9/25/2013

eggplant sort-of parm

Yum

Our farm share has been amazing this summer. A lot like winning the vegetable lottery, if you will. What will we get? How much? And after we receive 15 pounds of tomatoes in one week (true) or two massive bunches of dill (also true), what will we make? What will these treasures become?


That's the fun of it, really, concocting a recipe or taking a stab at an ingredient I would have otherwise passed up. This, my friends, is true whenever I have stumbled upon an eggplant. We usually just make awkward eye contact in the produce section. I usually compliment its good looks (internally, of course, because I'm not completely insane after all), wonder how something with such a gorgeous, deep purple complexion can always turn out to be such a massive fail when placed in my hands. Don't get me wrong, I like eggplant, quite a lot actually. When someone else is making it. When it's cooked down in a curry stew or prepared in some other way that seems to go terribly awry only when I'm in charge.

You, too? Don't feel bad. Eggplant is a tricky one, to say the least. It's very finicky in its preparation and requires a lot of fussing and fretting over the many steps it takes to make it, well, edible. There's no slice-and-go method with eggplant. You have to have a little time on your hands.

So now that half a dozen eggplants were thrown into my life, I thought: what's one way that eggplant can't disappoint? How have I had it prepared where I've always thought, sheesh, this is good. Eggplant parmesan is pretty damn classic. I'm pretty sure it's the sort of thing you could feed to a picky eater, one that claimed they didn't like vegetables even, and they'd still find a way to at least mildly enjoy it.


After scouring the internet for inspiration, I settled upon this one posted by Nancy Jo on Food52. This version won the site's Best Eggplant recipe contest, so I thought: definitely, this is the one. Now, I didn't follow this recipe too exactly (Nancy, don't tell your Nonna), but it definitely got me through the parts of eggplant prep that always tripped me up before. The only real adjustment I made here was to use a little less - okay, a lot less - cheese, going super light on the parm and nixing the mozzarella altogether. Hence the "sort-of parm" rather than traditional just-parm. AND, I used my own sauce recipe, which you can find here.

For this recipe, you'll need:

About 3 pounds of eggplant, which equals out to about 3-4 medium size ones
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
Salt
Generous amounts of olive oil
About 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2-3 cups of sprint or marathon sauce

A quick note about choosing your eggplant: you want to go for one that hasn't gotten too big, as the bigger they get, the more bitter the flavor. They'll also have bigger seeds, and more of them, which aren't super appealing to eat in large quanities.

SO. Peel your eggplants and slice on the thin side, about 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle each side generously with salt and place on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Once you've salted each piece on both sides, place something weighted, such as another sheet pan, on top of the tray of eggplant. You're going to want to let them sweat for at least thirty minutes, but longer will help drain out more of the liquid that can give eggplant its bitter, unpleasant flavor. I let mine go for about an hour. Nancy suggests that while the eggplants sweats, you can make your sauce. I already had mine made the day before, so I believe I did something along the lines of taking a nap. You get the idea.


Once your eggplant is fully drained, pat each slice dry, wiping off any excess salt. Trust me, too much will totally ruin the flavor. Heat your oven to 450 degrees and spread some olive oil on the bottom of one of your sheet pans. Lightly dredge each slice in flour and bake until lightly browned on each side, flipping after 15 minutes. Repeat until all the slices have gone into the oven.


Using a 9-inch square baking dish (or, let's face it, whatever size you've got on hand), put a thick layer of sauce all over the bottom of the dish. Layer with your sliced eggplant and top with more sauce. Repeat until you've used all your eggplant, finish the top with another generous layer of sauce. Sprinkle the top of your dish with the 1/2 cup of cheese. Place in the oven to bake for about 20 minutes. Since everything involved is technically already cooked, you're really just waiting for the cheese to get a little bubbly and crispy. Use your best judgement.

Seriously, this was a huge hit (or a hugeass hit), to the point where I was surprised at how good it really was. Eggplant, as it turns out, when done right, has a hint of subtle sweetness to it and is not at all tough or chewy. I think Nonna would have been proud.




