Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eggplant Again!

Yes, eggplant again. And why not? It's such a recipe workhorse. Its versatility makes it a natural for experimentation. I recently received a recipe for a meatless, fat free, dairy-less version of lasagna using eggplant in place of noodles; spinach and mushrooms in place of cheese or meat for the filling. It was interesting and I thought I printed it out. But alas, when I decided to give it a go today, I found not only had I not printed it, I'd not saved it and even emptied the delete file. So efficient!

A quick spin to the Cancer Project section of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) website proved fruitless, too, as the recipe section hadn't been updated. Lack of direction hasn't deterred me yet. Experimenting in the kitchen is great entertainment. I envisioned what I'd read: eggplant layered with mushrooms and spinach using a simple marinara sauce. PCRM's version had no cheese, no oil, no breadcrumbs and, if I remember correctly, an assortment of herbs and spices to kick it up.

My version would use olive oil, a little cheese, a lot of garlic and a generous helping of sautéed onions, along with my quick version of a simple marinara sauce, all laced together with baby Bela mushrooms, fresh baby spinach and a medium Italian eggplant. This recipe filled an 8 x 8 pan.

This dish requires a few separate prep steps besides washing, slicing and dicing. It takes about 60 minutes to prepare and 45 minutes to bake. But, this is a cook once; eat twice (or maybe more) dish. Worth the effort for the spectacular flavors and the healthy take on an old fat-filled favorite—lasagna.

Steps: make marinara sauce; grill or roast eggplant slices; sauté onions and mushrooms; wilt spinach; toast breadcrumbs; assemble; bake.

Ingredients: Balsamic vinaigrette (olive oil w/Balsamic vinegar & Italian herbs, salt & pepper)

Simple marinara sauce*

(or buy a jar of commercial stuff, if you must!)

1/2 pound sliced baby Bela mushrooms (or any 'shroom you prefer)

1/2 large sweet onion, diced

10 oz bag of fresh baby spinach, washed and sliced in ribbons (chiffonade)

1 large clove garlic, minced

Blend of Italian herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme) or just basil

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1 TBS reserved)
1/4 cup Italian Fontina or Mozzarella cheese, diced small
1/2 cup panko, pan-roasted in olive oil and butter.
Salt and Pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°

1. If making the marinara sauce, do that first. See directions below. If using commercial sauce, heat and keep warm on a low burner until ready to assemble dish.

2. Wash and slice the eggplant in 1/4 inch slices (there should be about 12 slices). Brush one side of each slice with the vinaigrette and place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn, brush the slices with vinaigrette and cook for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside. (An alternative to oven roasting is to grill the eggplant slices on an electric grill pan.)

3. While the eggplant is cooking and the marinara is simmering— on to the mushrooms. In a large 12" skillet, sauté the minced garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil until fragrant, then add the diced onion and sauté for a few more minutes, seasoning with a dash of sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, then add the sliced mushrooms. Mix carefully to incorporate the onions and garlic. Continue to cooking gently on a medium hot burner.

I like to wash the mushrooms at the last minute and give them a quick spin dry in the salad spinner. There are many opinions about water on mushrooms...but considering where they grow, a quick wash at the last minute does wonders for my peace of mind.

4. While the mushrooms are cooking, wash the spinach and slice it up in batches. Once the mushrooms are tender start adding the spinach to the pan in two batches, allowing the first batch to wilt before adding the balance. Carefully mix the wilted spinach with mushrooms and onions and a generous pinch of Italian herb seasoning, salt and pepper to taste. Once the spinach is wilted and combined, remove from the heat to retain the bright green color of the spinach.

5. Using a 10" non-stick sauté pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of butter (just enough to give a rich flavor but not enough to even count the fat calories!) over medium heat. Once the oil and butter have melted , stir to combine, then add the panko. Spread the crumbs out to cover the bottom of the pan and keep stirring them so all get dressed and continue stirring as they toast up, brown and nutty. What a heavenly aroma. Watch them carefully, they will brown quickly and you want just a light golden hue. Remove them from the hot pan into a little bowl until ready to use.

Now that all the components have been prepared, it's time for assembly.

6. Spread a generous layer of marinara sauce into the bottom of the pan. Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer on top of the sauce. Follow with all of the mushrooms and spinach forming a nice thick layer. Then cover the mushrooms with the rest of the eggplant slices. Top this layer with the grated parmesan, reserving one tablespoon. Then evenly dot the entire top with the little diced squares of Fontina or Mozarrella. Cover the top with a thin layer of marinara sauce.

7. Combine the reserved tablespoon of grated Parmesan with the toasted bread crumbs and spread evenly over the top. Use a tablespoon to carefully cover the top layer of sauce.

Cover the pan with foil and place in 350° oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil for final 15 minutes to brown the top. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Serve with marinara sauce on the side, underneath, or over the top. Enjoy.

* Marinara Quick Sauce

1 28-ounce can Muir Glen organic fire roasted diced tomatoes

2 cloves garlic minced

2 TBS olive oil

pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

1 tsp Italian herbs (or basil)

Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.

