Tuesday, August 31, 2010

East African Eggplant Curry

Funny how writing about your life forces you to put things in perspective. For example, I was reading over my last several posts today, and a few things became clear:

  1. I look like a wino. What can I say? I love a good wine tasting!
  2. When I edit out the mundane details and focus on the exciting stuff, my life looks 100% more interesting than it feels most of the time. Maybe I need to give myself more credit for being an exciting and interesting person?
  3. When it comes to food, lately I've been going pretty heavy on the craving, and light on the creating.
This weekend, I decided to remedy that last point. I've had this recipe for East African Eggplant Curry hanging on my refrigerator door since I went through my first love affair with eggplant last winter. Finally, all of the stars and the planets aligned just right, and I continued my trip around the world (in Cincinnati) with this eggplant curry.

East African Eggplant Curry
adapted from Ashbury's Aubergines
(makes 4 servings) 

1 medium eggplant (1 lb, 2 oz), unpeeled, cut into 1/4" dice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 small or 1 medium onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 jalapeno peppers, minced
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 t ground cumin
1/2 t turmeric
1/4 to 1/2 t dried hot red pepper flakes, or to taste
1/4 t ground cardamom
1/2 t salt
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 T tomato paste
1/2 c water
1 can chickpeas, drained
cayenne pepper to taste

First, prep all of your ingredients. Dice your eggplant and chop your tomatoes and onions.

If you're lazy like me, you don't need to bother with peeling the tomatoes. Just give them a good squeeze to remove the seeds and chop them up.

Now, pat yourself on the back, because fiber is good for you.

Measure out the spices, and mince the ginger, garlic, and pepper.

Mise en place, which is a fancy way of saying "getting everything ready to go before you start cooking," takes a little time, but I promise it's worth the effort - your dish will come together much easier and you'll feel like a superstar chef!

Right. Now, heat the oil in a large, heavy pot. Add the onion and cook over low heat until it begins to soften, about 7 minutes.

Next, add the garlic, ginger, peppers, and spices and cook for another minute, stirring constantly so the spices don't burn.

Now, add the eggplant and salt, and stir until the eggplant is completely coated with the spices. Thanks to the turmeric, it should turn a lovely shade of highlighter-yellow.

Add the tomatoes, crank up the heat, and bring to a boil. While you wait, mix the tomato paste and water, and stir that in, too.

Once you have a good boil going, put the lid on and turn the heat down to low. Simmer, stirring often, for about 20 minutes.

Time's up! Add your chickpeas and give it another stir. Continue to cook until the eggplant is very tender and the mixture is thick.

Now, grab a spoon and try a taste. Adjust the seasoning if you like. If you're a hothead like me, add a few shakes of cayenne pepper. Careful, though! You want to be able to taste the fruits of your labor, not an over-seasoned, unbalanced dish! Taste as you go, and you'll be just fine.

Serve your curry with your favorite (whole) grain. I served mine with brown rice, but quinoa or millet would be equally great.

Check out this big, happy, family-style pot of love!


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Passport Not Required: Part IV

Here are some photos from last week's Hyde Park Farmers' Market for you to enjoy while I am at the market today.

Goldie Hocks

Mom and Dad
Black raspberry macron from Taste of Belgium

I swear that I don't just go to the farmers' market to eat! Sometimes, I actually buy things to cook with, like fresh produce or bread. Last week, I procured a couple of beautiful little eggplants that are going to turn into curry later this afternoon. All I need first are some nice, ripe tomatoes...

Hey, Cincinnatians, have you heard? The Hyde Park Farmers' Market is moving to the square next Sunday, September 5th!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Passport Not Required: Part III

I can't believe another entire week's gone by and I'm still writing about last weekend! As always, thanks for sticking with me as I explore the life/work balance.

Today's the perfect day to write this post, though, because it's my dad's birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad!

After we recovered from our trip to Findlay Market last Saturday, my parents and I continued our Cincinnati adventure at Laszlo's Iron Skillet, a Hungarian restaurant in Newtown. We've been talking about trying the Iron Skillet for years, and finally, the time was right!

A little family history... 

