Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Warm panzanella with poached egg



Tonight’s dinner was inspired by April Bloomfield’s new book, A Girl and her Pig. She is well known for her nose-to-tail meat cookery, and like her contemporary (and friend), Fergus Henderson, she embraces pig ears, lamb’s heads and all other sorts of flesh-centric cuts you would never dream of finding in your local grocery store.
However, there is something else that Chef Bloomfield does very well: vegetables. Her tenure at London’s famed River CafĂ© has clearly influenced her approach to cooking the humble veg, which has a decidedly Mediterranean, sometimes even Middle Eastern flare.
As is typically the case, I didn’t follow any particular recipe in her book, but allowed several of them to flow through me as pure inspiration. Specifically, I channeled her lamb meatballs, chicken with bread salad, and roast tomatoes and peppers. All these dishes have a commonality in their approach, that is, a profound respect for the vegetable ingredients and an ability to add refinement to something that seems otherwise humble. I took ideas from all three of these recipes to come up with my warm panzanella of tomatoes, peppers and artichokes. The poached egg idea came from her lamb meatball recipes. Anyway, here’s what I did:
First I took three or four really ripe Ontario greenhouse tomatoes. (It’s pretty amazing the kind of summer flavours you can coax out of a vegetable grown in glass box in April.) Anyway, local is best, so I took these tomatoes, cut a little ‘x’ in the bottom of each one and got them into some boiling water for a minute or two; after which, out of the hot and into some cold water to shock them. Then I proceeded to peel and seed them. Chef Bloomfield is very particular about how to prepare vegetables, so in this case, she would cut out the icky tough pale bits and stems that run through the middle of the tomato leaving only the lovely meaty red flesh. Then set the tomatoes aside. While that was happening I had a red bell pepper sitting on my gas stove hob. I mean ‘sitting on it’. This is how I char my peppers – directly on the gas flame. It throws off a really funky smell almost reminiscent of marijuana. Anyway, once the skin is all black, throw it in a covered bowl or a closed bag so that it can steam – this makes peeling it easier. After about five or ten minutes, peel off the blackened skin (you can leave a bit here and there for interest’s sake), get rid of the stem and seeds, carefully cut away any pale pith, and slice into generous strips, put these with your tomatoes. While all this was happening I had a pot of salted simmering water with lemon wedges and bay leaves going on the stove. To this I added some cleaned fresh baby artichokes (just come into season, I’m seeing them everywhere). They got about 15 minutes in their bath to get tender. Remove and let cool slightly. Lastly, open a tin of good quality tomatoes, strain out most of the liquid and cut each tomato in half. Take care to remove any gnarly stemmy bits. Then get all the vegetables into a pan (fresh and canned tomatoes, peppers and artichokes). Toss gently by hand with two or three crushed cloves of garlic, lots of olive oil, some hot chilies, a chopped anchovy or two, a sprinkle of fennel seeds, a tiny pinch of cumin and lots of salt and pepper. In a perfect world, this would slowly roast for one and a half to two hours in a low 300F oven. I’m not in a perfect world; it is Monday night, so instead, I put them into a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (covered for the first 15 minutes or so), and did some serious basting to keep it nice and moist. The result was satisfactory but not as good as the slow roast – next time I’ll do it right.
Nevertheless, the next step was to get it out of the oven and let all the stewed vegetables cool slightly (some of them will be slightly blackened - I like that slight char). While they were cooling I made a quick batch of homemade croutons (cubes of stale bread baked with a bit of oil, salt and pepper). When the vegetables are cool enough to handle (but not cold, this is a warm salad after all), get in with your hands and start mixing the crisp croutons throughout the juicy veg. Then pour in a really generous amount of good virgin olive oil along with some balsamic vinegar (go easy on the vinegar, it’s pretty potent). This will loosen things up a bit more and the bread will start to drink in the juices from the veg along with the oil and vinegar. Lastly tear up a bunch of fresh basil by hand and just work it through the salad. I also added a handful of leftover salad greens I had lying around (waste not want not).
Pile the works onto a plate and top with a soft poached egg. Drizzle on more olive oil and enjoy with a sturdy glass of something Italian and red. This is how vegetables were meant to be enjoyed. Thanks April!

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