Hors D'Oeuvres & First Courses The Book

141. Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Dip p.10

The recipe

I served this dip along with the tapenade from the other day, and was similarly underwhelmed. This dip had a bland, mushy flavour, that didn’t really do much for anyone. I mentioned that the tapenade was overpowering, and this helped thin it out. Unfortunately, “dilutes tapenade” is one of the better things I have to say about this dip.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the ingredient list here. You could probably make a fine dip with eggplant, red pepper, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, jalapeño, salt, and pepper. Unfortunately the cooking instructions sabotage the goodness of these ingredients. Basically you roast eggplant and red peppers, remove the skins, and purée the flesh with the rest of the ingredients. You then transfer the purée back to the stove top, and simmer it for another 20 odd minutes to get rid of excess water.

Roasting the eggplant and red peppers sounds like a good idea to me, but the recipe falls apart from there on. You end up taking all of these pungent aromatic ingredients, garlic, lemon juice, jalapeño, and extra-virgin olive oil and killing them by simmering them. Raw garlic and chiles work wonderfully in dips, and I don’t see any need to cook them at all. If you want to mellow the harsh edges, then consider building extra flavours by roasting the garlic cloves, or at least mincing and browning in oil. Garlic cooked with wet methods takes on an unpleasant kind of metallic taste, and gives up the sharp potency and fruitiness of it’s raw form. The jalapeño would similarly benefit from some dry heat to bring out the smokiness. Cooking extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice is just insanity, uncooked they’re complex and full of layers and interest. Heat them beyond a certain point, and the lemon juice is just an acid, and your nuanced grassy, fruity, olive oil becomes indistinguishable from canola.

What kills me about this recipe is that the murder of all those flavours is totally unnecessary. You could easily make a purée of just the eggplant and red peppers, simmer that, and then add the rest of the ingredients. The texture was one of the highlights of the dip though, smooth, silky, and nicely emulsified, so it’s probably worth getting rid of at least some excess water.

The recipe says that the dip needs to come together in the refrigerator for at least a day. I served it about 6 hours after making it, and was disappointed by it’s blandness and lack of personality. I figured it just needed to rest longer, but it was still going nowhere and doing nothing for me by the second day. I eventually got rid of the leftovers by integrating them into a pizza sauce.

I should say that my dining companion liked this dip, and enjoyed that it mostly tasted like eggplant and red pepper, with a mild background of other flavours. I’m definitely biased towards big bold flavours in a dip, and I missed them. Subtle dips can stray too easily over into baby-food territory, which is not for me. The Epicurious reviews suggest that this is a love it or hate it recipe, so our disagreement isn’t unusual. This recipe has the makings of a nice dip, but at least to my palate it was a failure.

Poultry The Book

110. Moroccan-Style Roast Cornish Hens with Vegetables p.392

The recipe

This was my first experiment with Cornish hens, and I think I’m in love. I watched an episode of Freaks and Geeks the other night. In one scene the mother roasts Cornish hens, and serves them to her skeptical family, who use the hens as puppets for a dance routine, and complain that they want normal food, like chicken. Two things, 1) Cornish hens are chickens, and 2) that show was awesome, it really bugged me when they canceled it. That episode was poking fun at the status of little birds as icons of the ’70’s and 80’s food revolution, for both good and ill. My dining companion’s mother talks about fancy dinner parties in the early 80’s where the women wore long gloves, and were asked to pick apart quail with a knife and fork. She remembers going home hungry a lot. Game birds are often considered exotic or fancy food, but at least for Cornish hens, they’re just conveniently sized chickens.

This dish emphasized how casual and delicious a Cornish hen can be. You start by making a spice mixture of caraway, salt, garlic, honey, lemon juice, olive oil, paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, and pepper. Then you cube zucchini, turnips, red peppers, butternut squash, and onions, toss them in with half the spice mix, chopped tomatoes, and chicken stock. You then take the backbones out of the hens and halve them, toss them in the spice mix, and lay them in a roasting pan on top of the vegetables. The whole thing goes into a 425 oven covered in foil for an hour, then uncovered for the last half hour to let the birds brown up.

There were a lot of ingredients to the dish, but most of them were in the cupboard. There was a good deal of prep work to be done, particularly taking a rock-hard butternut squash apart, and peeling turnip, but nothing too complicated. The results were absolutely fantastic. The use of smaller Cornish hens makes this dish possible. A full sized chicken might not get cooked through before the veg turned to mush, but with little birds everything comes out together. The juices drip off the birds and flavour the vegetables, which in turn perfume the hens.

I’ve been pretty harsh to the middle eastern / north African dishes I’ve made thus far. I just can’t get behind sweetened meat dishes. This one however, had dollop of honey, carefully balanced with lots of spice and some more harshly flavoured vegetables like the turnips. The little sweet note of honey was much appreciated, it was present but not too assertive.

This dish was just delicious, I couldn’t get enough of it. I couldn’t wait for lunch time, so I had some left-overs for breakfast. The Hens were perfectly roasted with an amazingly crisp skin and juicy tender inside. They were dense and meaty, with a deep chicken flavour. The vegetables roasted wonderfully, and the spice mix was an excellent compliment to all the flavours in this dish. I’d happily make this again and again. Moroccan-style roast Cornish hens with vegetables, you’ve earned your five mushroom rating.

The Book Vegetables

14. Grilled Bell Peppers With Criolla Sauce p. 557

the recipe

I was a big fan of this easy versatile colourful salsa. I made this one in a rustic cabin on a friend’s island in the Laurentian’s. Grilling is the perfect cooking method up there and these peppers turned out really well. Blackening them on the grill brought out loads of smoky flavours, which worked well with the bite in the rest of the salsa.

My version had all kinds of bite. I’m not a great connoisseur of peppers, and we don’t always have a wide selection in Montreal. I couldn’t find Serrano’s so I went with some nice looking scotch bonnets without really knowing the difference. Turns out the difference is about 250,000 Scoville units. I pitched in about one and a half peppers, and it just about took our heads off. After the fire of the first few bites had passed the peppers made the whole dish glow.

I’m not sure what this would have been like with Serrano’s, but the Scotch Bonnets made it memorable. We tossed the leftovers in with a steak and potato hash the next morning which worked exceptionally well. The recipe doesn’t mention letting this sit before serving, but I think giving this at least an hour to come together would be a good plan. Texturally it was all a bit mushy, something to give it a bit of crunch would have been nice. Maybe leaving the onion’s in slightly larger segments would do the trick. I’d also think about substituting the (useless) parsley with some cilantro.