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Shouts & Whispers | Roast Eggplants with Goat Cheese & Sumac

Shouts & Whispers | Roast Eggplants with Goat Cheese & Sumac

Roast Eggplants | Delightful CrumbThis is the time of year when I crave the signs of autumn. I’ve written about the transition into fall ad nauseam, so I will try not to go on about it again. But it’s this Midwestern internal clock that sends me out in search of apple stands and cider mills, trees in shades of orange and ochre and brick red, leaves carpeting the ground, crisp breezes and the sweater weather that has yet to arrive on my side of the Bay except for, of course, inside my apartment, which has descended into a wintery chill.

I had the chance to get out of town and go north twice in the last week or so—first a quick getaway with Ben to the Anderson Valley, where we stayed at the charming Boonville Hotel, wandered around the valley’s sweet cities, tasted cheese and wine and beer and literally every variety of apple at Philo Apple Farm. It was an ideal escape—restful, contemplative, quiet, easy. The sky was bright blue, and we found the rust-colored leaves we were seeking. We came home with a bag of perfectly imperfect apples and sparkling cider and a big jar of apricot jam.

Just days later, I drove up the stunning Sonoma Coast for a work event. I reveled in the views along the way and the evening was a great success—until my car didn’t start. The following morning, I waited for AAA for hours on a forested hill where there was no cell service or other human life, watched my AAA savior knock the car’s starter with a long metal pole until the engine lurched to life, drove straight home to the shop in Oakland without stopping—no telling whether I’d get going again. While waiting, I tried not to worry too much about the car and whether I’d be able to get it started without a tow and the impending bill (while it may well run forever, my teenaged Honda Civic invariably presents extra issues at the shop), tried not to think about the work I had intended to do that afternoon, tried not to dwell on the fact that even though I was stranded in an epically beautiful place, I couldn’t explore it.

And yet. The Pacific air was clean and fresh. The ocean, laid out dramatically behind the dated, musty lodge where I was staying, was vast and glorious. When I walked down the hill in search of aid, I heard sea lions barking in the distance.

Several days and a fat repair bill later, I keep thinking the experience must have meant something, but I still don’t know what.

Mary Oliver says, “Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still it explains nothing.”

I search for meaning in everything, yearn for explanations. But they’re not always there. Is it the beauty that matters most?

Oliver continues, “The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

I clutch the sentiment like a pearl, admire it as an empty signpost on a trail. I think about the feeling of the ground beneath my feet and how the ocean looks as if it extends forever and try to silence my anxious questions, if only for a moment.

Roast Eggplants | Delightful CrumbRoast Split Eggplants with Goat Cheese & Sumac

Adapted from Diana Henry’s How to Eat a Peach

I’ve been making this dish since late summer, when eggplants arrived at the market, and it is both incredibly simple and terribly delicious. Diana Henry’s instruction is to roast the eggplants, but I’ve liked the texture that comes from a quicker broil, which blisters the skins and yields a meltingly soft interior. You can, of course, go the oven route instead. Henry suggests 375 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.

Several small or medium eggplants

Extra-virgin olive oil

Soft goat cheese

Sumac

Flaky sea salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

Preheat the broiler to medium or high heat.

Wash the eggplants and make a few slashes in each one to prevent any explosions in the oven. I leave the stems on for a pretty presentation. Place the whole eggplants on a baking sheet, or a piece of aluminum foil if a baking sheet won’t fit under your broiler.

Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the eggplants are completely soft. The amount of time required will depend on the heat of your oven and the size of the eggplants, so just keep checking for doneness.

