“The Mediterranean has the color of mackerel, changeable I mean. You don’t always know if it is green or violet, you can’t even say it’s blue, because the next moment the changing reflection has taken on a tint of rose or gray.”
– Vincent van Gogh
Buenos Aires – Last weekend’s dinners whisked in with a vaguely Mediterranean theme – no particular part, and in fact we sort of meandered around the whole sea in one direction or another. We had quite interesting responses to the varied dishes – some folks absolutely loved one or two and not so much others, and other folks, the complete opposite. It was definitely one of the more amusing dinners in terms of reaction that we’ve had recently….
I’d initially thought of making a traditional pissaladière, the pizza-ish dish from the southern coast of France that’s a very thin crust topped with caramelized onions, slivers of anchovies and black olives. I decided to use more of a foccacia style dough, and top it with a mix of slivered black and green olives, red onions, bell peppers, marjoram and basil that had been tossed with a mix of warm olive oil, garlic and anchovies. It’s no pissaladière, but it’s my kind of pizza….
As usual, the soup was the big hit of the evening – I think virtually everyone liked this one. It was one of the more interesting ones I’ve done – it started with a website that I can’t find now, that offered up a recipe for a simple creamed fennel soup and had a couple of falafel strung onto a deep fried piece of spaghetti as a sort of decoration. I expanded and changed it a bit – first I wanted a cold, or room temperature soup – I simmered together several chopped fennel bulbs, sweet white onions, garlic cloves, leeks, and potatoes along with fennel seed and star anise. When all the vegetables were soft I pureed it, let it sit for a little while, and then strained it through a fine strainer. I added a little bit of cream, let it chill, then seasoned with salt and white pepper. Meanwhile, I made nice spicy, garlicky falafel, which I fried in advance, then put on a cookie sheet to heat up for serving. In the center of the bowl, a dice of chilled avocado and tomato, and then the hot falafel were placed into the soup like croutons.
Moving to the north African side, I’d decided I wanted to do something with okra, since it’s currently in season. A popular dish is a sauce, almost stew-like, of okra, fish, and oysters that is served over rice or couscous. I kept this dish fairly traditional, not being something I was familiar with – though on the second and third nights I ramped up the spicing a bit as I thought it was a little bland on the first night. This was the most contentious dish – several people, who grew up on okra in the southern U.S., loved it – others, for whom okra isn’t so familiar, weren’t quite so thrilled – most, like myself, were kind of in the middle. The sauce – sauteed chopped yellow onions, green peppers, garlic, ginger, and chilies in dende (palm) oil until softened. Added the okra, a little baking soda (helps cut back on the foaming), and fish stock and simmered until the okra was cooked through. Then I added in albacore tuna – not traditional, but I thought it would work well, and be more interesting than the perch or mackerel that the recipe recommended. Left out the oysters as we had several “no shellfish” people over the three evenings.
You might remember the recent dish we prepared in our Italian cooking classes of pan-seared leg of goat over an arugula and lemon salad, with an almond and orange pesto. I was going to do the same, but just couldn’t get my hands on enough goat meat to handle the dinners. So I went with double lamb chops, marinated in salt, pepper, mint and garlic like the goat, and then seared and finished in the oven. Served those alongside the same arugula salad. I thought that the almonds might not be as good a match with the richness of the lamb, so I made the same pesto using pecans. Other than some seemed to have trouble eating the lamb chops (those who figured out that simply picking them up and happily nibbling away had no troubles), trying to get each little morsel off the bones – but overall, I think a fairly successful dish. Not as good as the goat.
Not particularly Mediterranean, but, well, hey, a ricotta based cheesecake (homemade ricotta, of course), topped with fresh peaches that had been cooked slowly in brown sugar and butter. No complaints there!