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"We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." David Mamet

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Cook Off Chronicles - Part 3

Why do peppers figure so prominently in my life?

A tour of the Coop produce aisle in October would have brought tears to my mother's eyes - mounds of cherub-cheeked peppers in red, yellow, orange, and green - an organic kaleidoscope. Perfect for making the star dish of our Rosh Hashanah meal - Roasted Pepper Salad (Salade de Piments), a spectacular side dish/condiment of garlicky, carmelized roasted peppers. 
      But the High Holy Days happened in Florida for most of my adult life, which meant a semi-annual expedition to Publix. Every other Jew in Plantation had the same idea. My Mom, sister, and I always felt a permed grey hair's breadth away from an auntie fight over gefilte fish.

     Peppers were always at the top of our shopping list. At Publix, they're a little dusty with insecticide and they are HUGE, as though grown near an abandoned atomic testing site. We'd drop 4-5 pounds of the biggest and most uniform red and green peppers into a plastic bag, trapping their reassuringly sunny musky scent. 
     My mother put the rush in Rosh Hashanah. Even before unpacking, she'd unearthed the baking trays and set the broiler on high. At fast forward speed, the engorged peppers were rinsed, dried and placed under the broiler
     However, roasting peppers brings out the demon in them. They hiss and their skin starts to bubble and blister like zombies. If left in too long, they spit out searing fluids. Opening the oven you were hit with a peppery inferno of steam. Once not too long ago, a pepper exploded in the oven and shattered the glass window.
      This did not faze Mom who, with a vestigial urgency dating back to our flee across the dessert, was in a race to peel, core, and seed the peppers before the Egyptians caught up with her. Only recently did we learn the trick of putting the peppers in a paper bag.

Karren and I got caught up in the frenzy. We rinsed, scored, and dunked Roma tomatoes in boiling water, removed them in batches with our old slotted spoon, peeled off their skin by hand, cored them and squeezed out every trace of the tiny gel-like seeds. More details about this recipe below.
Wish I had a photo of us, but this captures the spirit.
      Lest you think otherwise, this was enormous fun. A little dangerous, but fun. The colors are beautiful and the aromas transporting. We laughed a ton and danced our way across the kitchen. Karren was d-jay. Her playlist often included:
  • Edith Piaf
  • Nat King Cole
  • Sinatra
  • Arabic music
  • Brazil 77
  • Julio Iglesias
  • Dionne Warwick
  • Tony Bennet
     With my two soul sister dancers, I learned to cha-cha, salsa, swing dance and rumba. We waltzed, danced the hora, and did the twist. Every so often my Dad would spin us around just long enough to snag a snack. We would break into Fly Me to the Moon and Button Up Your Overcoat, I'll Never Fall In Love Again. Our a cappella repertoire was limited to choruses and usually out of tune. But the food seemed only richer because of it.

     But I digress. 
     Peppers are also key to the Moroccan Tilapia recipe. 
     Because they were in season, it was tempting to blast some oldies and roast them old school. But how sad would it be to do this mammoth pepper roasting during the holidays without my Mom? Too soon. So I cheated. The delicious jarred organic, roasted red peppers from Mediterranean Organic(TM), was a fine substitute. Coop members can find them in the condiments aisle, across from the canned beans. 
    My shortcut notwithstanding, Mom was with me in spirit during the Cook Off, and I definitely missed her. I did try singing a little Volare quietly to myself, but with other cooks in the room, it just wasn't quite the same. Great, but not the same.  

     The Cook Off was a rewardingly chill experience. What I lost in frenzied spirit, I gained in joy and harmony (yes, we were Cooking in Harmony) - thanks to the fabulous Karren, Coop coordinators, the staff, the biggest surprise, my husband Pete.
     If it takes a Coop Cook Off to discover hidden treasures in a marriage of 20+ years, so be it. We almost never work side by side in the kitchen. Like many visual types, he loves process. The lemons were never so perfectly diced, the workstation never so neat and orderly. He created 11 batches of vegetables for the 180+ servings (see recipe below) for me to scoop into the pan to create the delish relish that makes the Tilapia a Moroccan Tilapia.  We finished just as the crews were carting off our dishes to the event venue, Brooklyn Ethical Culture.  