Allow the eggplants to cool just slightly. Split each one down the middle. Tuck in a few small spoonfuls of goat cheese. Drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with sumac, flaky sea salt and black pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Philo Apple Farm | Delightful Crumb

La Ensalada Valenciana

La Ensalada Valenciana

Ensalada Valenciana | Delightful CrumbI’ve been thinking lately about the places that most matter to us—those that are not just objectively special, but also subjectively so. Some places we can all agree are extraordinary: famed vacation destinations, the national parks, hip new restaurants, the long-lived classics. Most people can at least appreciate the charms of New York City and London; I’ve never heard anyone argue that Hawaii is not as beautiful as they say. The Grand Canyon truly is grand, the Rocky Mountains are majestic, and Paris is, in fact, a magical city.

I’m not talking about home either, which many of us cherish for rather obvious reasons of nostalgia. What I’m talking about are the places that matter to us in a way that transcends their concrete qualities. There’s an intersection here, of course. But I think that for each of us, there are places that simply speak to us in another language altogether.

For me, a prime example is Denia, a lovely seaside town in Valencia, Spain, where I lived as a student in 2007. I was enchanted with this place from the start, as soon as I first walked the streets with my brand-new host mom, Maite, to her apartment on a dark January night. She looped her arm through mine and chattered excitedly all the way. I can almost conjure the feeling: thrilled for the adventure but knowing nothing of what was ahead.

There’s an old castle in Denia, where, for the grand admission price of three euros, visitors can more or less run free to scramble across the ruins, visit a humble museum with a smattering of ancient artifacts, admire the city and coastline from above. And there’s a mountain, too, called Montgó, where I hiked just once with friends, stopping to eat our sandwiches of tortilla española on soft baguette, getting good and lost before making it home just as dusk was falling.

Denia runs into the Mediterranean, with a rocky, wild coastline in one direction and a sandy beach in the other. Maite lived in a plaza alongside the water, the historic home of the fisherman, each apartment marked by a tile depicting fisherman at work, some of whom still live in this and the adjoining plaza. I could see the vast, blue Mediterranean from the kitchen window, where I’d sit with my morning yogurt and coffee made with an unfamiliar percolator, then again at lunchtime, when Maite and I would eat the hearty midday meal together, which most always included a simple salad we’d finish at the table with olive oil and vinegar, a practice new to me. I jogged down the path on the rocky side of the beach and hiked even further with friends to an ancient tower perched where the coastline twisted to the right. I drank coffee with Maite, paired with pan con mantequilla y mermelada, on weekly dates to her favorite cafés. I explored the city with my new German friends, girls who worked at the local church, meeting in the middle with our shared language of Spanish. I studied a lot, for better or worse, in our tiny apartment or at the library. And I spent time with our neighbors. We ate together in the little common space in the back of the plaza, feasting on paella, and celebrated Las Fallas—which is a story all its own, given that the festival involves burning huge statues made of papier-mâché. It was my first time living in a home that wasn’t my parents’, and I loved the very fact that I had neighbors, not to mention a new city to wander through, to class and back down the palm-lined street.

Denia | Delightful CrumbI was primed for the experience, of course, eager to study abroad, ready for adventure, excited to finally visit this country I’d dreamed about for years. And I realize that I existed in the separate plane of a student and of the young, detached from the everyday struggles of adulthood. Yet I felt, even then, that this place was particularly special—for me. While some students traveled every weekend, I more often stayed in Denia, recognizing that the chance to live with a feisty 72-year-old Madrileña wasn’t one that would likely come again.

At first, I thought I’d be right back. I thought that would be easy, unaware of the demands of a full time job, financial challenges, competing priorities—all of those things that get in the way. And so, the years passed. But even from the early days of our relationship, Ben and I dreamed of the European trip we’d take: revisiting Spain for me and the Netherlands for him.

It took a long time, but in the summer of 2017, we did just that. And so, exactly 10 years later, I returned to Denia. I’d told my stories enough that I was confident in the city’s objective greatness. But I’m not sure I recognized the subjective part, the wave of emotions that hit me when we rolled into town on a sweaty July night, after making two buses—one just barely—from the airport in Alicante. Or when we had a proper 10 pm dinner on the bustling street of our hostel that night, then walked down to the water and over to my old plaza, bathed in yellow light, looking so familiar that, for a moment, it felt as if no time had passed since I’d been there.

