Monday, June 20, 2016

Cretan Dakos

Today, June 20, 2016, officially marks the first day of summer, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Happy first day of summer! My first recipe for summer 2016 is an homage to the humble tomato. There are few things more satisfying than a really good tomato.

Did you know that there are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes?  Not to mention, lots of ways to enjoy all of those varieties. Today, I prepared a simple and quick dish called dakos (or ntakos) that utilizes tomatoes at their best; salad meets crostini or Greek-style bruschetta. Tomatoes get better and better as the summer goes on, so I may have jumped the gun a bit (as tomatoes are just coming into season in Pennsylvania). Nonetheless, this is most definitely a dish that you can enjoy now and for several months to come.

It's always fun to bring a bit of travel home with you. For me, this typically includes a suitcase full of pottery and various foodstuffs (olive oil, wine, and bottarga), not to mention fond food memories (and no shortage of photos, many related to food and dishes enjoyed along the way).

I encountered dakos on my first trip to Crete back in 2005. Just about every Greek restaurant in Greece features a Greek salad, otherwise known as horiatiki salata. While you can't go wrong with a good horiatiki salata, there's more to explore. In order to change up the usual routine, we would often order a Cretan staple, dakos (in addition to a few sides of horta [e.g., stamnagathi], boiled wild mountain greens that we noticed the locals eating). A good rule of thumb, if the locals are eating it or it's a local delicacy, try it (there's not a whole lot I won't try at least once).

Dakos is a Cretan meze consisting of oven-dried bread (traditionally, barley rusks) topped with juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes, plenty of cheese (feta and Mizithra/Myzithra, the latter being a traditional Greek fresh goat and/or sheep cheese), Greek oregano, olives or capers, and always finished with a healthy drizzle of Greek (Cretan) extra virgin olive oil.    

As far as the main course, if there's grilled octopus, fresh grilled sardines, or a whole grilled fish on a menu (in Greece), that's all I need to be happy. You can't go wrong with any type of freshly caught seafood or fish prepared simply and divinely on the grill.

I vividly recall one restaurant (Pan y Theo, on the island of Paxos), where the owner commented, 'if we ordered the whole grilled fish and it wasn't the best whole grilled fish we ever had, then the meal was on him.' Pretty bold. But, I have to admit, that was one damn good fish. It's the simple things in life, when done well, that are truly memorable.

I picked up the barley rusks (here) on a recent trip to Brooklyn, where we also stopped by Octopus Garden to stock up on frozen octopus, ten pounds all said and done :-) If you don't have access to a Greek grocery or can't find rusks, you could always substitute with toasted bread, as you would prepare for crostini, brushed with olive oil and then toasted in the oven until crispy. Different, but still tasty, as long as you have good tomatoes.

If you are able to find rusks, don't be alarmed if they appear hard or seem stale. They are in fact very dry (after all, they are oven-dried) and will keep for ages. Rusks will soften up when you moisten them with a little water and as they soak up juices from the tomatoes and the olive oil.

Let the liquid gold flow...if you couldn't tell, I love olive oil.

I've topped the dakos with some microgreens. I'm growing an assortment at the moment -- radish, onion, broccoli rabe, red amaranth. These are broccoli rabe, which popped up the soonest and were ready to be harvested. Here's an old post I did on growing microgreens. It's fun and easy to do.

Kali Orexi!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Multi-Grain Sourdough Bread

If you live in Brooklyn or have visited Brooklyn, you may be familiar with Bien Cuit. Hands down, some of the best bread I've encountered, anywhere. A bold statement, but one which I firmly stand behind. And well-deserved, as Zachary Golper was recently nominated for a Jame's Beard award for Outstanding Baker.

Bien Cuit translates to well cooked in French, to describe the dark, mahogany color of the crust Golper achieves in his bread.

Recently moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, so I no longer have access to Golper's stellar breads. Sigh. So, when I learned that he had written a bread book, I quickly ordered a copy (I think I have room for one more cookbook, maybe?). For me, bread baking is equal parts intrigue and intimidation. No better way to get good at something than to practice, practice, practice; make lots of mistakes; learn (hopefully) from your mistakes; and practice some more.

I decided to jump right in with the 60-hour sourdough bread, the miche I always order when I buy bought bread at Bien Cuit (at Bien Cuit, they shape their miche into large boules [ball in French -- in this case, the bread looks like a smashed ball]. An ambitious place to start, but what the heck?

I've made this bread several times and continue to learn with each new batch. The first batches were a bit too flat. I think it may have been too warm in my apartment, which led the dough to overproof? Just a hunch. Flatness aside, the taste and texture were spot on -- a dark, crispy crust (bien cuit) with a spongy, airy, sour interior. Even though my 60-hour sourdough remains a work in progress (it still tastes really good), wanted to share my progress thus far. Perhaps you'll be inspired to give it a go and we can compare notes.

Needless to say, bread baking is as much an art as it is a science. It requires time and planning. Nowadays, most "grocery-store bread (i.e., large scale commercial baking) is made quickly with yeast, typically in three hours or less." Alas, time is money. In addition, in order to produce an acceptable loaf in such a short amount of time, a whole slew of additives and preservatives are added (including extra gluten).

