Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 1, 2014

Don't let eating be the only fun you have with food

Local columnist

---- — It occurs to me that perhaps I might look a bit odd as I sit in the lobby of a church where I teach kids’ cooking classes with a blow torch and a bag of squid by my side.

Of course, anyone who has been in or had children in any of my classes might not be surprised. I love introducing a little bit of theater to the kitchen. I like to make those student loans I had worth what I paid for them.

“Smell the fish sauce!” I wave the open bottle under chins, while noses wrinkle in disgust. “Now, taste the fish sauce in the pho!”

Their faces show relief and wonder.

“We need to bruise this piece of ginger root to release the flavors. How about we smash it with this enormous mallet?” Here is where ginger root turns to paste that takes flight.

Food should be entertaining and exciting. It’s a duty. I get it. We have to eat to live but — my word — if you have to do something, shouldn’t you at least have a little fun with it?

Here’s where the mallets and fish sauce and sea creatures and exotic ingredients and blow torches come into play. Yes, I mean blow torches. I don’t mean those prissy little pocket torches with big price tags.

I mean the big, ugly, attached-to-the-top-of-a-propane tank, contractor-style blow torches. Flame on, friends.

If the equipment itself isn’t the thrilling part of the dish, the origins or ingredients should be. This time of year I crave the fresh, vibrant flavors of the Middle East and Mediterranean region. Loads of lemon, fresh herbs, fragrant garlic, and earthy spices feel like warm weather and green things are indeed on the horizon. It’s exciting food for an exciting time of year.

Kofta were one of my students’ favorite dishes this year. I suppose they’re technically in the meatball category, but my students and I preferred to call them meat torpedoes on account of their oblong shape. This led to many ping … ping … ping … sonar imitations in class: mainly from me.

These kofta are some of the tastiest foods on Earth nomatter which shape you make them. There is some dispute about their origin, as with many Middle Eastern foods.

I couldn’t dream of unraveling the mystery or even taking a stance on who created kofta, but I can say that many Middle Eastern nations and some Northern African ones have versions of these tasty little morsels for a reason. These are a crowd pleaser with or without the accompanying tahini sauce.

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Kofta with Tahini Sauce

Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook”

For the Kofta:

1 lb. ground lamb

1 lb. ground beef

1 small onion, finely chopped and squeeze in a tea towel to remove the excess liquid

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or pressed

7 T. toasted pine nuts, roughly chopped

½ c. chopped parsley

1 jalapeno pepper, stem and seeds removed, finely minced

1 ¾ t. ground black pepper

1 ½ t. kosher salt

1 ½ t. ground cinnamon

¾ t. ground nutmeg

Ghee or grapeseed or canola oil for frying

For the Tahini Sauce:

2/3 c. tahini

3 T. fresh lemon juice

½ c. water

Ingredients for Garnish:

Chopped parsley

Chopped toasted pine nuts

Ground sumac

Place all the kofta ingredients except for the ghee or oil in a large bowl and mix together with your hands. Divide into 2-ounce portions and shape into torpedoes that are about 3-inches long. Use enough pressure to make them hold firmly together without mashing them. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 425°. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the tahini sauce ingredients and set aside. If it is quite clumpy, you can add another tablespoon or two of water. It should be the consistency of honey.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the ghee, grapeseed or canola oil in a heavy-bottomed, oven safe skillet. Sear the kofta on all sides in batches until a lovely brown, taking care not to crowd the pan. Return them all to the pan and put into the oven for 2-4 minutes when they’re all browned. Four mintes will be closer to well done. Drizzle the tahini sauce over the kofta and return to the oven just long enough to heat the sauce through.

Transfer the kofta and tahini sauce to a platter and garnish as desired.

Easy Baked Alaska

For the cake:

1 1/2 gallon each of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream, softened at room temperature for about 8-10 minutes

1 lb. cake loaf, homemade or purchased, sliced into 1/2-¾ inch slices

For Swiss meringue:

8 room temperature egg whites

2 c. sugar

1 good pinch cream of tartar

½ t. of vanilla extract

Line a large mixing bowl with plastic wrap so that it hugs the inside of the bowl and hangs over the edges by several inches. Scoop the strawberry ice cream into the lined bowl and press it into place with a stiff spatula or spoon. Level it as well as you can. Repeat this with the chocolate ice cream, then the vanilla ice cream. If it is softening too much, you can put the bowl in the freezer to firm back up before adding the next layer. Fit the pieces of pound cake over the ice cream, trimming them to fit into the shape of the bowl, covering the ice cream completely. Gently press into place, pull the excess plastic wrap up and over the pound cake to cover completely. Return the bowl to the freezer for at least 4 hours but up to 5 days.

To Prepare the Swiss Meringue:

Fill a medium saucepan up 2/3 full of water and bring it to a boil. Put the heatproof bowl of your stand mixer over the saucepan and whisk together the egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar until the sugar is dissolved. Put the bowl under your stand mixer fitted with a whisk and beat on high until firm and glossy. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let cool completely to room temperature.

To Prepare the Baked Alaska:

Unmold the ice cream bombe over a heat-proof platter or pan. Spread or pipe the meringue on the ice cream bombe and use an offset spatula to form peaks and make it rustic looking. Use a blow-torch to brown the tips of the meringue, slice, and serve.