I feel at ease in Spain, but particularly in Denia, calmed by the sea and the joyfulness of the food, simple and complex at once: lengths of toasted baguette topped with butter and jam for breakfast; masterful rice dishes, of which paella is only the beginning; a rectangle of perfect coca bought on a whim from a corner bakery after visiting Maite in the nearby town where she now lives; ensalada valenciana in its varied forms; pan con tomate; beautiful seafood and fish fresh from the sea; allioli with everything.

I’ve been fortunate to go on a few exciting trips—some work, some vacation—these past few years. And all were, indeed, thrilling. But some places, like Denia, feel distinto, to use one of my favorite Spanish words that doesn’t quite translate. I’m hoping to make the once-every-10-years thing a tradition, but in the meantime, I’m grateful for photos and journals, a husband who has now seen this place and loved it, too, and the food that can, if only for a moment, bring me back.

Al Forn | Delightful Crumb

Ensalada Valenciana

Serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a side

This is a simple salad, a rendition of which is served at most any restaurant in the Valencia region of Spain. Feel free adjust to your preferences, breaking from tradition per your taste or the seasons or what you have on hand. I sometimes add avocado, and I’ve also seen it served, as pictured above, with shredded carrot or red cabbage. I know that the raw corn might seem surprising, but I like its fresh flavor. You could also blanch the cobs before cutting the corn off the cob. I should note that I’ve typically been served this salad in Valencia with canned corn, so that shortcut would perhaps be the most authentic option! And the olives typically aren’t pitted, but do as you like and consider warning your dining companions if you leave them in.

For an easy meal, roast some potatoes and/or serve with a fresh baguette—or, even better, pan con tomate. I’ve listed the rough quantities for a big salad, which the two of us can eat as a meal but would make an excellent side for four or five if there’s more food on the table.

2-4 eggs

1 onion (red or white), halved and sliced into thin half moons

Lettuce, such as mixed greens, little gem lettuce or butter lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces if desired

1-2 cobs of corn, shucked and cleaned, corn cut off the cob

1 large or 2 small tomatoes, sliced into large wedges

1 small cucumber, cut into cubes

1 5-oz. can high-quality oil- or water-packed tuna, drained and broken up into pieces

A handful of olives, such as Castelvetrano

Salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

Good olive oil

Sherry or red wine vinegar (or a quartered lemon)

First, cook the eggs. Fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil. Gently place the eggs in the pot and begin a timer. For this salad, I like my yolks slightly runny but not overly so, achieved at about 7 minutes. For a firmer yolk, cook for 8 minutes. When the eggs are cooked to your liking, removed them with a slotted spoon and place them in ice water to cool.

Place the sliced onion in a small bowl with a pinch of salt and a pour of vinegar. Massage the onion and let rest to mellow its flavor while you prepare the rest of the salad.

On a large platter or wide serving bowl, arrange the lettuce. Top with the rest of the ingredients, arranged in sections: the corn, tomatoes, cucumber, tuna and olives. Remove the onion from the vinegar and add that as well.

Peel the eggs and slice them in half or quarters lengthwise. Arrange them on top of the salad. Sprinkle the salad with salt and pepper.

Finish with generous pours of olive oil and vinegar, or place the bottles on the table so that your guests can serve themselves.

Streets of Denia | Delightful Crumb

Even More Fanfare | Chocolate Fig Cake

Even More Fanfare | Chocolate Fig Cake

Chocolate Fig Cake | Delightful CrumbThis week, the market was overflowing with figs. It was an abundance I can’t recall seeing before—big crates packed with fat figs at multiple stalls, ripe and bursting, water balloon skins no longer able to hold in the jammy centers. My favorite fig purveyor let me assemble my own boxes, a pretty simple offer that put me over the moon. I walked away with Green Ischia figs so ripe they’re about to split and plump Brown Turkey figs, too, plus a separate box of little, uniform Black Mission figs for baking.

