Mark Bittman's tomato jam; wonderful to look at, tastes even better. Photos taken by my sister-in-law.

It was love at first sight. Or at least greed at first glance.

It was early. I was still in my pajamas and had only recently padded into the kitchen. Coffee in hand, I flicked open the newspaper and there it was. Across the countertop lay spread a photo so alluring, so beautiful, that my breath caught and I stopped mid sip.

Now what ever could have caught my rapt attention? What was the object of my early-morning desire, you ask?

Mark Bittman's Tomato Jam. (You know me well enough to know it would be about food.)

But seriously. Look at this. It is just a spoonful of gorgeousness. To call it red would be a disservice; it seems too plain. Scarlet doesn't cut it, brick doesn't even come close. Vermilion? Crimson? I cannot come up with an adjective that captures the particular hue of this luscious-looking stuff.

Attempts to describe aside, I did know one thing from the start. I wanted to try this jam. I needed to make it. And I needed to make it right away.

And so, I set about making a batch of tomato jam. Lucky for me, my dear Sean is used to the vagrancies of my behaviour and said not a word when I started mincing green chilies and ginger. After a minimal bit of chopping, stirring and grinding, on my stove sat a bubbling pot. Soon the smell of coffee met and mingled with scents of ripe tomatoes and grassy cumin, with an underlying warmth of cinnamon and clove.

The pot remained for the remainder of the coffee, and for the duration of breakfast. All the while deepening in colour and texture; what started out as bright and watery slowly turned darker, richer. In the end, I was left with a sticky sweet relish, heady with spice but with a good balance of acidity. It was complex without being overly complicated.

The jam was even better after it cooled overnight in the fridge. Akin to a chutney, it is an unexpected but delicious accompaniment to bread and cheese. I would offer more suggestions for its use, but I haven't gotten that far; I've just started exploring the possibilities.

I can tell you this though, this tomato jam looks good enough to eat. And its looks do not deceive.

TOMATO JAM

By Mark Bittman, as published in the New York Times (August 19, 2008) and in syndication.

Recipe and an associated video are both available online.

Notes:

  • I used a mix of tomatoes from our garden, all rather sweet in their own right. While I understand its role in setting the jam, I was still wary of the amount of sugar in the recipe - so I used a generous 3/4 of a cup and upped the tomatoes to a full 2 pounds.
  • For another savoury note I included 1 large garlic clove, grated.
  • Wanting enough heat to cut through the sweetness, I used two small green chilies instead of the jalapeño.
  • When I make this again I might include a bit of lime zest..
  • Most likely due to the reduced amount of sugar and additional tomatoes, my cooking time was closer to 2 hours to reach the consistency I was looking for.

As a child of the 1980s, I have a deep affection for that era of roller skate - the ones with four wheels and the bright red, eraser-like stopper attached to the toe. I spent many an hour touring the neighbourhood in my skates, confident as can be.

Flash forward 20 years later and you can imagine my trepidation when my dear Sean strapped brand new rollerblades on me and assumed I would be steady on my feet. Facing the downhill slope of a rather steep hill, little did he expect the athletic debacle that would follow.

To make a long story short, I ricocheted off of a fence once or twice on my way down. Since then if faced with the slightest of declines, I am happy to veer off the road, sit myself down in the grass and watch the world roll by.

In this case I am all too happy to indulge my cowardice.

But one arena in which I have rarely shown fear has been the kitchen. Whether it was youthful exuberance or sheer naive ego, I would be hard pressed to remember a recipe that I have shied away from due to lack of experience. I will either place my confidence in quality of the recipe or in my own common sense, and then pray for the best.

That is not to say that errors have not been made; I could tell stories of some spectacular culinary failures that culminated in me laughing and crying all at once, as I reached for the phone to order takeout. But for whatever reason, these catastrophes have never fazed me. A simple shrug of the shoulder later, a wipe down of the counters and I am usually ready to tackle my next attempt.

It was with this touch of hubris that I made my first soufflé. Not smart enough to heed the many horror stories of fallen hopes, I happily whipped, folded and baked my way to airy perfection. Maybe it was assuredness that was the secret of my success. Maybe it was my assumption that all will be well was what made it so. Since that triumph, I have never looked back; both savoury and sweet offerings have graced our table. I have fallen in love with soufflés, with their luscious eggy density and slightly tender belly.

This corn and cheddar version has been a favourite since first taste. With a subtle background heat playing off of the sweetness of fresh corn, it is a wonderful balance of flavours for a light summer supper. The procedure is surprisingly simple and forgiving; stir the roux patiently, do not overwhip your egg whites, fold the batter gently. Bake until set without peeking in the oven, and your bravery will be rewarded with awe at the table. Who needs a greater ego-boost than that?

Sweet corn and white cheddar soufflé, with herbs and chili

Ingredients
Kernels from 2 ears of fresh corn
1 medium onion or 2 large shallots, cut into small dice
1 small red chili, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing the ramekins
2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, separated
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup milk
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup grated aged white cheddar
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro (coriander)

Preheat oven 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease four 3/4 cup capacity ramekins with butter, then coat with Parmesan.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of the butter. Add the corn, onion and chili and cook, stirring, until the corn is tender and the onion is translucent. Remove the vegetables to a small bowl and set aside to cool.

In the same pan over medium low heat, melt the remaining butter. Whisk in the flour, cayenne and nutmeg, then cook this mixture for about 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to combine. Continue to cook, for about 3 minutes, until the sauce is thick and smooth. Turn off the heat, whisk in egg yolks, cheddar, remaining Parmesan and herbs. Stir in the corn and vegetable mixture. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites to stiff (but not dry) peaks. Using a spatula, fold one third of the egg whites into the soufflé base. Continue to fold each third in, only until just combined.

Divide the soufflé batter among the four prepared ramekins. Sprinkle with additional finely grated cheddar or Parmesan, if desired.

Gently place ramekins into a roasting pan or large casserole dish. Fill the pan with water from a recently-boiled kettle, until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, until crowned and golden.

Serve immediately, makes 4.

Notes:

• For a more impressive crown to your soufflé, rather than one that will just coyly peek over the edge of the dish as seen here, use a slightly smaller ramekin.
• When folding in the egg whites, I usually let a few streaks of white to remain for my first two additions as I know those will dissipate with the last addition. This allowance will prevent you from overworking the batter and deflating the volume.

It has only been in the last few years that my father started to foray into the kitchen (save for our childhood favourite of his French toast fingers). But since then, he has taken on the majority of culinary duties, exploring and expanding his repertoire of specialities to include his Thanksgiving turkey roulade, his mahogany-hued beef and broccoli stir fry, and his fabulously decadent caramel custard. But none of these can come close in fame to his true calling card; Indian food.

The French may have their mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot), and Creole cuisine may boast its trinity (onion, celery, green pepper), but in my father's pan there is but one triumvirate - onion, ginger and garlic.

In fact, it is the frequent refrain when I call to ask him for recipes; "start with onion, ginger, garlic ...." As soon as the three hit the heat the scent immediately brings me back to thoughts of my parents home. Slowly cooking on the stove, this fragrant tangle forms the basis of much of the Indian menu; the backbone flavour of many dishes, both meat based and vegetarian.

This succulent spread of sweet blackened eggplant and barely-caramelized onions is lifted by handfuls of grassy cilantro and spiky rings of green chili. Simple to make yet boundlessly versatile, it can be served as a vegetable offering in an Indian meal, combined with spiced ground meat (keema) for something more substantial, mixed with thick yogurt and topped with ground toasted cumin for a dip, or simply spread on griddled flatbread for a quick snack.

My father's eggplant spread
His own recipe

Ingredients
Canola oil or other neutral oil
1 medium eggplant (aubergine)
1 large onion, cut lengthways then into thin half moons
2 teaspoons ginger, grated (see note)
3 cloves garlic, grated
1 small green chili, sliced finely
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
salt to taste

Use a few drops of canola oil to lightly grease the skin of the eggplant. Over the dying coals of a charcoal fire, place the whole eggplant on the grill. Cook, turning occasionally, until the eggplant has shrivelled and blackened. The flesh should yield easily to pressure, and most of its moisture will have cooked away. Do not panic if the skin splits while cooking, this is perfectly fine. Remove from the heat and set the eggplant aside to cool.

In a medium saucepan, heat about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for about 10-15 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the garlic is sweet. Add the green chili and cilantro, cooking for 5 minutes more.

Using a spoon or your fingers, peel away the skin from the eggplant. Scoop the flesh into the pan with the aromatics, breaking it up and stirring to combine. Season lightly with salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook the eggplant for 10 more minutes, or until it begins to slightly darken in colour and any residual moisture has dissipated. Check for seasoning and serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

Notes:
• My parents store their ginger in the freezer; it keeps forever it seems and can be easily grated while frozen. The measurement in this recipe is using frozen ginger, and may vary if using fresh.
• Carefully remove the seeds and ribs (white pithy veins) from the green chili for those prefer less heat.

Ah, the aftermath.

The one burden of being a part of a food-loving family is the inevitable post-feast hangover associated with high days and holidays. This weekend was no exception. The butter, the chocolate, the treats both sweet and savoury - the days flew by in a pastel haze of overabundance.

There is stilll a half litre of heavy cream in the fridge.

Not ready to deal with that just yet, a respite seems in order. As in the past, and like Molly it seems, I find my comfort in the bottom of a bowl of soup. Borrowing heavily from the Mediterranean pantry, this chorizo and lentil soup offers substance without excess, flavour without flamboyance.

I could use a nap.

Chorizo and lentil soup
My own recipe. The spiciness of the chorizo lends personality to the subtle lentils. A rustic meal in itself, hearty and satisfying. Goes brilliantly with an old movie, preferably one from the Thin Man series, and a comfy couch.

Ingredients
3/4 cup small French green lentils
2 cups veal or chicken stock
3-5 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for serving
2 fresh chorizo sausages, casings removed
1 cup medium diced celery (4 ribs or so)
1 cup medium diced carrots (2 large)
2 cups medium diced yellow onion (2 medium)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 19-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
4-5 large basil leaves, cut into strips (chiffonade)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Pick over the lentils and discard any misshapen ones or stones. Rinse and drain the lentils through several courses of water until free of any grit or sand.

In a saucepan over high heat, combine the lentils, stock, 3 cups of water, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until the lentils are just tender, about 15-20 minutes. You will need to skim the surface occasionally for impurities.

Meanwhile, in a stockpot over medium heat, crumble in the chorizo into one tablespoon or so of olive oil. Cook until the sausage begins to render some of its fat. Add the celery, carrot and onion, tossing to coat in the paprika-stained oil. Season well with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring often. When the vegetables are translucent and tender, after about 10 minutes, add the tomato paste and stir through. Cook for 2 minutes or until the tomato paste begins to darken.

Remove the garlic and thyme from the lentils. Add the lentils and their cooking liquid to the stockpot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, and additional water if necessary, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Check for seasoning.

Ladle into bowls and sprinkle over the chopped herbs. Serve with olive oil for drizzling and grated Parmesan and passed alongside.

Serves 4.

Notes:
• Omit the chorizo and stock for a vegetarian version; in this case, cut back on the tomato paste and add a medium can of crushed tomatoes for additional body to the broth.
• Cannellini beans can be used instead of the garbanzos (chick peas).
• Longaniza (or longganisa) is a fresh Chilean variety of chorizo. Cooked or cured sausage varieties can be substituted.
• A splash of red wine vinegar to finish will balance the richeness of sausage and creaminess of the lentils.

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Authortara
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