25 July 2009

Grilled Lemony Sardines

I like small fish. Little tiny ones: sardines and smelts and rainbow trout and lots of other varieties I don't know the name for. In Beirut one summer, a group of friends and I stopped in one of the large fish houses at the lower end of the Corniche. After ordering drinks, the waiter asked us what we would like, though no menus had been presented. After some confusion, we were lead to a large display of fish on ice, where we could pick what we wanted and how it would be prepared. Most of the fish were tiny, about ten different varieties of fish ranging from the size of your pinky to the length of a pencil. We ordered haphazardly and hoped for the best.

Everything that came out of the kitchen was excellent, particularly the little fish which had been battered and deep fried, but also the smokier grilled ones. Ever since then, if I see little fresh fish in a market (sadly rare in the States), I'm tempted to buy them.

Fresh sardines are in season now, and I couldn't resist picking some up. Sardines are also one of the few undebatedly sustainable fish left to eat (although I fear someone will dispute me in the comments). I grilled them with whole slices of lemon and a bath of garlicky olive oil.

Having been over-zealous, I faced a week of sardine sandwich eating for lunch. This is not a bad thing: a toasted bun layered with a few leaves of spinach, sardines, grilled whole lemon slices, and goat cheese is a pretty good thing. However, most of my colleagues eat Thai take-out for lunch, and I was sheepishly assembling my sardine sandwich for lunch when a colleague stopped me. He loved sardines he said, and was eager to know where to get fresh ones and how to cook them. Relieved, I explained the following recipe to him.

Grilled Lemony Sardines

1 lb fresh sardines, gutted and rinsed
2 large thin-skinned lemons, sliced as thinly as possible
3 tbl olive oil
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 pinch Aleppo pepper
sea salt, to taste

1. Preheat a grill, or preheat your oven to 475 F. If you're using a grill you'll want some sort of grill pan.
2. Combine oil, garlic, pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Add the sardines and toss to coat.
3. Grease your grill pan or baking sheet. Scatter half the lemon slices on the pan. Spread the sardines over top- try not to crowd them so they cook evenly. Sprinkle with some more salt. Top with remaining lemon.
4. Grill the sardines for about 10 minutes, tossing everything around mid-way through, until sardines are done and lemons are soft. If using the oven it may take 12-15 minutes.

15 July 2009

Halva Mousse

I tried to make halva once, the sesame-paste sweet that is ubiquitous across the Middle East. It was a disaster, a sticky gooey, too soft mess that stuck all over every pan and surface it touched. Sometimes it's better to leave the candy making to the professionals. I often describe halva (halvah/helwa/halaweh) as the Middle Eastern equivalent of peanut butter fudge, only made with sesame seeds and slightly more crumbly. Halvah is made by mixing sesame seed butter (tahini) with a sugar syrup and cooking it to the hard crack stage, but it is a delate operation that involves just-right temperatures and constant even mixing.

Though popular all over the Middle East, halva is often associated with Israel where it has an entire section in every grocery (and where I'm sure Israelis an Arabs argue over the origins of the food, much like the do felafel and hummus). Likewise, halva mousse is found on nearly every menu in Israel, as common as chocolate cake, they range from dense and thick to light and fluffy.

This recipe is my own spin on halvah mousse, concocted out of my kitchen and imagination. While I normally dislike gelatin in mousses, it seems fussy and funnily textured, it is necessary in this recipe. As I found out in my first attempt, simply combining halva and whipped cream does not a dessert make. The gelatin works to make it smooth, an the texture is light and fluffy with a nutty flavor. The recipe here s a basic one, and you could experiment with adding a touch of honey or cinnamon, or folding in things like chopped apricots or toasted walnuts. Just make sure to visit a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocery and leave the halva-making itself to the professionals.

Halva Mousse

8 oz halva (preferably pistachio variety, or add a 1/4 cup of pistachios)
1/3 cup milk
2 tsp plain powder gelatin
1 pint heavy cream
3-4 tablespoons powdered sugar, to taste

1. Beat the cream to stiff peaks. Add the powdered sugar. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Place the milk in a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over top and let sit 10 minutes. Heat the milk in the microwave and stir to dissolve gelatin. Combine milk with the halva in a food processor and pulse until fairly smooth.
3. Fold halva mixture into whipped cream. Divide among serving glasses, refrigerate at least an hour before serving.

08 July 2009

Shrimp, Avocado, and Mango Salad

I have been so busy cleaning out and packing up my mother's house I've barely had time for anything else. During the week it's work and the gym and miles of paperwork and bills, and every ounce of the weekend is clean, sort, box, pack, throw away. I welcomed the fourth of July weekend not as a holiday but as an extra day to work. I skipped fireworks to sort through miles of photographs. I marked my birthday on the calendar (today), so I wouldn't forget.

This makes it sound like I haven't been cooking, but I have. Mostly everyday things, I'm trying to whittle down my pantry in the spirit of the new economy, lots of beans and grains and lentils finally being put to use. I've had a few salads of my homegrown (!) spinach and homegrown tomatoes, I made a batch of this white nectarine compote and used it to make turnovers.

There is nothing like hauling boxes and moving furniture all day to work up an appetite, and while slogging through mom's house is a pain (goodness she kept everything), I've found some real treasures too. Like pictures of my mom as a baby, or of the family making homemade ice cream. That's the part I like best, finding things I've never seen before.

This past weekend, between sorting my mother's collection of Wedgwood and boxing up her 18 figures of Ganesh, I made this salad. It's a chopped salad of shrimp, avocado and mango inspired by what I had on hand and what looked good in the store. It's delicious, really, served on a bed of lettuce as dinner for one, and I bet it would make an excellent pot luck contribution or filling for a sandwich.

Shrimp, Avocado, and Mango Salad

1 mango
1/4 of medium-sized red onion, finely diced
2 tbl finely diced red bell pepper, or hot chili pepper
a few cilantro leaves, finely chopped
3 tbl fresh lime juice
1 avocado, chopped
1/2 lb shrimp, peeled
salt and cayenne pepper to taste

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil.
2. Peel and slice the mango, working over a bowl. Squeeze the juice from round the pit of mango into the bowl. Add the onion, pepper, cilantro, lime juice and toss to combine.
3. Adjust the heat so the pot of water is just simmering. Add the shrimp and cook until just opaque and curled in 3/4 circles. For goodness sake do not overcook the shrimp into pink rubber bands. Immediately transfer shrimp to a colander and run cool water over them to stop cooking. Dice the shrimp.
4. Add the shrimp and avocado to the mango mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve as desired.