For this bread, you need to space the process out over the course of 60-hours (hence the name 60-hour sourdough). This long, slow fermentation is what helps the bread to develop flavor and texture. It also happens to improve the digestibility of the bread, and lowers its glycemic index. Some things just take time. But I promise you, it's worth it.

And, it takes patience, waiting on the yeast to do it's thing and, well, to fully grasp the bread making process. Rome wasn't built in a day!

As you can see in the photo below, several flours were used in the making of this bread: bread flour, dark rye, light rye, buckwheat, and whole wheat.

This is my sourdough starter. I acquired it from a bakery in Brooklyn. I walked into the shop, looked around, inquired about the starter, was handed a brown paper bag, and went on my merry little way. Mission accomplished.

Sourdough starter is like a pet. It's alive. It requires love and attention, and food (aka flour and water). For now, it sits on my counter and I feed it equal weights flour and water every morning. A combination of all-purpose flour and rye flour.

When I'm not baking bread, the sourdough starter lives in my refrigerator, during which time I feed it once a week. I'm still learning. Bread baking is all about patience and practice. But the end result is totally worth the effort. There's nothing like a freshly baked loaf of bread out of the oven with a deep dark crispy crust and chewy interior.

After all, bread is the staff of life.

While there is no extensive kneading involved in the making of this bread, there are a series of foldings (in 45-minute intervals). Set aside a lazy Sunday to start the process.

Now, you need to shape and proof the dough, letting the yeast convert the sugars in the flour to gas (CO2) and alcohol, which is what makes bread rise.

At this point Golper says to leave it at room temperature for 5 1/2 hours.

Thereafter, it goes into the refrigerator for 36 to 40 hours. At this point I'm really impatient and want to pop it in the oven, but alas I must wait...fingers crossed that all go wells.

Why should you do a long fermentation?

Fermentation allows the yeast to break down the bran (and neutralize phytic acid) and allows gluten to develop a better structure. This structure traps gases produced during the rise time, giving you an airier loaf.

Finally, baking day...there's only one thing left to do -- bake the bread. I use a cloche, like this, for baking my bread.  A cloche helps to create moisture, emulating a steam-injected oven (that professional bakers use), which produces a crispy crust and a moist, chewy interior.

After baking, let your bread rest, slice, slather with a good amount of butter, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

50 Clam [Squash Blossom] Pizza

So, how does one continually find inspiration in the kitchen; in other words, what the heck should I make for dinner tonight? That age-old question.

Personally, there's typically an ingredient that is the catalyst; an ingredient that piques my interest. Sometimes it's an unusual ingredient (e.g., a new found love for lovage) that I'm excited to experiment with. Case in point: I have a small garden (my first outdoor space after many years of apartment living, so excited!!!). There is a squash plant in my garden that yielded a handful of squash blossoms. I wanted to utilize this colorful gift. What to do, what to do with squash blossoms? And so it begins...

Stuff and fry them? Perhaps. Squash blossom on a pizza? Hmm, what else shall go on my pizza? Prosciutto? Speck? Maybe. How about clams? Clams and green garlic (just bought some green garlic and garlic scapes)? What type of cheese? And so it goes...

For this pizza, think spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), an Italian classic, in the form of a pizza -- with plenty of garlic (in this case, green garlic and garlic scapes), olive oil, red pepper flakes, parsley, fresh lemon juice, dried oregano, black pepper, clams, and...squash blossoms.

I've made this pizza a few times now in the past week or two. While it's not your typical red sauce pizza, it's memorable. The first time I made it, I bought two dozen clams. That should be enough for one pizza, no? But it wasn't nearly clammy enough for my liking. The clam flavor got lost amongst the other ingredients. Definitely needed more clams. I used littleneck clams, which, true to their name, are on the small side -- and well-suited for pizza.

So, back to the fish market. This time around, planned on upping the clam quotient to three dozen. However, a bag of 50 clams cost around the same as three dozen loose clams; thus, it became a 50 clam pizza (and it was perfect), plenty of clams in each bite.

Stretching out the dough by hand...someday will master flipping it in the air.

If you have squash blossoms, great, top your pizza with them for a little pizazz. If not, no big deal. Just make sure not to skimp on the clams.

This time of year, garlic scapes -- the stems of the hardneck [Rocombole] garlic -- and green garlic -- a young garlic plant -- are plentiful. You might see them at your local farmers' market. The season for green garlic and garlic scapes is quite short (late-spring), so be sure to not pass them by.

You can use scapes and green garlic as you would hardneck garlic (closer to wild garlic with complex flavors) and softneck garlic (what you typically find in grocery stores, mild in flavor). Of note, green garlic and scapes are milder, sweeter, and more tender than softneck or hardneck garlic. I simply chopped and sauteed the scapes and green garlic in a little bit of olive oil before adding them to the pizza.

My 50-clam bag. 50 clams may sound like a lot of clams, but were the ideal quantity for this pie. Just throw them in a pot with a little water, cover, and let them steam until they pop open. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes.