Adventures in Suburbia

Last week, Chris and I retreated to Bay Area Suburbia for a few days. A friend of mine recently moved from the city to the ‘burbs, and when she went out of town for a while, the four cats left behind were in need of a little (okay, a lot of) attention.

Needless to say, we were eager to cheat on our cats and hang out with hers, and the fact that our commute was cut in half for the final part of last week didn’t hurt either.

Of course, cat/housesitting meant that we had to actually get into the house, which proved to be another story; for whatever reason, my key decided to all of a sudden cease to work. Needless to say, had someone been watching us they would have been more than entertained. First, we’d both managed to go to Whole Foods without our wallets, at which point I’d left Chris there to head back and grab mine. At this point, my key wouldn’t work, and so I proceeded back to WF, sans wallet, to pick Chris up so he could make sure I wasn’t completely useless. Though I would have loved to have been wrong, we were most certainly locked out. Thirty minutes later, I’d already left a frantic voicemail, tried the door ten thousand times, and finally, we saw a screen that looked loose. Chris shimmied up the fence, I hoisted his ass into the air, and minutes later (it would have been seconds had a cat not been standing at the window threatening to jump out all the while), we were in.

Still starving, we made our third trip to WF to find our long lost basket of goodies. We grabbed a garage door opener that time. So, if you ever need to break in to your house, or someone else’s, let us know; we can do it in 30 minutes flat ;).

I’d also fooled myself into thinking that biking to work would be fun. You know, like old times when I did it back in Chicago. Mind you, Chicago is f-l-a-t. And while Redwood City isn’t San Francisco in the way of hilliness, it ain’t flat. Needless to say, I finally purchased a much-needed bike rack, some calories got burned, and by Friday I was thankful for the spare car in the garage. Luckily, driving stick is like riding a bike, at least in terms of remembering how to do it, certainly not in difficulty getting through rolling hills.

All things considered, it ended up feeling like a mini-vacation, simply because we were away from the city for a couple of days and instead in a quiet house with plenty of space, a better view, and twice the number of cats. Also, I had a whole new kitchen to cook in, and along with that, plenty of cookbooks to peruse. Of course, now I’ve added a few more things to my wishlist, but I’m ok with that.

One of said wishlist items is Ross Dobson’s Market Vegetarian. It’s no Yottam Ottolenghi cookbook, but it sure has loads of ideas and relatively straightforward recipes. I had my mind set on the cover recipe, and even though I don’t think I’ve eaten eggplant since the Iron Chef challenge (almost 1 year ago!), I was ready to give the ol’ aubergine another go.

So with that, the theme of last week was persistence: persistence gets you in the house (finally), it gets your groceries after three trips to Whole Foods, it gets you to and from work despite the 7 miles of ever-so-gradual hills each way, and it gets you to change your mind about eggplant.

Eggplant, Tomato, & Red Lentil Curry
Adapted from Market Vegetarian; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
3 T evoo
1 large eggplant, cut into 16 pieces
1 red onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T finely chopped fresh ginger
8 oz heirloom cherry tomatoes
1 t ground cumin
1 t curry powder
1/2 t chili powder
1 T tomato paste
2/3 c red lentils
1 handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
cooked basmati rice, to serve (optional)

instructions
heat 2 T oil in a skillet over high heat. when oil is hot, add the eggplant to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes. the eggplant will absorb the oil, but eventually start to seep out as the eggplant browns. once this happens, remove from skillet and set aside.

add 1 T oil, onions, garlic, and ginger to skillet and cook for 5 minutes. add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 1 minute, just until they soften. fish out tomatoes from the skillet and add to plate of eggplant.

add cumin and curry powder to pan and cook for a couple of minutes until fragrant. add chili powder and tomato paste, 2 cups of water, and lentils and simmer over med-lo heat for 15-20 minutes, until lentils are al dente. stir in eggplant and tomatoes and cook to warm through; add cilantro. spoon over basmati rice, if using.

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Battle Eggplant: Holy Heaviness

How persistent of a person would you say you are? Stubborn as an ox? A total pushover? Or maybe somewhere in the middle? Truth be told, I waver depending on the subject. Do I really wanna pick a fight about the best road to take to get home from the grocery store? No, because one way or another, we’ll get there anyway, and what’s five more minutes (and knowing in my head that I was right, whether or not I verbalize that thought)? Do I often times end up emptying out the dishwasher an extra time or two because it’s just easier than the annoyance of piling dishes up at the sink? Sure, but I’m willing to bet I miss a few chores myself, so that probably balances out at some point.

Other times I’m a little more obstinate. My cat will always be prettier than yours (even when she’s resting her head on our dishes), and Eastern NC barbecue sauce will always be better than the clunky stuff they make elsewhere (although I will admit that it doesn’t mean the others taste bad, per se). And when it comes to figuring out a recipe, let’s just say that if it doesn’t go the way I initially planned, I am definitely fit to be tied.

I think we all have our f-ups in the kitchen though, right? I don’t so much mind talking about them, but I certainly don’t feel the need to waste real estate here by posting the recipes, pictures, etc. I hope that’s ok with everyone, but if it’s not, I’m also pretty stubborn about how I feel on this matter, and so arguing about it won’t help you all that much…

Remember when we went to Seattle earlier this year? Remember me talking about all the good food we ate (of course, before Hub’s bout with food poisoning…)? I also briefly mentioned a dish I tried that we had at Poppy – eggplant fries – and sadly that dish was lackluster at best. It’s been lurking in the back of my mind ever since.

And although I like eggplant, it definitely isn’t a veggie I regularly find on my grocery list. Last time I made it was during crazy vegetarian month, but thanks to Hope and her choosing aubergine for the past weekend’s Iron Chef battle, it was time for redemption. Hope may not have been physically present at this Battle, given her recent move (sniff sniff), but she was certainly there in spirit since this was an ingredient truly reminiscent of vegetarian cuisine.

That said, I immediately knew that the eggplant fries would make a comeback, and that this time I’d cut them more thinly and fry them at a consistently high heat to make them somewhat crispy. Round two was much better, but if there is a round three I might even try baking them to reinforce a little crunchiness.

Usually, I spend a relatively significant amount of time searching for the perfect recipe. One may be an inspired dish, or something I’ve been wanting to try, but generally I resort to google, Epicurious, or some cookbooks for the second recipe. This time, I didn’t bother, because no matter how unoriginal it was, I couldn’t think of anything but a classic baba ganoush. As expected, two of us had that thought in mind, but I was ok with that. You may have noticed – food tends to be one thing I don’t waver on much – are you surprised? By the way, that naan from last week is the perfect match with the smoky baba ganoush. Do it.

Anyways, we had a good turnout this time, with three newcomers and 13 dishes laden with eggplant. And with the eggplant came those perfect pairings – carbs, cheese, and tomatoes – enough to weigh that belly down nearly to the point of a food coma, but not quite enough that I couldn’t stomach a few second tastes and a fair share of wine. I mean, really, a girl’s gotta make up for not having dessert this time, right?!

*

The Top Three:

  1. Becca’s Marinated Eggplant (middle)
  2. Katherine’s Eggplant Gouda Pie (top right)
  3. Jennifer’s Eggplant “Pizza” (top left)

Strangely enough, this is the first time my three favorite dishes have made it to the top three, and placed in the exact order I chose. Newbie Becca’s marinated eggplant was a spoon-sized Asia in a bowl – a perfect combo of chile sauce with lingering heat, fish sauce for the saltiness (at least I think that’s what it was), and the sweetness provided by my favorite item, brown sugar. Newbie Katherine’s pie couldn’t have made me happier – I mean, what’s better than a flaky pie crust with smoky Gouda? And Jennifer’s eggplant pizza? It’s a good thing she lives 6 blocks away instead of 3, or else I might have followed her home and snuck into her fridge that very night for more.

Sadly, this battle of eggplants may have been the last of summer up here in the good ol’ Midwest. While the days seem to be getting a little shorter, the nights a little cooler, and the produce more autumnal, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up on Summer. The down side? this is probably one of those battles where persistence is a lost cause, but I might stomp my feet just a little bit longer after all.

Baba Ganoush
Adapted from various sites; serves 12-15

printable version

ingredients
2 small eggplants (close to 2 lbs)
evoo
5 T sesame seeds, toasted
1 lemon, juiced
1 t cumin
2 cloves garlic, minced
smoked sea salt, to taste
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

instructions
heat grill to med-hi. slice eggplants in half and run over with oil. grill, flipping occasionally, for 15-20 minutes, until soft. remove from grill and let cool; peel skin off leaving a little of the char for flavor. chop coarsely and add to medium sized bowl.

grind toasted sesame seeds in spice grinder until a paste forms (or, grind by hand in mortar and pestle). add to bowl with eggplant; add remaining ingredients. add smoked sea salt to taste. top with chopped cilantro.

Eggplant Fries
inspired by Poppy, in Seattle

printable version

ingredients
canola oil, for frying
1 large eggplant
3/4 c ap flour, or ap gluten-free flour
1 T smoked paprika
1/2 T ground ginger
1 T oregano
salt & pepper
sea salt
mint, chopped, for garnish
honey, for drizzling

instructions
in a large pot (preferably a Dutch oven), fill canola oil to about 3 inches. bring heat up to 350 F. meanwhile, peel eggplant and slice into thin strips.

in a large bowl, toss together flour and spices, along with salt and pepper. using tongs, toss eggplant fries into flour mixture and then into the oil, once heated. fry by the handful for 3-5 minutes, until golden brown. remove and let drain on paper towel-lined plate. toss with sea salt immediate after removing from oil.

serve on platter, drizzle with honey and garnish with fresh mint.

*Dishes from picture of 9 above, L to R: eggplant pizza, chinese eggplant, eggplant gouda pie, east african eggplant stew, marinated eggplant, baba ganoush, eggplant caponata, eggplant-tomato marmalade, eggplant-crab-shrimp casserole

Wild Things

My loving, darling husband has a stupid-crazy-job these days. He works harder than anyone I know (certainly harder than me), and he’s in school two nights a week to get yet another degree so he can work even harder (but hopefully bring in more cash for that B&B he’s gonna buy for me in Napa one day…). I miss him a whole bunch, and those nights we get to watch TV together are extra special lately since there’s not an abundance of them.

This week, we ate veggie pizza together and watched a movie. It was nice.

We watched Where the Wild Things Are, a movie I’ve been wanting to sit through for a while now. It’s relatively short, in movie terms, and perfect for a weeknight. It made me a little weepy, but those movies are the best – the ones that touch you, make you think, and make you relish the good moments. It makes you remember how hard growing up can be, and how in our adult lives we take so many things for granted. I think that little guy took things for granted too, and eventually realized he had to “go home”. His friend, who I assume was an alternative version of him, experiences a similar realization, and the unity at the end of the film was really something. Like I said, weep-worthy.

It didn’t hurt that I got to hear the voice of Sopranos star (the best series ever) James Gandolfini throughout, and it made me chuckle to myself every time I pictured him in strip clubs, NJ gangster-style but then saw him on screen as a frumpy, troubled creature trying to find his way in the world while throwing sticks and pouting cliffside.

For dinner, I made pizza. Veggie pizza. Grilled veggie pizza. Grilled veggie pizza with ramp pesto. That’s more like it, right? You see, I’ve been waiting patiently for ramps since I first used them last year. Wild things in their own right, they are so pungent, so fragrant that, even a year later, I still remember the taste of ramps in the way that I remember the taste of my gramma’s lemon pound cake – it’s always there, though the frequency of consuming it isn’t, and that’s a sad fact.

I whipped up a batch of pesto with my first supply of ramps (ask Jennifer about my excitement when I saw them in the store; I think I embarrassed her), and used some of it to toss with some potatoes earlier in the week. I used a little more on this here pizza, and thank goodness, there’s still plenty left and with that, I made this egg omelet sandwich and still have more. You’d think it was regenerating or something, but it’s not; I’m just really making it last. Plus, ramps aren’t something you need to eat in large amounts, unless you’re hoping the resulting bad breath might keep your landlord or your in-laws, or perhaps even your spouse, away. I don’t have a landlord, I love my in-laws, and as for my spouse, I like to keep him as close by as possible.

Of course, that’s another story when he tries to steal my pizza. Which he did. Try, that is; I tend to have ninja-like reflexes when it comes to my food. Steal it from me, and you’re liable to wind up with a black eye, or maybe a missing finger if my fancy Japanese knife is nearby. Just don’t try it, for your sake and mine. I try to stay out of jail these days.

Although, with pizza that tastes as good as this one, a black eye or missing digit might be worth it. Just maybe.

Got any fancy pizza plans coming up? Share your favorites with us – don’t be shy :).