My dad's father, William Molnar, was Hungarian. His parents, Joe and Elizabeth Molnar, emigrated from Hungary at the turn of the 20th century. My Italian grandmother, Angie Molnar, is an excellent home cook (and one of my kitchen inspirations). When she met my grandfather, she learned how to cook the Hungarian dishes that he loved. During their life together, she spoiled him with homemade cabbage rolls, chicken paprikash, spaetzle, and delicious nut rolls.

That's Grandpa Bill and Grandma Angie in the middle, with friends during a trip to Europe in the 1980s. Don't they look like they're having a blast?

Here they are in Switzerland, on the same vacation.

My family has been lucky enough to enjoy Grandma Angie's Hungarian home-cooking for years, but we still couldn't wait to try the Iron Skillet!

Laszlo's Iron Skillet

Laszlo's Iron Skillet was established by Laszlo and Elizabeth Molnar in 1973. Using family recipes handed down through generations, the Molnars quickly became known for their German and Hungarian specialties as well as fresh breads and pastries. Like the recipes, the restaurant itself has passed from generation to generation, and is now co-owned by Laszlo and Elizabeth's children, Lazlo Molnar, Jr. and Monica Lippmeyer.

The Iron Skillet's menu includes a plethora of American and European dishes, and features the Eastern European specialties for which the Molnar family is well-known--cabbage rolls, goulash, paprikash, and schnitzel.  According to our waitress on Saturday night, everything, including the breads and pastries, is made fresh in-house. Impressive, especially when you consider the size of the menu. And they're doing a nice job of it, too--everything we tried was delicious!

We started with a basket of homemade buttered rolls, which had a texture similar to brioche but tasted like sourdough bread. Next, our waitress brought cold cucumber salad with parprika and hot slaw. We loved the cucumber salad, and it's on my try-this-at-home list!

Dad went with an Italian dish. He had the Chicken Piccata, a chicken breast cutlet served with a white wine-lemon-caper sauce and Parmesan risotto, and he enjoyed it.

But in my world view, when you have a chance to eat authentic Hungarian food prepared by a real, live, honest-to-goodness, straight-from-the-mother-country Hungarian chef, you just smile...

Do you think the M stands for Molnar or Magyar?

and order the Goulash, like I did...

The Iron Skillet's Szeklar Goulash, a combination of pork goulash and sauerkraut served over spaetzle and topped with sour cream.

or the Schnitzel (like Mom). 
The Hungarian Schnitzel, a veal cutlet, seared and topped with sauteed onions and mushrooms in a paprika-sour cream sauce, served over schnitzel.

And maybe the Cherry Strudel, too, which we shared.

The cherries were fresh, a combination of tart and sweet. And would you just look at that flaky crust?!

My parents and I really enjoyed our experience at the Iron Skillet. I'd love to go back to try the Mushroom Paprikash, or maybe for a cabbage roll (my all-time favorite Hungarian dish). Mom and Dad both said they'd like to visit again next time they're in Cincinnati, but something tells me it'll be awhile...there's too much left to explore in Cincinnati to go back to the same place twice!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Random Rant and (c)Rave

Sheeeesh. What a day. It went something like this.

It's nights like these I plan to cook, but by the time 8:30 rolls around and I've just finished taking care of things at home and prepping for tomorrow, this begins to sound like a perfectly reasonable and delicious dinner.

Carrot sticks, apple slices, and sweet potato chips, with hummus and cottage cheese for dipping.

Only I didn't eat it at my dining table, where I took the picture.

I ate it at my desk, in front of this...

(That's selzer water with Naked Carrot Orange Juice in my glass, by the way.)

and this...

and this.


What do I have to say for myself? Yum. That's what.

And this: Get thee to a Trader Joe's, and buy a bag of these sweet potato chips. 

No, buy 3 or 4 bags. Because if you don't get them, I will. Seriously, I'm coming for them. Now.

Who's your favorite Top Chef-testant? Bonus: Pick your Top Chef final four.

