no-heavy-hand measure for olive oil is to use the cap of the bottle instead of just an up-ended pour…oops.