Grilled Veggie Pizza with Ramp Pesto
Loosely adapted from Cooking Light; serves 4

yes, there are multiple steps in this pizza-making process. but let me tell you a few things: it’s all easy, and three of the four “components” can be made in advance, and in large quantities. the pesto? you just read all the things I’ve done with it already. you can also freeze it in little ice cube trays for later. the pizza sauce? you can buy it, or make a batch that’ll last through 3-4 pizzas. the dough? double the recipe and freeze one for next time – I should have, because I have another pizza recipe up my sleeve for ‘vegetarian month’. once these are made, the pizza comes together in 30 minutes – perfect weeknight fare!

printable version

ingredients
pesto
2 small bunches of ramps, leaves separated from stems/bulbs
1 c grated Parmesan cheese (or other hard cheese)
1/3 c Marcona almonds (or other nut)
1/2 c walnut oil (or sunflower or olive oil)
salt and pepper

pizza dough
2 to 2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 c warm water, divided
1 packet of active, dry yeast
2 T evoo
1 t sugar
3/4 t salt
cornmeal, for dusting the bottom

pizza sauce
1 T evoo
3 T minced garlic
28-oz can of organic diced tomatoes
1 t fresh cracked pepper
1/2 t salt
1/2-1 t Italian seasoning or other dried spice (parsley, oregano, basil)

pizza toppings
1 baby zucchini, quartered
1 baby eggplant, quartered
1 red bell pepper, quartered
salt and pepper
1 c fontina cheese, shredded

instructions
make pesto.
heat olive oil in large saute pan over med-hi heat. chop ramp bulbs and stems and saute in pan for about 5 minutes to soften. add sauteed ramps, raw ramp leaves, cheese, almonds and a pinch of salt and pepper to food processor and blend. through the top with processor running, slowly drizzle in 1/2 c of oil. will make 1 1/4 cups of pesto. adjust seasoning and sit aside. [can refrigerate or freeze.]

make pizza dough.
Combine water & yeast; let sit for about 5 minutes. By hand or w/ stand mixer (dough hook attachment), combine flour, sugar, salt. Add yeast mixture and oil. Mix until sticky ball forms. Transfer to floured counter and knead until smooth (will probably add more flour as you go because the counter gets sticky and the dough is sticky; add by tablespoons). Total kneading time is 1-2 minutes (you can also do this in the mixer). Put in large bowl that is oiled or sprayed and turn down over to cover with oil/spray. Cover w/ plastic and let rise in warm place (I preheat oven to lowest possible temp, like 100, and then open door to let heat out before putting in; best is about 80 degrees) for an hour, or until about doubled in size. Take dough out, back on floured surface and deflate dough. Roll out to desired shape and dust one side with cornmeal. [alternatively, you can refrigerate dough overnight to let flavor develop. then take out 1 hour before using to let come to room temp, punch down dough, and roll out onto floured surface.]

pizza sauce.
heat olive oil in saucepan over medium heat. add garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes. add tomatoes and their juices, salt, pepper, and spice. bring to boil. reduce to low and simmer for 25 minutes. if you like your pizza sauce clumpy, leave it as is. if you like it smooth (I do, for pizza), blend it in a food processor or break out that handy dandy immersion blender. [refrigerate if making in advance, and if you make a lot, you can can it or freeze it.]

make pizza!
preheat grill (outdoor or indoor). grill eggplant, zucchini, and red pepper chunks until a good char forms. cut eggplant and zucchini into small pieces. place red pepper in ziploc bag for 10 minutes; peel and cut. mix all together in a bowl. plop pizza down onto grill (cornmeal side up) and grill for about 3 minutes; flip and grill 4 minutes. remove from grill.

spread pizza sauce over top of pizza. spread random dollops of ramp pesto around (use ~1/3 c). add mixed veggies, sprinkle with salt and pepper and add cheese. grill for another 4-5 minutes or until cheese melts (if grilling inside, it might help to place under broiler for a couple of minutes unless you like a dark pizza crust). slice into 8 pieces and enjoy!

This is How I Roll

When I told you I was going pescaterian for a month, you didn’t think I was going to talk about super-healthy dishes for the duration of May, did you?

If you did, and it’s ok if you did, I wanted to layeth the smacketh down relatively early, so as not to further confuse anyone. I do not roll that way. And as a matter of fact, not eating meat does not necessarily = eating healthier, per se. Because, quite frankly, you might find yourself loading up on cows and cows worth of cheese instead, and I do love cheese. It is for that reason that I will never, ever understand why a vegan becomes vegan. But I’m not here to understand everybody, that’s for sure.