I'm liking Tiffany, Ed, and Angelo right now. They'd be in my final four, along with either Kevin or Kelly. Ready for Alex or Amanda to go home anytime now. (Yes, I realize I'm being a hater--obviously, all of these people are amazing chefs.) Really, I'm still in a little bit of denial about Season 6 being over. I miss Jen, Kevin, and the Voltaggio brothers!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Passport Not Required: Part II

Bright and early Saturday morning, my parents and I ventured down to Over the Rhine to check out Findlay Market. I've been talking about taking my parents to the market for years, and I'm so glad we finally went!

See, Mom and Dad love a good market as much as I do. The first time I took them to Jungle Jim's, we spent not one, not two, but five hours there. It started innocently enough, mid-afternoon on a Saturday. We posed for a picture with the giant fiberglass banana outside. Then, we wandered up and down each aisle, including the regular ol' grocery aisles, at least once. We lost all sense of propriety with the cheese samples, and bought more ethnic and novelty food items than was probably wise. And we staggered out into the parking lot at 8 pm, feeling as if we'd run a marathon.

So, when we finally got around to making a trip to Findlay Market, I knew we were in for a good time.

We started with breakfast (dessert?) at Taste of Belgium.

Mom and Dad recently took a Mediterranean cruise. One morning, they disembarked in Cassis, France with strict instructions to be back on the ship by 11:00 am. All my Dad really wanted to do that morning was try an authentic French crepe, but none of the creperies in Cassis were open before my parents had to be back on the ship!

I also visited France just over a year ago, and I also left with an unrequited crepe craving.

Not to worry! I assured them. This may not be France, but it's Cincinnati, and Taste of Belgium makes some damn tasty crepes! Oh yeah, and then they have these waffles...

A word about the waffles. They're authentic Liege waffles, made from a thick yeast dough that looks a lot like sugar cookie dough. They're encrusted with a special Belgian beet sugar, which caramelizes in the waffle iron and lends a unique--and addictive--aroma, flavor, and crunch. Jean-Francois Flechet, owner of Taste of Belgium, grew up in Liege--it doesn't get any more authentic than that! And my parents and I were lucky enough to be served by Jean-Francois himself!

Mom and Dad put me in charge of ordering. I stepped up to the counter, thinking about how much Dad would love the Nutella-and-banana crepe. But when I looked into Jean-Francois' eyes, my mind went blank and a bold, adventuresome feeling overtook me. Lavender sugar, I heard myself say...

The lavender sugar crepe was a nice surprise. I was expecting a lavender-scented sugar, or perhaps a lavender-infused syrup. Wrong and wrong. The crepe was filled with a generous sprinkling of sugar and tiny, delicate, dried lavender buds. The lavender flavor was quite strong. If your only experience with lavender has been in the shower, prepare to have your world turned upside-down! The crepe wasn't the favorite of the day, but we were glad we tried it!

But the waffles? Oh, these waffles...they're like nothing I've ever had. They're like...a waffle and a sugar cookie got together, made a whole lot of love, and had these sweet, hot, doughy, chewy, caramelized-sugar bejeweled little rounds of joy. Pure ecstasy is what they are. Half a bite in, Mom pronounced them the most delicious thing she's ever eaten.

Then, we walked.



The market was in full swing, the streets teeming with people and the farmers' stands overflowing with breads, honey, jams, soaps, candles, and fresh produce.

We even bumped into a few people we knew--Joe and Lois Santangelo of Oakley Wines, a coworker, a friend from graduate school, a new acquaintance from Friday night's wine tasting. Even the guy from Bouchard's with the crooked hat who's always selling fresh pasta at the Hyde Park Farmers' Market on Sundays said hello.

It was wonderful to see so many people out supporting the local culture and economy, and to feel such a strong sense of community.

We were enjoying ourselves so much that we decided to stay for lunch!

After a couple more laps around the market to check out all the dining options, the aroma from Eckerlin's grill lured us in. Mom had a grilled chicken sandwich, and Dad and I had cheese-less burgers.

My undressed little burger tasted just as tempting as we'd all like to look naked. Nestled on a soft egg bun, the moist, fresh beef was adorned only with crisp iceberg lettuce, a slice of farm-fresh tomato, a little sweet onion, and a generous squeeze of brown mustard (because it's mustard, and I'm powerless to resist). I like my burgers medium-rare, and this one was well past that, but somehow still juicy without being overly fatty.

