M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XII

Caponata Siciliana – September 17

This will be the last for a bit, as I’m off to the land of good and accessible food soon enough. I found myself with far too many good fresh vegetables and jarred items the other night, so I improvised a caponata. There are a lot of regional variations, but this is the warzone version here.

Soffritto of garlic, two non-fiery long peppers and EVOO in a high-walled pot as I cubed and sliced 5-6 eggplants, most medium, one giant. I added the eggplants gradually and, since they’re sponges, added a bit more oil each time.

Then 5-6 ripe red tomatoes. This all began to cook down well enough and to be sure, I needed the liquid in the pot.

I covered, turned down the heat a little, stirred frequently and let come together. I then raided the fridge and decided to get rid of all my green olives (pitted), black olives (not pitted, but much tastier and ideal for cooking as they have a rich black flesh that falls apart) and capers (all jarred Saclà items courtesy of the Italian PX). I also tossed in an anchovy fillet, which immediately melted and just added a salty flavor. Then a bit of unrefined sugar and some balsamic vinegar (BioItalia, amazingly available here). I was on the fence about this, as I think that white vinegar gives it the agrodolce (sweet and sour) taste that makes it so distinctive. The sugar neutralized the bite of the vinegar well enough; it wasn’t as agrodolce as previous versions I’ve made in a better-stocked kitchen, but it did the trick.

Continued to cook and stir, then let cool for at least five minutes and topped with fresh basil from the warzone herb garden.

It came out better than I expected, to be honest. I had some pecorino so I couldn’t resist grating a bit, which may be sacrilege in Sicily, but as I’ve said I’ve mainly spent time in the north, so someone please let me know if so.

It’s meant to go with meat, so the leftover half I had today, nice and chilled, with copious amount of freshly grilled chicken kebabs, was not a bad way to end this time in the ‘zone. My only regret is that I wish I’d pitted the black olives.

I’ll be back online with more ideas next month. Till then, arrivederci. 

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XI

Penne con cozze e melanzane


With one eggplant from last weeks’ veggie haul left, and some frozen Chilean mussels, I decided to adapt this. The idea of seafood plus eggplant is clearly a southern one, but one I’m starting to appreciate more. 

Started by slicing and salting the eggplants early this morning while I did other routine chores. The moisture came out nicely and I washed off the salt and resulting brown liquid and patted dry with paper towels.

soffritto – note fiery seeming red pepper

Those went in a large pan with EVOO and a garlic clove, and soaked up the oil nicely. (One recipe I reviewed called for a deep-fry of the eggplant in peanut oil. Someone gave me some truffle oil which uses a sunflower oil base, and I thought about using it as it has a higher smoke point, but thought it was would be a waste. However, let the record show that I think truffle oil is a gimmick. One should eat truffles, and use good olive oil to dress things. There’s no excuse for inferior flavored oil.) After they absorbed a good amount of oil, I tossed in a can of these Victoria cherry tomatoes, which seem to add magic to everything.

magic pomodorini

I had some assorted fresh local peppers, so decided to use a tiny portion of a red one instead of the good dried ones I obtained from Amazon. I obtained some fresh basil from the war zone herb garden and chopped it finely.

Meanwhile, I put the mussels to thaw in some lukewarm water and put on the pasta water to boil.

From there on, it was just a matter of timing. When the pasta was almost done, I tossed in the mussels for about two minutes, along with the juice left by the thawing. I drained the pasta a good minute before the packet instructed (9 minutes for penne, so 8), threw a little water into the condimento, and then mixed the penne in, turning the heat up a bit to cook down the liquid. The basil went at the end. 

Like the shrimp dish before it, this one came together fabulously. It probably should have been two plates… but golosamente, it turned into just one. Ah well, it’s the day off here, and I never have pasta for lunch on work days.

I go on leave in a week, so probably just a couple more recipes and then it’ll be radio silence for a bit.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. X

Srpska salata

local crockery helped presentation

It’s been a few days of rich and bountiful eating, so I decided to go for something lighter, not to mention the cucumbers and tomatoes, so fresh a few days ago, were in danger of getting overripe. It’s immediately obvious to me what to do with these two delicious and cooler summer vegetables (technically fruits to the pedant). In a Spanish-speaking country where I could get sherry vinegar, and if I had a blender, it’d be gazpacho. But šopska salata is also a fine choice, especially given that the stalwart Italian PX stocks DOP feta cheese.

Now, I’m treading into the Balkans here, and I know that emotions run high about most all questions of national identity in that part of the world, and I know the Greek battle to secure DOP labeling for a kind of white sheep milk cheese that is produced in innumerable forms all over the Balkans was seen as a nasty nationalist move by many. But this is war zone cooking, and although I’d prefer real sirenje, that ain’t happening, and DOP feta is not a bad substitute, especially for my countrymen used to eating bland and hard stuff at salad bars and in gyros most of their lives.