I am here to report on my recent feelings about eggplant, however. I’ve never been a big fan of meat imitators. I suppose I should retract that statement, since I like tofu and tofu is, by all accounts, a meat imitator. But veggies such as mushrooms and eggplant that make their way between two pieces of bread and are called “burgers” usually come off resembling mush and downright soggy messes. I’ve also never really liked eggplant parmesan, as it is again, too mushy and not reminiscent of the real thing, chicken parmesan, which is far more chewy, and in a good way, than eggplant.

Of course, the fact that I’m spewing this and that about eggplant and all its ickiness may seem strange since you’ve by now noticed that this recipe is all things eggplant. I never said I wasn’t a hypocrit, people. But to rewind a little, I did say that I’ve never been a fan. Never, until now. Or honestly, until our Seattle trip where I ate the crunchiest eggplant fries (fries!) that were flecked with sea salt and honey (honey!); fries that melted in your mouth and made you forget where you were, what your name was, and certainly that you were in fact, eating eggplant.

Those fries, I will perfect one day, but last Friday was not the day. The ones I made were (surprise!) mushy, cut too thickly, and water-logged (still edible though, with the honey on top).

In this case, you get the best of both worlds. You get the eggplant and the parmesan, and with those you get plenty of other goodness – swiss chard, kale, ricotta, and even mint. And instead of thick, spongy eggplant that’s breaded and fried so the oil gets soaked in too, you get baked, thin rolls that when folded up nice and pretty, look and taste a lot like stuffed shells, or lasagna, or something else equally yummy.

And oh yeah, the sliced mozzarella on top really seals the deal. Like I said, where I cut back in beef, I more than make up for it with cheese. It’s a give and take sorta thing – and somehow, I’m still on top.

Eggplant Parmesan Rolls w/ Swiss Chard, Kale, & Mint
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010

this is an easily adaptable dish, honest. the original recipe called for chard and mint, and i added some leftover kale i had frozen away. you could also use spinach, which is probably more traditional, and instead of the mint you could use any other herbs. the tomato sauce here is canned, but you could easily make your own or add spices to the sauce if you so choose. do it up!

printable version

ingredients
2 medium eggplants, trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (or as close as you can get it)
kosher salt
evoo
1 bunch red Swiss chard, center ribs removed and stems removed
1 small bunch Tuscan kale (cavolo nero), about 2 c
2 large eggs
1 15-ounce container part skim ricotta cheese
1 c finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 T chopped fresh mint
freshly ground black pepper
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 8-oz ball fresh water-packed mozzarella, drained, thinly sliced

instructions
spread a layer of paper towels on cutting board or other flat surface. place eggplant slices down (1 layer), and sprinkle liberally with salt. let stand at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. rinse eggplant slices to remove excess salt; dry thoroughly with paper towels.

position oven rack 5 to 6 inches from heat source and preheat broiler. line a large-rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. arrange eggplant slices in single layer on prepared baking sheets (will take 2-3 rounds). brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil. broil 1 sheet at a time until eggplant slices are tender and beginning to brown, flipping slices once and watching closely, removing eggplant slices as needed if cooking too quickly, 3 to 4 minutes per side. remove baking sheet from oven, repeat as needed, and cool eggplant while preparing filling.

meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. add chard and kale to pot and boil just until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain; rinse with cold water. Squeeze chard and kale very dry, then chop coarsely. squeeze chard and kale dry again between paper towels. whisk eggs and pinch of coarse salt in medium bowl. Stir in chopped chard, ricotta cheese, 3/4 c Parmesan, mint, and black pepper to taste (I used close to 1 t).

spray a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. spread half of tomato sauce evenly over bottom of dish. divide chard-kale-ricotta filling among eggplant slices, placing about 1 heaping tablespoon filling at short end of each. Starting the short end with the filling, loosely roll up eggplant slices, enclosing filling. Arrange rolls, seam side down, atop sauce in baking dish. spoon remaining tomato sauce over. place mozzarella slices in single layer over rolls. sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. if making in advance, cover with foil and chill until ready to bake.

preheat oven to 350 F. bake eggplant Parmesan rolls, covered with foil, until heated through, about 30 minutes if freshly made or 40 minutes if refrigerated. uncover and bake until brown in spots and sauce is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. serve hot.