When figs are at their ripest and freshest, you can’t do better than eating them out of hand. I love them best with goat cheese and honey, perhaps with good bread alongside. A more elevated version of the same thing is to top toast with ricotta and sliced figs, drizzled with honey and/or olive oil; an easier one is to split the fig in half with your fingers and add a spoonful of Greek yogurt, which is what I did when I got home from the market yesterday. The figs right now literally taste like jam, and I know I’m a broken record, but I am just as excited about them as ever.

One thing I love about figs is their dual harvest. They come around long enough for me to get excited, then slip away. When they’re back, it’s with even more fanfare. The second season is longer and, quite literally, more fruitful. It’s basically opposite of the experience we have with ramps and sour cherries, which are painfully fleeting. And for the rare tangible moment of abundance in a world where I’m so often tempted to linger on scarcity instead, I am grateful.

While I will continue insisting that figs are best fresh, I’m still compelled by each pretty picture of a fig cake I encounter. I haven’t yet found my ideal everyday fig cake, so please let me know if you have one up your sleeve (criteria here). I made Melissa Clark’s Figgy Demerara Snacking Cake last weekend, which was fantastic but calls for two dozen figs and bakes up into huge 18×13-inch rectangle. I loved having cake to share with my neighbors but can’t always afford two dozen figs, notwithstanding all of this talk of abundance. But if you have an over-productive tree, pick up Cook This Now—and/or call me.

So this weekend, I moved along to another recipe I’ve had bookmarked for years, which requires just half that quantity of fruit. This is basically a decadent brownie topped with sliced figs, which break down in the heat of the oven, forming jammy pockets and getting sticky syrupy goodness all over the top of the cake. I served it with brandy-spiked whipped cream, a show-stopping finale to a delightful dinner with friends.

Chocolate Fig Cake | Delightful Crumb

Chocolate Fig Cake

Adapted very slightly from Yossy Arefi’s Sweeter off the Vine

This cake is basically a brownie topped with jammy pockets of baked figgy goodness, and it’s a delight. It’s also quite rich, so the whipped cream is a worthwhile accompaniment. Sweeten the cream only lightly, if at all, and flavor with brandy, bourbon or almond extract if you want to add some extra pizzazz. I baked this closer to 45 minutes, as I wanted the cake to be more or less cooked through. You could remove it much earlier if you want a more gooey dessert.

Makes one 8-inch cake, enough for 8 very reasonable servings

3/4 cup (95 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

1/2 cup (50 g) cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups (250 g) cane sugar

1/2 cup (115 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus more for the pan

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup (85 g) chopped bittersweet chocolate

10-12 ounces (280-340 g) fresh figs, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, to serve (optional)

Whipped cream, to serve (optional)

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter the bottom and the sides of an 8-inch springform or cake pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter that as well. Dust the pan and paper with flour.

Combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the sugar and butter at medium-low speed, then add the eggs and vanilla. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the mixture until it lightens in color and texture, about 2 minutes. Fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the chopped chocolate.

Pour the batter into the pan, using an offset spatula to smooth the top. Arrange the sliced figs on top, covering the surface of the cake. It’s okay if they overlap a bit. Bake the cake until it is set but still slightly wiggly in the center, 35 to 45 minutes. You can remove the cake when it is less done if you want a gooey consistency, or bake until all but the very center is set.

Cool the cake and slice it into wedges, or spoon the warm cake into bowls. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and a dollop of whipped cream, if you like, just before serving.

