Halloween menus, if there are such things beyond raiding the kids' plastic jack-o'-lanterns, tend to get all punny and cutesy with the likes of boo-berry cupcakes, wormy pasta dishes and, always, some sort of hard-cooked egg that is supposed to be a bloodshot eye. Har-har, indeed.
This year, do Halloween in a more elegant way. Make a meal starring foods that are as black as they can possibly be to create a noir-hued menu designed to raise eyebrows — deliciously.
What's interesting about these inky dark ingredients is that any accent color in a dish — the orangy pink of a baby octopus in a tangle of squid ink pasta, say, or the green tip of an asparagus spear amid the grains of a bowl of forbidden rice — will stand out dramatically against the black.
There's much to discover in black foods, once you get past the innate fear of mortality that color has long symbolized — or maybe embrace that; it is Halloween, after all. Savor the black olive: decadently deep and winey. Be surprised at the sturdy nuttiness of black rice. Savor the slipperiness of squid ink linguine or the plushness of long-simmered black beans. Then there's the electric tartness of fresh blackberries and the visual shock of ice cream made from black sesame seeds. And don't forget black licorice or nori seaweed.
Here are some ideas (and recipes) to bring the darkness of the night indoors.
Squid ink pasta: Garnish with chopped tomatoes and sauteed squid or octopus (see recipe); sauce the pasta in a mustard cream, garnished with a spoonful or two of black caviar; pair black farfalle with poached lobster (a recipe idea from "The Scarpetta Cookbook" by Scott Conant).
Black rice: Make a pilaf, cooking the rice with dried cherries, currants and chopped mango; stir-fry with bits of fried egg, green onions and tiny shrimp; wrap black rice tortillas around chicken in a mole sauce; toss cooked black rice in a sesame oil vinaigrette, topped with slivers of toasted nori and black radish rounds.
Black olives: Stuff hard-cooked eggs with tapenade; make flatbread pizza topped with slivered Nicoise olives, sprigs of fresh rosemary and a grating or two of Parmesan cheese; or serve olives seasoned with orange, garlic and fennel (see recipe below).
Blackberries: Mortar the layers of a devil's food chocolate cake with a blackberry jam, either your own or store bought; top an espresso-stained custard or chocolate pudding tart with rows of fresh blackberries; create a blackberry-lavender compote (recipe idea from "The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home" by Nick Zukin and Michael C. Zusman).
Black lentils: Serve straight up to showcase these glistening beauties, or as a bed for a roast meat entree or vegetable saute. Or pair with black rice and sauteed mushrooms (recipe idea from Mollie Katzen's "The Heart of the Plate").
Black beans: Slow-simmer and serve over rice, the classic Moors and Christians of Cuba; puree and thin with a bit of chicken stock, an elegant soup topped with chopped hard-cooked egg white and some minced lemon rind; cook, coarsely mash and shape into cumin-scented burgers (Katzen's "The Heart of the Plate").
Black sesame seeds: Use as a flavor and color base for ice cream; make stuffed Chinese-style dessert buns; press sesame seeds atop sugar cookies and bake.
Sauteed octopus over squid ink pasta
Developed in the Tribune test kitchen. Don't care for or can't find the octopus? You can sub 1 pound squid (cleaned, bodies cut into 1/4-inch wide rings, tentacles left whole) or 1 pound shelled and deveined shrimp. If using shrimp, cook them for just 3 minutes. Look for squid ink pasta at gourmet stores or some Italian markets; it can also be found online.
Heat a large stockpot of well-salted water to a boil; add 1 pound squid ink linguine. Cook until al dente; drain. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; add 1 small onion, finely chopped. Cook until beginning to soften. Add 1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced; cook, 1 minute. Pour in 1 cup dry white wine; cook, stirring up any bits stuck to the bottom, until reduced by half. Add 1 pound baby octopus, cleaned, bodies left whole, and 1 can (28 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes, drained, coarsely chopped; heat to a simmer. Turn the heat to low; simmer until the octopus is tender, about 20-25 minutes. Season with red pepper flakes and salt to taste, if needed. Toss with the drained pasta and serve.
Makes: 4 servings
A recipe from the new "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" (Knopf, $35) by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich.
In a large bowl, toss together 1 pound brine-cured unpitted olives, the julienned zest and juice of 1 large orange, 3 crushed garlic cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Pack the olives into a glass jar; marinate in the refrigerator, 3-4 days. Remove the garlic; serve. Olives will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Black sesame seed ice cream
Author Ying Chang Compestine includes this recipe in her coming book, "Cooking With an Asian Accent" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99), which is slated for publication in January.
Toast 1 cup black sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, 3-5 minutes. (You may need to toast them in batches.) Put seeds in a blender with 2 cups soy creamer or heavy cream, 1 cup vanilla soy milk, 1 cup creamed hazelnut honey or regular honey. Blend on high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker. Freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Serve garnished with fresh mint leaves.
Makes: 6 servings
Fried black rice
In "Sylvia's Table" (Knopf, $35), author Liz Neumark calls for a 50-50 mix of two types of rice: black and either Carolina Gold or brown rice. Our Halloween adaptation uses all black rice. The dish originated with chef Bill Telepan of Telepan restaurant in Manhattan.
Steam 1 bunch asparagus over simmering water in a covered saucepan until just tender, 5-7 minutes. Remove asparagus from the steamer so that it doesn't overcook; set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a small skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add 2 beaten eggs; scramble until cooked through, 4-5 minutes. Chop the eggs up with a spatula; set the pan aside. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add 1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced; cook, 1 minute. Add 2 cups cold, cooked black rice and 1/2 cup cooked peas; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup vegetable stock (homemade or good-quality store-bought); cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste; stir in the cooked eggs.
Divide the rice among four warm bowls or plates; top with the asparagus.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Canned lower-sodium black beans speed up this recipe from Cooking Light's "Lighten Up, America!" (Oxmoor, $29.95) by Allison Fishman Task. For better flavor and texture, you can use dried beans that you've soaked and cooked in place of the canned product. Serve the beans as is, topped with a dollop of sour cream and minced cilantro, or roll up in warm black tortillas with some grated Monterey Jack cheese and tomatillo salsa.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 1 cup chopped onion and 3/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar, 1 clove minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper; cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup water and 2 cans (15 ounces each) 50 percent-less-sodium black beans, undrained (or use 2 cups cooked beans; if using beans you have cooked yourself, you may need to add more water or use some of the bean cooking water). Heat to a boil. Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring frequently, until slightly thick, 30 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar.
Makes: 6 servings