I can’t think of any foreigner who, when traveling in the Balkans, didn’t immediately fall in love with the šopska salata. (I feel particularly strongly as I lived in the Šopluk for a bit.) Now, there is a lot of information on the internet about what is and what isn’t in a šopska, which seems common to all ultra-simple regional foods.

What I knew was this: the freshest possible tomatoes and cucumbers, cubed, topped with the most finely grated sirenje. Maybe a single black olive for decoration at fancier places. Possibley trace amounts of sunflower oil, not that you could taste. To Americans used to bland, tasteless iceberg topped with ranch or thousand island dressing, this was a new frontier in salads.

In the cafés in Belgrade, they’d add some finely diced and fairly hot fresh pepper. Every few bites, you’d get a bit of heat that could be instantly ameliorated with the cooling cucumbers and creamy cheese. Delightful on a sweltering summer day. That’s what I replicated here, to, I think, great effect. My only gripe is that the south Slavs rely on sunflower oil far too much. With a few drops of Zucchi organic, it was delightful. My only regret is not having some hearty Macedonian white bread to sop it up with.

I should probably have a post at some point about similarities between the Balkan and Central Asian kitchen — the fresh vegetables, grilled meats, and good bread all doubtless have Turkish roots. But that’s a subject for a different post.



M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. IX

Gumbo all’afghana – September 9, Martyr’s Day

good amount of steam after adding the tomatoes

It’s a long weekend, so another day to cook. We’ll deviate from the usual Italian theme due to availability of  local produce.

Having come into a large quantity of okra, I was at somewhat of a loss as to what to do with it. Of course, as a good southerner, I have nothing but the fondest memories of my mother’s fried okra, but I’m lacking both my cast-iron skillet and cornmeal. Unfortunately, I’m also missing the requisite South Asian spices to make a good bhindi masala. But this is war zone cooking, so it’s all about improvising, using what’s at hand, and not wasting good fresh vegetables.

After a good amount of research, I decided to try this recipe, which ultimately morphed into a gumbo-inspired dish. After all, gumbo comes from the Angolan word for okra, kingombo, still seen in today’s Portuguese, French and Italian terms for the green ladyfingers so popular in the southeastern U.S.

adding the rice

The main challenge in making good okra is eliminating the so-called slimy texture from it, produced by a substance called mucilage, which you’ll certainly feel when you slice it. This is why some recipes recommend not slicing small okra, as well as drying them well, soaking them in vinegar, and various other remedies. I don’t find the texture so objectionable, especially in a soup or stew. At any rate, I washed and dried mine well before cooking.

I used a high-walled saucepan and made soffritto of onions (finally, fresh ones), garlic and EVOO. Then, as I cut the ends off the okra and cut them into fairly thick slices, I tossed them in. This was with fairly high heat, so I added a cup of water to mediate burning. I also added two long hot green peppers, fully intending to take them out later, as I’d learned my lesson with heat from the peperonata a couple of days ago. The chopping took awhile, and when all the okra was in, I added cumin, cayenne and paprika (I didn’t have turmeric).

I mixed it all, turned down the heat, and added more water and a teaspoon of chicken stock (Better than Bouillon, Amazon). At this point I took out the hot local peppers, which had cooked down plenty and shed their seeds in the base. Finally, deciding to fully abandon a truly South Asian recipe, I added a few slices of salamella calabrese (subbing for andouille) and some pilaf-style long grain rice (gifted by some anonymous person departing). NB: the rice will quickly soak up the moisture, so beware if you turn your back to take a phone call or update your blog. This is a good point to put in  a bit more water, q.b.

I turned down the heat and then, when it was almost done, added all 300g of the frozen shrimp (Italian PX), some frozen parsley (ditto) and turned up the heat a bit, again, stirring constantly. Then I let it sit for a good hour to come together well.

The final product

Verdict: I was a bit too heavy-handed on the cayenne, being so used to Italian peperoncini that I forgot the heat this powdery stuff has. Despite tossing in the shrimp at the very end, they were a tiny bit overdone for me — I think these frozen ones adapt far better for the high-heat, flash-frying style of Italian pasta condimento than the slow-simmer that a gumbo needs. The salami added good texture and went well with the rest of the stew. As to the dreaded “sliminess” of the okra, first off there’s no avoiding it in a slow-cooking recipe, but I found nothing objectionable about it. I mean, it’s a stew, so one expects it to be wet, or, better said in Italian, in umido.

I’ve saved half and fully expect it to be enjoyable the next day.




M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VIII

Fusilli con gamberi e melanzane – September 8

Cooking, being an inexact science, sometimes surprises and sometimes disappoints. It reminds one of musical improv or other strange mixings where sometimes, you can follow the instructions and end up with an inferior product, and sometimes, it all just works. If yesterday was the former, today was the latter.

An adaptation of this. I’m intrigued by seafood and eggplant dishes, so expect another similar dish to follow, perhaps with mussels. It’s a very southern combo, quite different to the cucina veneta that I know best.

coming together…

I think one thing that made a difference is that I salted the eggplant for much longer than I intended. I sliced thin, then cubed. I also scored some wine, really the remains of a bottle of 13% American chardonnay and thus not suitable for drinking, but perfect for the magic that cooking with alcohol seems to bring. (My brother, who makes me look like the amateur that I am, is more aware of the chemical reactions involved.) I also washed and dried (as best I could) the slices before cubing.

