Friday, July 1, 2011

Moussaka, Gazpacho, Jajukh, Mace Cake, and “mise en place”

Moussaka Light
Most of Mama’s and Papa’s recipes are “light” in the sense that they have far less fat (butter, oil, etc.) than regular recipes, and we use cooking techniques that add fewer calories to our dishes; for example, here the eggplant slices are brushed with a little olive oil and baked, rather than frying them in oil, and onions are sautéed in a small amount of olive oil. I generally keep a 2 tablespoon glass measure as my limit for sautéing in oil, despite what the recipe calls for, though sometimes a judgment call is needed. Our desserts (the Chocolate Volcano Cake and the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World, both in previous posts) certainly aren’t light and are at most a once a week treat. Mostly it is fruit for dessert or a Trader Joe’s “ice cream mango bar” (60 calories) or our favorite coffee bar (90 calories) when Joe’s is not out of stock.

However, I don’t want to get into calorie-carb counts and all the complexity they involve, and I’ll only occasionally indicate if a recipe is “light,” as with our Moussaka, which does not use the Béchamel sauce the Greeks place as the top layer on Moussaka. We Armenians use a simple vegetable topping of tomatoes and peppers.

2 large eggplant (or 3 smaller ones), skin on: cut them lengthwise in quarter-inch slices. If the eggplant is fresh and has no blemishes, there is no need for the next step: lightly salt the slices on each side with Kosher salt, and let rest on wax paper for about an hour. Then blot the salty moisture from the slices with paper towel. Brush on (or use finger) 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and place on a cookie sheet (lined with parchment or sprayed with a non-stick cooking spray); bake in a preheated 425 degree oven, 10 minutes per side (until easily pierced with a fork – also, carefully open the oven slowly, and stand back a bit, for that high steamy heat can hit one).  The eggplant slices may need to be done in two batches. Set aside.

Meat mixture (you can prepare this while the eggplant slices are baking): Sauté 1 finely chopped onion in two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until onions are translucent (several minutes); add 1 red pepper cut into 1 inch cubes (plus 1 jalapeno if you like heat) and sauté for another several minutes. Remove to bowl. Brown 1 pound lean ground beef (you can use ground turkey or chicken as well). When the meat is browned, return the onion pepper mixture to the pan, salt to taste (1 teaspoon), freshly ground pepper to taste, and add chopped basil (1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dry), plus ¼ teaspoon each ground cinnamon and allspice (for that Eastern Mediterranean flavor), approximately 15 ounce can of whole tomatoes cut up with juice, 2 cups of water; bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Thinly oil the bottom and sides of a 9” by 13” oven proof pan. Place one half of the eggplant slices on the bottom. Cover with the meat mixture, and then place the remaining eggplant slices over the meat mixture. Slice fresh tomatoes on top, and if desired sprinkle with a little sautéed chopped red or yellow pepper; salt and pepper to taste. Cover the casserole with foil, and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes; then remove the foil carefully (the steam can be hot), and bake an additional 30 minutes, or until the tomato-meat sauce looks thickened. You can garnish with finely chopped Italian parsley. This dish is delicious with Armenian pilaf and green salad (see my previous posts).

Soup or Salad? – Gazpacho and Jajukh:

These summer treats are a wonderful combination of the old restaurant combination, soup or salad, for these two dishes can be either or both. They are tasty simple extras and cool additions to the summer meal.

Traditional Gazpacho:

Gazpacho is at its best when the tomatoes are fully ripe, and I may be a little early here, but I cannot wait to post one of my favorite foods. My first taste of Gazpacho was in 1967, when just off the train with Papa in a small Spanish town – San Sebastian – it was love at first taste. Perhaps because it was a soupy version of our Armenian summer salad with bread added (also, a little like a Tuscan specialty). Over the years, when I have ordered Gazpacho in restaurants in the States, I have been disappointed, for usually it is too oniony, which was not the Spanish way. The following version is an authentic Spanish Gazpacho, with the added luxury of freeing us from peeling the tomatoes. Ingredients are:

5 inch hunk of day old baguette (crusts removed)
1 small clove garlic
1 medium cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
3 large ripe tomatoes (beefsteak or any really tasty variety) cored and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt.  [Optional: a pinch of cayenne, if you like the heat.]