Summer Ease | Watermelon & Feta Salad

Summer Ease | Watermelon & Feta Salad

Watermelon & Feta Salad | Delightful CrumbIt is summer, which means it’s time for another simple salad! This is basically how I cook from June through September—it’s hot, the produce is perfect and the evenings are long. Why spend the night cooking when you can assemble something equally delicious in minutes? Our trip to Paris in June didn’t help this inclination. Rather than coming home eager to replicate floating islands, croissants and picture-perfect tarts, I returned with a renewed enthusiasm for buying good baguettes and fancy cheese, which frankly constitute a proper enough meal alone, and all the more so with an easy salad alongside.

The watermelon-and-feta combination is classic and well loved by many, but it’s worth calling attention to it again nonetheless. I was reminded recently that not everyone is making this at home all summer long, as is my tendency. I did some Googling, wondering when it became a ubiquitous pairing well beyond the borders of Greece, and via this Serious Eats article, I ended up on Google Trends, where I found quite a fascinating picture of American interest in the combination. It began a steady climb in 2009, hitting its current and peak popularity in 2013 or so. I can’t recall when I first encountered it myself, or when it went from curiosity to summer staple—but here we are.

Last week, we were with family in Northern Michigan (photos below—look how lovely!), and as always, I was reminded how nice it is to have trusty combinations up my sleeve when I’m traveling, especially when I’m coming from far away but still want to contribute to the family feast. We were staying in a very cute little inn that lacked only in its kitchen provisions, but even without a big cutting board, sharp knife or measuring spoons, this was a breeze. It pleases most people and will pair wonderfully with whatever else is cooking on a hot summer day.

And if this is already a classic in your kitchen and you need some new inspiration, I outlined my favorite composed summer salads last year. Do you have a favorite I didn’t include? I’d love to hear it.

We’re home now, summer vacations behind us and plenty of mail and work stacked up, demanding my attention. Life is complex, even in summer, even on vacation, even when things are good. Ease so often feels out of reach for me, but this sort of cooking offers a small measure, and that is something. Maybe I’ll try my hand with îles flottantes this winter, but for now, you will find me piling my market bounty on a platter and serving it with a baguette for sopping up the juices. Simple pleasures, the glory of summer, a little bit of ease—I hope you’re finding it, too.

Watermelon & Feta Salad

Shallot or red onion (optional)

One small or half of a medium watermelon, red or yellow

Good olive oil

Balsamic, white balsamic or white wine vinegar

Block of Feta cheese, preferably goat, sheep or a combination

Sprouts (sunflower pictured), mint and/or basil

Flaky sea salt

Cracked black pepper

If using the shallot or red onion, slice it thinly and place it in a bowl with a pour of neutral vinegar (white wine or white balsamic work well) and a big pinch of salt. Mix, then let the combination sit to mellow the onion’s bite while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Slice the watermelon into pieces about 3/4-inch thick, remove the rind and cut the slices into large chunks. If the kiddos will be eating it, too, cut the watermelon into cubes to make things simpler. Pile the watermelon on a big plate or platter.

Drizzle generously with olive oil and a splash of vinegar. Crumble the cheese on top, and arrange the sprouts and/or herbs over that. Taste to check the flavors and saltiness, then adjust to taste and finish with a sprinkle of flaky salt and cracked black pepper.

Northern Michigan | Delightful CrumbNorthern Michigan | Delightful Crumb Northern Michigan | Delightful Crumb

Between The Two | The Go-To Frittata

Between The Two | The Go-To Frittata

Frittata | Delightful CrumbI come today with the most straightforward of recipes, for a moment in which things feel to me both immensely complicated and desperately simple. Politics, immigration and our nation’s ongoing inability to communicate across disagreement loom large. Yet it is summer, and for me, that conjures memories of simplicity at its finest: long days unfurling without obligation, family vacation, a sense of ease, produce that lends itself to the most minimal of preparation. Ben and I came home from vacation a little over a week ago, rested and lighthearted, to the first wave of mind-bending, heart-breaking news about our southern border. I need only to assemble my dinner with ingredients so gloriously perfect as the ones I picked up at the farmers market this morning, yet people are still going hungry and homeless on the route where I take my daily run. Today, I am healthy and whole, but that’s not the case for the friend who calls in need.