Dad and I also shared a Christian Moerlein Helles Lager. Because, well, I like beer. And if it's good and local and there's someone to share it with, so much the better.

Dojo Gelato provided the coup de grace.

From the top: Mom's Sea Salt Caramel and Vietnamese Coffee, Dad's Coconut Stracciatella and Orange Mango, and my Curra's Avocado and Orange Mango.

That's right. Avocado. With lime and cilantro. Delightful, it was!

So far, we've sipped wine from Argentina, Australia, Italy, and the USA, and we've sampled the cuisine of France, Belgium, and Italy...all without leaving Cincinnati. Stay tuned for Part III, in which we visit Hungary!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Passport Not Required: Part I

My parents came to town for a visit this weekend, and we spent three pleasurable days exploring Cincinnati. I just love sharing my city with out-of-town guests!

We kicked off the weekend with a wine tasting at Oakley Wines, a little shop around the corner that features a unique and thoughtful variety of wines from all over the world.

Oakley Wines offers a wine tasting every Friday evening. For $5, you can sample seven unique wines, which are often the favorites of owners Joe and Lois Santangelo. In addition to the wine and the welcome mat, Joe and Lois also roll out the snacks. They're all about supporting local business, so they often feature a couple of cheeses from Findlay Market or spreads from Hyde Park Fish Market. They've also been known to serve homemade olive tapenade and hummus.

Says Joe, there are only two rules at Oakley Wines' Friday night tastings: "No empty glasses, and eat a lot!"

And here's one more rule for you: All of Oakley Wines' bottles sell for $20 or less. Now those are some rules I can get behind!

Apart from the casual, laid-back vibe, the wine, and the snacks, I always enjoy a tasting at Oakley Wines because Joe and Lois, and the rest of their clientele, are just so darn nice.

I mean, the first time I stopped into the shop was last October, the weekend after I moved to the neighborhood and the same weekend the shop opened. I was in my running tights, huffing and sweating and panting, "Oh, just moved in and saw you were open--couldn't wait to stop in!". But Joe and Lois welcomed me to the neighborhood and to their shop, and chatted happily with me about the shop, the wine, and their passion for traveling and bring little pieces of the world back to Oakley.

I've been in for the Friday night wine tastings several times this summer, and they recognize me now, welcoming me back each time with a smile and a "Glad you're back! How've you been?"

There's always someone ready to strike up a conversation. On Friday, we all really enjoyed chatting it up with Joe and Lois!

My parents and I sampled a variety of interesting wines from all over the United States and world, including:
  • Tierra de Luna Torrontes-Chardonnay 2009 (Argentina)
  • Yering Marsanne-Viognier-Roussanne 2005 (Australia)
  • Payout Longshot 2008 (California), a Viognier with "bits of Roussanne and Riesling
  • Il Follo Prosecco (Italy)
  • Monte Volpe Primo Rosso 2007 (California), a red blend
  • Airlie Pinot Noir 2008 (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
  • Parlay the Bookmaker 2008 (California), a Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Petit Sirah, Zinfandel, and Petit Verdot
Of the whites, Mom and Dad liked the Torrontes-Chard, which was light and refreshing, with just a hint of richness from the Chardonnay. My pick was the Yering MVR, because the flavor seemed to unfold more and more as I sipped.

Of the reds, Mom and Dad got happy over the Primo Rosso, while I fell for the Bookmaker, as much for his full-bodied flavor and silky tannins as for his name!

Of course, no casual night out in Oakley would be complete without a stop at Dewey's Pizza and Aglamesis Brothers. We were crushed to learn that we'd missed the end of Aglamesis' seasonal Peach ice cream, so we consoled ourselves with a selection of their other decadent and delicious flavors. Dad had the Black Raspberry Chip, Mom--the coffee connoisseur--had the Mocha Chip, and I had the Banana Chip. It was serious stuff, people, with big chunks of real banana!

Afterward, it was off to bed to rest up for an adventure-filled Saturday...