Monday, May 16, 2011

Rolled Eggplant - Rollatini di Melanzane - with Fresh Tomato Sauce

Several years ago my father, who was 91 years old at the time, treated my four sisters and me on a trip to Italy. Our destination was the birthplace of my mother and father near the seaside town of Amantea in the Calabria region of Italy. Our journey began in Rome, then to Sorrento and sights nearby. Before leaving Sorrento for the final leg of our trip to Amantea, we participated in a half day cooking class arranged through The International Kitchen, a culinary tour company based out of Chicago, Illinois. The class took place in a charming boutique hotel about 10 km from Sorrento with beautiful views of the Gulf of Naples. 

As part of our private instruction we each prepared a complete meal which was then served to us by the hotel staff on their lovely outdoor terrace.  The meal, which we all prepared individually, consisted of a simple tomato sauce using fresh cherry tomatoes, rolled eggplant, gnocchi Sorrento style, potato crusted baked fish, and a simplified version of tiramisu. The venue was spectacular and Chef Carmen made the experience both instructive and great fun for all of us. We left happy, satiated, with recipes in hand and ready to do it all over again.

I have wanted to prepare the rolled eggplant recipe from the class for a very long time now. Until just this week however, I simply wasn't willing to pay the $2.69 per pound price for a good sized eggplant. Now my local Kroger store is featuring them as part of their 10 for $10 campaign  and the produce market I like to frequent has them at $.69 each. At last, a price I could palate and the right time to finally relive my very fond memories of making this dish with family. 

The dish is simply eggplant stuffed with cheese and then topped with a simple tomato sauce made with fresh cherry tomatoes. It was prepared as a side dish in our cooking class, but could easily be served as a light main dish. I paired the eggplant with some spaghetti for my husband and myself which was more than enough for a meal.  Both the sauce and eggplant are quite rich and with the use of fresh basil incredibly flavorful.

There are many versions of this dish, with most using additional ingredients. This, like so many authentic Italian dishes, is very simple, as you can see in ingredients and preparation. Both the rolled eggplant and the tomato sauce call for basil. Make sure you use fresh basil as it is an important flavor base for this dish. Dried is simply not a suitable substitute. This recipe makes just enough for 2-3 people as a main dish and probably 4-5 as a side dish, so by all means double or triple the recipe for more servings.

Rolled Eggplant – Melanzane di Rollatini

Ingredients for tomato sauce:
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 16 oz. package cherry or grape tomatoes cut in half
3 T. good olive oil
3T. fresh basil, chopped or chiffonade
Sea salt or Kosher salt

Ingredients for rolled eggplant:
1 large eggplant
olive oil for frying
1 bulb fresh Mozzarella cheese, sliced into 1/8" slices
6 T. Parmesan cheese, grated
Several fresh basil leaves for eggplant and garnish

Steps to preparing the combined dish:

1.      Assemble all tomato sauce ingredients.
2.      Assemble all eggplant ingredients.
3.      Peel the eggplant and slice lengthwise into ¼ inch slices.
4.      Sprinkle eggplant with salt and place in a bowl or dish and let rest for 5 minutes or more. This eliminates the bitterness from the eggplant and slightly softens them.
5.      While the eggplant is resting, start the tomato sauce by heating a large 12 inch skillet.  Add the olive oil and when hot, turn the temperature down to med-hi and add the minced garlic. Fry for just a minute -- don’t let it brown. Now add the tomatoes, half the basil and season with salt. Cook about 10 minute still tomatoes have broken down into a saucy consistency. Add a little water if necessary. Turn off heat.

6.      While the sauce is cooking and the eggplant has finished resting, rinse the eggplant slices in running water, then pat dry.
7.      In a heated skillet lightly coat with olive oil, fry the eggplant slices in batches on med-hi heat till both sides are very lightly browned and soft, but not mushy. Drain on a paper towel.
8.      Put half the finished tomato sauce in a baking dish.

9.      On each eggplant slice, place a slice of the Mozzarella cheese, 1 tsp. of the Parmesan cheese and a leaf or two of basil and roll up. Place each roll, end side down into the baking dish on top of the sauce.
10.   Cover with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with more Parmesan.
11.   Bake, uncovered, in a 375 degree oven for approximately 20 minutes till the cheese inside the rolls is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

12.   Chiffonade or tear more basil (don’t do this beforehand as the basil will begin to blacken) and sprinkle over the top to garnish and serve.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

You say Tomato, I say KUMATO™!

Shopped for tomatoes lately? It seems the variety of tomatoes in the grocery stores these days has gone crazy. Looking for good red tomatoes is so yesterday! Now the produce bins are filled will all kinds of gourmet varieties that come in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. In addition to the classic orange/red ones there are new varieties in delicate orange, yellow, green and even brown. Even size and shape are now way past just round and range from mini, cherry, grape, oval, heirloom to beefsteak big. And, don’t get me started on the names of these new gourmet varieties – Compari®, ZIMA™, Minzano™, and many others.  So now I buy a “medley” of tomatoes to suit my every cooking need.