Sauté minced garlic in olive oil in 3 quart sauce pan over medium heat to sweat the garlic. Do not brown. Add crushed red pepper, if using, and herbs. Then carefully add tomatoes with a very little water. (Just enough to rinse out the can). Simmer gently for 20 - 30 minutes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Comfort Food

Salade Aux Épinards

It was a dark and stormy night. Clouds dipping low, loud rumbles of thunder. Then came the rain, pounding on the rooftops, cascading over the parked cars, quickly flooding the low lying land. But inside it was cozy. The cold salad, originally planned, ended up taking a back seat to a quick dish that combined wilted baby spinach leaves, shallots, and sliced boiled potato flecked with melting cubes of rich, nutty Havarti cheese.

I've been browsing the Elizabeth David Classics again. Love the simple instructions for taking a few ingredients; always whole foods, frequently fresh from the garden, and presenting them full of flavor, with the simplest preparations.
She may often mince ingredients but never her words. Simple, straightforward instructions, written with the assumption that the reader has some culinary capabilities. I love being given the benefit of the doubt.

The dish above is an adaptation of one of her salad instructions from A Book of Mediterranean Food. As written, the salad is intended to be served cold or at least at room temperature. I prepared it as a hot dish and found it every bit as good as a cold salad would be. Given the nasty weather outside the window, a warm bowl of comfort food hit the spot.

Elizabeth David's instructions read: "Plunge some cleaned spinach into boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain it, mix with some sliced cold potatoes and thin slices of Gruyère cheese. Dress with a spoonful of cream and the juice of a lemon."

That's it. No long list of ingredients. No fancy equipment. No particular talent needed. Just simple, easy to follow instructions for a tasty dish with three main ingredients.
I find it interesting that other than instructions for macerating vegetables, salt is never mentioned. I boiled the sliced potato in salted water. Rather than boil the spinach, I prefer to sauté it in a little olive oil with sliced shallots and garlic cloves. With no Swiss type cheese in the fridge, I debated between a mellow Italian Fontina or the nuttier Havarti. Either would have been fine, yet neither lent the same piquant layer that Ms. David achieved with the Gruyère. I compromised by adding a sprinkling of dried red chili flakes to the spinach preparation.
Substitutions are a matter of personal taste as well as working with what's on hand. Note: I skipped the spoonful of cream, as well. The generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice with some freshly ground tellicherry pepper brought out the slightly earthy flavor of the mild baby greens.

A lovely dish comprised of a boiled potato and a half a bag of baby spinach. Imagine something so simple, yet so good. Fast and easy, too.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Two Dollar Meals

The specials at the produce stand and my local supermarket this week included eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and sweet onions.

Here are two of the simple meals I made with part of my purchases.

I really enjoy simple vegetable meals. They come together quickly, offer a wide variety of tastes and textures and lend themselves to many different preparations.

These grilled eggplant/tomato stacks are a good example.

I used one small eggplant and two good sized Ruskin tomatoes, some torn green leaf lettuce and a thin slice of mozzarella cheese for each stack. I made up a little balsamic vinaigrette and brushed the eggplant slices liberally with it before grilling them in an electric grill pan.
Once the eggplant slices were nicely browned and had softened, I removed them from the pan and quickly grilled the thick tomato slices which were also brushed with the vinaigrette.

While the vegetables were grilling, I sliced mozzarella cheese and trimmed each slice roughly into a round. I used the corner scraps for the smaller pieces of eggplant. It's nice to try to have the tomato slices and the eggplant slices about the same circumference, but it isn't anything to stress out over. Close enough is good enough.

The tomatoes will grill quickly, watch them as they shouldn't get soft and mushy — a couple of minutes per side, to just heat through and let the vinaigrette infuse the tomato will do.
Once they are done, use a spatula to transfer a slice of tomato to the top of a slice of eggplant, cover with a slice of cheese. When the stacks are all prepared, carefully transfer them back to the grill pan over moderate heat and add the lid. Cook for a few minutes to let the cheese melt.

While the cheese is melting, tear some clean, fresh, crisp greens into bite sized pieces and toss with the vinaigrette. Place the finished stacks on the greens to serve. I topped off the stacks with a sprinkling of Italian herbs and a bit of crushed red pepper.

With an abundance of red, ripe, Ruskin beefsteak tomatoes on the counter, I decided to marinate some cauliflower, broccoli (I used about 1/3 of each head) a sweet onion and a tomato in the same balsamic vinaigrette.

After cutting the veggies I tossed them with salt and pepper and the left over dressing. It didn't seem quite enough, so I sprinkled on a bit more olive oil, then let it rest at room temperature for about an hour. The veggies shouldn't be swimming in the vinaigrette but there should be adequate liquid to lightly coat each piece.

I transferred the veggies to a broiler pan, and gave them a total of 12 minutes under the broiler. The rack was about 4 " from the heat. I turned the pan and the vegetables about halfway through. Pierce the thickest parts with the tip of a paring knife to test for doneness. I was looking for a nicely browned appearance with a tender/crisp finish.

I plated the vegetables with a few Calamata olives, some whole wheat pita bread and a light shaving of Parmesan cheese.

Another two dollar meal, with enough left over for a light lunch tossed with red leaf lettuce and a few snack sprouts. As good, if not better, cold as it was warm. It doesn't take a lot of money to eat well.