While this was going on I was thawed my Italian branded, but Thai-caught shrimp.

Sautéed one large garlic clove, added the eggplants, let them get soft, added a good dash of the wine. Put on the pasta water to boil.

Once the eggplant were soft, I added another can of these magic Victoria cherry tomatoes. (Not having the polpa that the recipe called for.)

I am lucky enough to have fresh basil growing outside (yes, war zone herb garden), so I topped with that, frozen parsley and dried oregano.

Mixed well with a dash of the pasta water and let it evaporate.

It came out smashingly. I’m surprised I was able to control myself enough to save some for later. I had a healthy appetite thanks to this morning’s 10K — although war zone running is perhaps best left for another blog.

Now, off to the PX to see if they’ve resolved their shipment issues. If nothing else, I need some more canned tomatoes.

I invite readers to send in ideas for okra.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VII

Peperonata all’Afghana – September 7

Peperonata all’afghan
al forno

By dint of kindness and good luck, I obtained three bags of fresh veg lately — eggplants, fresh tomatoes (thankfully, since the ones flown into here are a crime), okra, peppers, onions, and cucumbers. So what to do other than to make one of the delicious Mediterranean eggplant and pepper dishes — in France it’s ratatouille, in the Balkans it’s pindjur or ajvar, and in Italy, it’s peperonata or parmigiana. Having already covered the latter, I thought I’d do the former.

I thought the peppers were sweet, and even tasted one, but some hot ones got in my batch, so mainly I was worried that it’d be too hot. Hot it was, but not inedible. I didn’t really have enough time to do a fully 80-90 minute bake, so I cooked on the stove and in the oven.

As with all eggplant dishes, I sliced and salted first. I had the makings of a Northern-style soffritto in my fridge from the salad bar (diced celery, carrots and onion). Not normally to be used in a Southern dish, but waste not want not. I tossed that in, along with a garlic clove, then the salted and washed eggplant slices, and let it cook down. Since eggplants are a sponge that will take as much EVOO as you have, I had to add a little more oil to prevent sticking. After that mix got soft, I added a can of these excellent Victoria cherry tomatoes (I’m saving the fresh ones for salad or seafood dishes). Then I added the chopped peppers, long green crooked ones, and (since I thought they were sweet) a dash of red dried peperoncino and some oregano. I let the mix cook down over fairly high heat as I boiled water for the gomiti and penne (figuring I’d uphold the cucina povera Neapolitan tradition of mixing leftover types of pasta). I’d pre-heated the oven, so I tossed the peperonata in with a liberal amount of grana padano (again, I’d rather use pecorino but I’m hoarding it for later — this is war zone cooking, c’mon).

When the pasta was al dente, I removed it from the oven and tossed everything, along with a spoonful of the starchy reserved water.

It was decent enough to where I finished the whole thing. I think it would have been better the next day, maybe. I also might’ve liked the blend the ingredients together for a smoother consistency. I definitely would have used less hot peppers (and I like hot). Not bad, but seemed to be missing something. Maybe the Northern soffritto was a mistake. At any rate, it was nice to have fresh vegetables.

Today: some manner of shrimp and eggplant dish.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VI

September 3 — Pasta con bietola e pancetta

Warning: this dish looks much healthier than it probably is

With the leftover pancetta from the amatriciana and some frozen bietola, I had a couple of options. Basically an amalgamation of these two recipes.

I did a soffritto with EVOO, frozen onions (working on obtaining fresh ones) and peperoncino while I boiled the bietola. I had the rind (cotenna) of the pancetta, so not wanting to waste, I threw that in and let the fat render down into the EVOO.

I strained out the bietola, kept the water boiling, added the greens to the soffritto, and added the fusilli to the water. (As anyone who’s made the Ligurian classic trofie al pesto con patate e fagiolini knows, there’s magic to cooking pasta in same water used to cook greens.) When the pasta was just al dente, I strained and tossed the whole thing in the soffritto, which of course by this time had a good amount of pork fat in it. The fusilli turned a dark color due to the fat. I then threw in a few pomodori al forno (Saclà, Italian PX) — these are semi-dried, so much fatter and juicier than the usual sun-dried ones. I tossed the whole thing with grana padano (Italian PX), not pecorino as I’d have preferred, and the result was excellent. But then again, as grandmothers from both the Southern U.S. and the southern part of the boot know, fat from the belly of the pig does make things good. As my dad would say, “now you’re cookin’ with grease!”

I’m learning how to moderate with very quick-warming and very hot burners (my moka boils up almost instantly in the morning), so the key here was to cook the pancetta and cotenna very slowly. I also took the time to slice the pancetta very, very thin, almost like bacon. (It pays to cook when not starving sometimes.)