     The event was warm and convivial - and virtually flawless. Nine fantastic chefs were stationed just so throughout two rooms to the rocking tunes of the Coop chamber orchestra (yes!) while guests roamed happily from one great dish to the next.
     There were a few personal freak-out moments. Pete tipped over a batch of vegetables (I reassured him that I did this virtually every night). And the Ethical Culture oven was finicky. I was lucky to have Karren, who has been with me through every crisis in my life, and a spicy french FTOP worker/chef/performance artist named Nicole Peyrafitte. I never knew how much they struggled til days later. Each tray arrived from the basement kitchen perfectly cooked, while I served and chatted with the many interesting and interested tasters about the recipe, its origins, their favorite foods. 
     Our 13-year old Jack and bff Matthew could not have been happier sampling and critiquing and appreciating the great variety of food - Indian, Korean, Spanish, Italian, Peruvian, Hungarian, and more. Since this was a cook-off, you were supposed to vote. They were instructed to vote for me even if they liked someone else's dish better. But in the end, they said it was a toss up - sweet of them to say.

My competitors truly outclassed my rustic, one-dish family meal. I didn't win, but I did predict the winner: Grace Cho's Bibimbap Reconstructed - a traditional Korean dish refigured to be more American. It was amazing. She served it with her own home brewed concoction, Cucumber Sparkler with Herbs. 
    Tom Matthews of Wine Spectator, and one of the event coordinators, paired the TIlapia with Gotham Project Riesling Finger Lakes 2009, donated by Bruce Schneider. It was perfect in combination and amazing in its own right. Available at Blue Ribbon, Terroir Tribeca, and Grand Central Oyster Bar.
     An article is being written by Tom for the upcoming Linewaiters' Gazette - the Coop's newsletter. Check it soon for a full write up. It also includes more background information about my recipe.

Many thanks and kudos to the event coordinators who made cooking with harmony so great for everyone.

Moroccan Tilapia
Serves 4
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

Preheat oven to 375 F

3 Packages of Frozen Tilapia Filets, thawed
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 head organic garlic, pressed, peeled, and cut in half
3 fresh organic red peppers, cleaned and cut into 1" strips*
2 cups fresh cilantro, roughly chopped (stems and leaves)**
1 organic lemon washed well and cut into very small dices, including the peel! 
3 teaspoons turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne 
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
salt to taste

Defrost tilapia in the fridge for at least 6 hours.

Using a large cast iron or oven-safe frying pan, heat oil on medium-high and add garlic til fragrant.  Add peppers, lemon pieces, and spices. Reduce heat and simmer stirring for 10 minutes until peppers* are soft and flavors meld. Stir in cilantro. Add salt to taste.  Place fish over the cilantro mixture. Cook in preheated oven for 20-30 minutes until the fish flakes nicely.

Serve over basmati rice with a simple fresh green salad. This tastes great at room temperature the next day.

*Alternately, I use 1 jar Mediterranean Organic (R) Gourmet Red Peppers*, cut into 1" strips. If you use this, reduce cooking time to 5 minutes.
** If not available, use 1 teaspoon coriander
** In a pinch, run the unopened packages under room temp water for a few minutes, remove tilapia and and set aside while you prepare the rest of the meal. I've even put the half-frozen fish into the oven and the meal turned out fine - though the fish tends to be a little tougher if you don't defrost thoroughly.

Salade de Piments

Set oven on broil with rack second to top shelf
3-4 lbs red, green, orange peppers
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 clove garlic, peeled and pressed or smashed
3 lbs Roma tomatoes, rinsed
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
Bay leaf
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
pinch of sugar
salt to taste

You'll need a paper grocery bag, a baking pan lined with foil, tongs, and a large frying pan.

Rinse peppers and place on baking pan under broiler, turning frequently to char all around

Remove with tongs and place in paper bag until cool enough to handle.

Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water. With a serrated knife, score the tomatoes on the nonstem side with tiny x's. Drop carefully in water watching carefully to remove just as skin starts to come loose, about 10-20 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and run under cool water. Peel, core, and remove all vestiges of the seeds. Cut into 2" strips. Set aside in a bowl.

Once peppers are cool enough to handle, peel, core, and remove all vestiges of seeds.Tear into 3" wide strips and set aside.

Heat olive oil over medium-high. Add pressed garlic and pepper flakes until garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add peppers and scald slightly. Add tomato, bay leaf, tomato paste. Stir well and bring to a slow boil, then reduce to low. Simmer slowly for 1-2 hours, stirring periodically and covering if it starts looking too dry.  

Serve as a condiment with meat, poultry, or fish, or on its own with bread. Keeps well in fridge for about a week.



Jasmine said...

Ooooohhhh this is such a delight and a treat a fiesta of fun and bursting with taste in all ways. Love love love your cooking and meme's amazing zest - joie de vivre is infused within you and karren and everything that you create!!!

louise crawford said...

I love your blog and I love what i read about your mom. Great line:
"My mother put the rush in Rosh Hashanah." I will keep reading for sure and will post about next Wednesday (food day at OTBKB).