Last week, we took a quick trip to Lake Tahoe to celebrate my sister Zoe’s birthday and the last hurrah of summer. My family has a cabin on the lake that we’ve had since I was a little girl, and it felt like a pretty big deal showing Sam and Oliver around the little town — where we got ice cream as kids, the mini golf course, the modest town beach and run-down motel that’s been there for ages. We got burgers at The Char Pit, Oliver went on his first boat ride and his first hike, and we saw some crazy-pink California sunsets. When we got back to Seattle it felt surprisingly like fall: somehow in the span of just a few days, we’ve got leaves on the ground and cooler mornings and evenings. I promptly packed away my swimsuits, got out my sweaters, and made a run to the farmers market to load up on summer produce while we still can: tomatoes, eggplant, peaches. Oliver’s been eating the peaches for breakfast in yogurt or cottage cheese and I had plans to make ratatouille with the eggplant and tomatoes, but then I thought maybe I should try something a bit out of my comfort zone. So I got out a big pot, and set out to fry up some eggplant fries.
I can’t remember the last time I fried something. It’s possible, actually, that I’ve never fried anything. I remember my mom frying donuts for us when we were kids — she used the biscuit dough that comes in those canisters that pop open when you twist them, rolling each one in cinnamon sugar and poking a hole in the middle with her thumb. They were, for the record, spectacular. But really truly frying things isn’t something that’s in my wheelhouse. Thankfully I got a nudge recently when I was contacted by Thrive, introducing me to their new algae oil. I know, I know: you’re likely thinking exactly what I was thinking (and what I know my sister Rachael is still thinking): really?! But the email caught my attention because it’s a neutral-flavored oil that has a really high smoke point and the highest amount of monounsaturated fat (the “good fat”) of other popular oils like olive, canola and coconut oil. I was intrigued.
After having it in the house for a few weeks, we found ourselves using the algae oil often in salad dressings and to sautee vegetables. It’s surprisingly light, so I had a suspicion it would make really delicate, crisp eggplant fries and it turns out, I was onto something.
For this recipe, I wanted the breading to have a little texture so I decided to throw in some polenta at the last minute (you could also use a coarse-ground cornmeal) and I did a mix of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour but feel free to use whatever you have on hand. As for the aoili, if you’re not familiar with harissa it’s a really versatile red chile paste that’s often made with warm spices like cumin, coriander and a good bit of garlic. It’s a quick easy flavor bomb, which is why I love it here. For the sake of time, the aoili is definitely a cheater version so all you aioli purists out there may just have to turn a blind eye. I figured that there will be plenty of time in January to make homemade aioli — for now, we’ve got a few leaves on the ground, neighborhood walks that beckon, and lots of lingering late summer produce to eat.
I adopted a tip from Bon Appetit here to ensure the fries cook up nice and crisp (as eggplant has a tendency to get soggy quickly). The key is to soak the eggplant slices in cold water for at least 2 hours before frying: the ice water helps them absorb liquid and become quite cool so when they hit the hot oil, the exterior crisps up leaving the interior nice and creamy but not at all greasy. We ended up having leftover aioli that we used on sandwiches the next day, and it keeps in the fridge just fine for a few weeks.
For the Harissa Aioli (makes about 2/3 cup)
For the Eggplant Fries:
Make the aioli: Mash garlic and salt in small bowl until paste forms. Whisk in the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and harissa. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional harissa or salt and pepper, as desired. Store covered and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Make the fries: Cut the eggplant crosswise into 1/2 -inch rounds, then cut each round further into 1/2 -3/4 inch thick strips (or any fry size you happen to like – just make sure they’re uniform). Place eggplant strips in a large bowl filled with enough ice water to cover them (about 2-3 cups water and plenty of ice). Place a plate on top of eggplant strips to weigh them down — you want them totally submerged. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Meanwhile whisk both flours, cornmeal, salt, pepper, oregano, paprika and lemon zest in a medium bowl. In a separate small bowl, whisk eggs.
Pour oil into a large deep pot or wok suitable for frying to a depth of 1 1/2 – 2 inches. Attach a thermometer to the side of the pot and heat oil over medium heat to 325°.
Drain eggplant sticks from the water and pat dry with a paper towel or clean towel. Working in small batches, submerge the eggplant sticks in the egg mixture then toss well in flour mixture to coat. Fry them, turning occasionally so they cook uniformly, until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve immediately with harissa aioli.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.