Of the many new gourmet options on the market I am most intrigued by the Kumato™ tomato. Its brownish color sets it apart from the bunch and I just had to try it. For those not familiar with the Kumato™, believe it or not, it has been around since the 1970's but not here in the U.S. until just recently. They originate from the shores of the Mediterranean and were grown predominately in Europe and Canada. Now widely distributed in the U.S. they are a great alternative to the classic red and raise the bar when added to an ordinary green salad.
Unlike traditional tomatoes the Kumato™ ripens fully on the plant before harvesting and grows from the inside outwards with its distinctive color changing naturally from dark reddish brown to golden green. The Kumato™ features a firm flesh and contains a high level of fructose giving it a longer shelf life than the typical tomato. It is known for its super sweet flavor and juiciness. Other than color, on almost every level it is just like the typical red variety, and as such, can be used in the same manner, either cooked or raw.  But frankly, I can't imagine cooking these and ruining its most distinctive feature -- its color. I think they are best used in salads or cold dishes or like what I have done here made into a relish to dress a piece of grilled meat or fish.

Kumato™ Tomato, Artichoke, Olives and Herb Relish 

This recipe comes from the SUNSET® Produce website, the largest greenhouse company in North America known for their production of these and other gourmet tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.  This is the first time purchasing Kumato™ tomatoes and after preparing this recipe I will definitely buy them again, and again. The super sweet Kumato™ combined with the salty, briny Castelvantro olives, fresh basil and lemon vinaigrette is wonderfully fresh and lends incredible flavor to mild varieties of fish like the tilapia I am featuring here. This recipe is crazy good!
4-5 Kumato™ tomatoes cut into large chunks
5 canned artichoke hearts (non-marinated), cut into quarters, about 1 cup
8 Castelventrano olives, sliced off the pit
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. finely minced lemon zest
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 T. chopped fresh oregano or basil (I used basil, but either would work well)
1 T. good olive oil

4 5-oz. pieces of fish (swordfish, tuna, mahi mahi or tilapia) 
Lemon pepper seasoning
Wondra brand flour
Oil for sauteing

Gently toss all relish ingredients together and store in refrigerator to keep cold till fish is ready.  Don't store for too long to keep veggies firm and basil stays green. 

Season both sides of fish with the lemon pepper seasoning.  Dust both sides with a little Wondra. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan and add the fish. Cook till pieces begin to brown around the edges.  Flip and finish cooking till flesh is firm to the touch. Plate fish and top with a generous spoonful of the relish. 
Unbelievably good and one of the best ways to add flavor to any mild flavored fish or meat. The relish is also a great side dish on its own.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fried Smelt - It must be Spring in Michigan!

If its spring its smelt season Michigan. Between late April and early May smelt-spawning runs are happening in the states streams and rivers. Its a time when avid outdoorsmen gather their boots, buckets and flashlights for those middle of the night excursion to dip for the small, silver colored fish.

If you have never eaten smelt before you are in for a real treat. I have fond memories of my father venturing out with his friends for a midnight smelt dipping and returning home with bucket loads of fish. My mother would be relegated the yukky task of cleaning the little buggers which meant removing the heads and entrails to get them ready for a big fish fry. My husband has enjoyed these fish runs as well, but knows better than to leave me the task of cleaning them.  Come to think of it, that might be why he dips for smelt less frequently these days.

Preparing them is easy and are best as soon as they are collected. There are lots of recipes for fried smelt. Dipped in an egg/flour batter and then deep fried, but frankly, it doesn't need to be that complicated. Simply dredging them in some seasoned flour and frying them in a half inch of oil in a skillet like my mother used to do makes for a very tasty meal. Die hard fishermen fry them up whole with the heads and entrails in tact. I prefer them cleaned.

As I said, I like to prepare them the way my mother did simply floured and fried in a skillet. Pile them onto a large platter and sprinkle them with chopped mint and a splash of wine vinegar. My father would eat them without removing the backbone or tail, both of which are quite edible, but I prefer to pull out the backbone. And, oh are they delicious!  "Just like candy", my father used to say.

Unfortunately, the smelt runs these days aren't as abundant as they used to be, so they are more difficult to find in the local grocery stores.  By chance, I was able to pick up a fresh batch yesterday, already cleaned and ready to fry.

I am accustomed to serving them as an entree which means you need probably 10-15 fish per person, or a bucket full if you are feeding a lot of people. They are also great as an appetizer or to munch on with a cold beer. This is finger food. They go well with anything pickled or dressed with a vinaigrette. I've paired them here with a salad of fennel, radishes and celery dressed with a simple oil and vinegar vinaigrette. Smelt are super easy to prepare, mild in flavor and quite tender with a nice crispy crust. A truly special treat this time of year.

 Fried Smelt 

1 1/2 pounds of cleaned smelt (heads and entrails removed)
1 cup flour 
Salt and pepper to taste 
Olive or vegetable oil 
Chopped fresh mint leaves to sprinkle on top 
Vinegar - either cider, wine or malt vinegar to splash on the fish
Lemon wedges
Rinse fish in cold water. Drain well and pat dry. Season fish with a light sprinkle of salt.
Add a half inch of the olive oil to a large 12" skillet. While the oil is heating up dredge the fish in the flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.  Fry in a single layer on medium high heat making sure not to crowd the fish so that a nice crispy crust can form. Be sure to use a spatter shield. Flip to brown both sides. Drain on paper towel.  Plate. Sprinkle with chopped mint and a splash of vinegar and/or lemon. Enough for 3-4 entree servings.


Fennel Radish & Celery Salad 

1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced (a mandoline works best)
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 large stalk celery, thinly sliced
2 T. thinly sliced red onion or sweet onion
2 T. chopped parsley

2 T. Olive oil
1 T. Vinegar - either cider, white wine or rice vinegar
Salt & pepper

Combine all vegetables. Add vinaigrette and toss together.