Soak the bread in cold water for 10 minutes. Peel garlic clove (which can be boiled or microwaves in water for 1 minute, to reduce pungency); put in blender or food processor, and blend until finely minced. Squeeze the bread until as dry as possible, and put in blender (with garlic already in it) along with cucumber, and blend until smooth. Then add tomatoes, and blend. Add the oil, vinegar, and salt. Taste and add more vinegar and/or salt as needed. Chill and serve over ice, if desired. For a more festive touch – say, at a dinner party – you can offer individual little condiment bowls of the chopped gazpacho ingredients: diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red or yellow pepper finely diced, and for raw onion fans, finely chopped Vidalia or purple onion.

Jajukh – Armenian Cucumber Soup: This is especially good as a side dish with grilled meats (it’s very much like an Indian raita) – so refreshing. Ingredients are:

1 cup plain yogurt (not Greek style)
¼ cup cold water
1 cucumber, peeled (and seeded if seeds are large) and cut into ¼ inch pieces
1 small clove crushed garlic (boiled or microwaved in water for 1 minute, to reduce pungency)
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dry mint

In a glass bowl, mix yogurt and water until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cover and chill for a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Serve in small bowls over ice.

 Mace Cake has a  wonderful texture and taste. Silly me, I had our dear friends drive Papa and me all over northern New Jersey to find a decent spice shop, where I found a lovely mace sold by a grumpy spice man, only to discover when I got home that there is a wonderful Penzeys spice shop next to our nearby Trader Joe’s. If you suspect your mace is not of excellent quality in terms of taste, I suggest you use two teaspoons instead of the full tablespoon. Mace cake forms its own top and needs no icing; it is great on its own, wonderful with fruit, delicious with berries and cream. The cake (adapted from an old Gourmet recipe) serves 10 or 12. Ingredients are:

4 large eggs
2 cups plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon ground mace
1 cup whole milk
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 by 13 inch baking pan, knocking our excess flour. Beat eggs with 2 cups sugar in a large bowl using an electric mixer at high speed until tripled in volume and thick enough to form a ribbon the takes 2 seconds to dissolve into batter when beater is lifted (7 to 8 minutes in a stand mixer, or about 15 minutes with a handheld). Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and 1 tablespoon mace. Bring milk and butter to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, and then remove from heat. Add flour mixture to the beaten egg mixture, stirring until just combined. Stir in hot milk mixture until combined (batter will be thin). Stir together remaining ½ cup sugar and remaining ½ teaspoon mace in a small bowl. Pour batter into baking pan and sprinkle evenly with the mace sugar (the sugar will form a top crust as the cake bakes). Bake until pale golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clear, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool cake in pan or on a rack until it is warm, at least 30 minutes. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature. Cake can keep in an airtight container at room temperature for three days. Note: the cake part is so good that last time I made it without the mace and sugar topping, substituting 1 tablespoon vanilla for the mace in the cake; half of the cake I frosted with chocolate and the other with lemon icing to please the two birthday friends the cake was for. A big hit!

“Mise en place” – put in place:

Cooking with grandchildren is such a pleasure for a former schoolteacher like Mama, but with them I always use “mise en place” – a technique in most of my cooking, just to make sure I have all the necessary ingredients. Try making Gingerbread without molasses; there is no good substitute. And the technique of “putting the ingredients in place” is especially useful and necessary with children. Even little ones can “help in the kitchen,” along with Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa, or other loving helper setting the perimeters. Making and decorating cookies is a favorite. Last week, the little ones made and decorated sugar cookies. Since our pantry is being renovated, I could not find my decorating supplies, so I cut up plastic straws in two inch segments, and the children decorated some lovely birds, fish, and butterfly cookies to take home to Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma. My new food coloring (used only occasionally) was out of sight, and we were able to make blue, green, yellow, and orange frosting with the little coloring we had available. See the illustration below.

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