The truth is, it’s here that we live—between the two. Sometimes, we feel one more than the other: everything feels easy, or everything feels hard. Other times, the tension is what dominates. But ultimately, complexity and simplicity, struggle and ease, sorrow and joy—they are here with us, intertwined, all the time.

I’ve struggled to come to terms with this. There was a time when I thought that life would, or could, be easy. Then, when I realized my naiveté, I assumed that difficulties and sorrows would come and go, and I just had to get through those tough seasons to the light on the other side. But now I’ve come to see that life is all of it, mixed up together, and somehow we must leave space for lament and contentment to coexist.

So here’s my bid for embracing the good even when there is bad, for opening our hearts and homes even when the world seems hostile, for pulling family and friends ever closer despite the fact that loving means risking loss, for speaking kindness when criticism and sarcasm have made positivity seems passé. It’s okay to enjoy what we’re given in this life despite the brokenness around us. You can eat the first fig of summer with gusto and still show up at the rally. We don’t have to choose—and in the end, we can’t.

And so I offer one more thing to add to your repertoire of simplicity this summer. If you need an easy dish to set alongside slices of juicy summer fruit at brunch, or something filling to go with a piled-high tomato salad and a fresh loaf of bread at dinnertime, I suggest this frittata. After cycling through many different recipes, I’ve found my perfect frittata ratios, to which you can add whatever produce is in season or on hand. This spring, I used fava leaves and green garlic and spring onions. Now, in early summer, new potatoes and vibrant spinach can take center stage. Use what you have, and lean into whatever ease you may have this summer.

Frittata | Delightful Crumb

Go-To Frittata

Informed by recipes from Sara Forte in The Sprouted Kitchen and Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer in Golden

The first frittata recipe that I truly loved was Sara’s, from her first book, The Sprouted Kitchen. I found the ratios perfect and the filling (sweet potatoes, spinach, goat cheese) delicious. Later, I made the recipe for maakouda in Golden, the second cookbook from the owners of London’s glorious Honey & Co., and loved this, too, with its bright pop of flavor from capers and a hearty inclusion of herbs. I saw that the two held to similar ratios and realized I’d found my perfect frittata formula. Here’s my version. You can leave out the capers if they’re not to your taste, use red pepper flakes rather than Aleppo if that’s what you’ve got, add other spices, swap in different produce, use feta rather than goat cheese or skip the cheese altogether—the options are endless!

2 medium potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus additional for the potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion or 3 spring onions, sliced thinly
3 stalks green garlic or scallions, sliced thinly
Big handful spinach, fava leaves or zucchini flowers
8 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
Pinch of Aleppo pepper
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
Small bunch parsley, chopped
3 ounces goat cheese
Hot sauce, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add a pinch of salt, then cook the potatoes for about 5 minutes, until cooked through but not falling apart. Drain and allow to cool.

Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron or other oven-safe pan. Over medium heat, cook the onions and scallions or green garlic with a pinch of salt until softened, about 5 minutes.

Add the potatoes and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so. Place the greens or zucchini blossoms on top and allow them to wilt, about 1 minute. You can put the lid on the pan to encourage the process.

Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, milk, capers, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt, a pinch of Aleppo pepper flakes and a generous amount of black pepper. When the ingredients are well combined, with no streaks remaining, pour the mixture into the pan and turn the heat down to medium-low. Nudge the ingredients so that they’re nicely distributed as you allow the frittata to cook for a few minutes. Top with the crumbled goat cheese. Turn off the heat and transfer the pan to the oven to cook for about 15 minutes, until the top is nicely set.

Allow the frittata to cool for a few minutes before slicing and serving, with hot sauce alongside for those so inclined. It is also delicious at room temperature.