9/20/2013

vegan berry brownies

Yum

I'll try any brownie recipe once. Seriously. Does it have agave? Peanut butter? Chili powder? Sea salt? Sure. I even made one once that swapped out the butter with avocado. And it was GREAT. My point here is that you'd be hard-pressed to find a way to ruin a brownie enough to disinterest me. You'd have to add something really strange like, I don't know, mustard. But I still might try it, just to say I did.


So when I came across this brownie mix-up in last month's Vegetarian Times, I knew I had to give it a go: blackberries and bittersweet chocolate. What could be better? Except maybe adding some raspberries, which I did. Besides that, you'll need:

3 cups total fresh or frozen berries (Though the blackberry/raspberry combo here was really great, don't feel restricted to just these two. Strawberries? Even blueberries?)
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken into small pieces
2 tablespoons coconut oil
3/4 cup of sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt


Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan (using coconut oil for this step too works well) and set aside.

Put your washed berries in a medium saucepan and cook for four to five minutes over medium heat. Your berries are delicate so they'll start to break down pretty immediately. You can speed this process along by mashing them down with a slotted spoon and stirring often. Cook for five more minutes until slightly saucy and thicker.

Stir in your broken chocolate pieces and coconut oil, which will melt together almost instantly and smell HEAVENLY. Beyond heavenly, really: it's the perfect combination. Remove the pan from heat and transfer your berry-coconut-chocolate mixture to a large bowl. Vigorously (yes) stir (or beat) in your sugar for one full minute until thoroughly combined. Add your vanilla.


Sift in your flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix completely and then spread this batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 18 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Note here that these guys will look a little different than your average brownies, so don't wait for any crackling on top. Instead, the brownies will look a little puffier, more like cake. But who doesn't like cake, or even just the looks of it?

Once out of the oven, cool completely and then refrigerate for one hour. Refrigerate?! you may ask in horror. Refrigerate these warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven brownies? Well ... in truth, I can't really defend this step as necessary or not since I only did make them once and I did refrigerate, as odd as it seemed to me, too. Still, we have to think that the folks at VT know their stuff, right? Which, after you make these you'll no doubt confirm that they do indeed know since these brownies are top-notch amazing. I mean it, jammy and soft, they've got that deep richness from the chocolate and a nice, sharp tang from the fresh berries. It's your favorite chocolate-raspberry combo times ten. Right out of the oven and the fridge.



9/12/2013

end of summer sprint-or-marathon sauce

Yum

Summer coming to a close is always my least favorite fact about life. Probably that and humidity, if you're looking for a contradictory point of view. (My argument here is that for New Jersey, the end of August does not mean the end of perpetually damp air, at least not according to my currently vertical Greek bangs.)

ANYWAY: not only does this yearly change proceed into a great shift in weather, the need to wear socks or even shoes for that matter, but a rather noticeable drop in available produce, including all of my very favorite varieties. The top of this list, of course, would be tomatoes. I'm not talking about the barely pink, mealy versions that you bought at your grocery store out of the refrigerated (gasp!) case. Oh, no. I'm talking mountains and piles of sunny golden heirlooms, green and purple and deep maroon lovelies, teeny-tiny lemonade hued pearl versions that are sweeter than any other summer fruit.

It kills me to know their days in my kitchen are numbered.


So what to do with so many tomatoes? Though they're perfectly edible as is, and I've been known to go teeth-deep as if they were an apple, I always hate to see food, especially such good food, spoil for lack of ways to use it. However, if we've been learning anything from the large bounty of goods our CSA has provided us this summer, it's the value of our freezer space (which houses not much more than ice cubes and a few burritos, for those particularly lazy occasion) and possibly purchasing some beautiful blue canning jars. Those are going to end my life, in the best possible way.

Of course, the very best thing to do with softening, sugary ripe tomatoes is to turn them into a beautiful marinara sauce. You can use a few ladlefuls tonight, over pasta or sautéd vegetables, and store the rest for the winter, for some snowy night in February when you'll think, gosh, it'd be nice to have some sauce with this.


What you'll need for this recipe is:

Oh, wait! Ha to the ha, because the joke is on all of us. What you need is relative, and very much in tune with what else is floating around your kitchen or fridge at the time. While I will fill you in on what I used in this particular batch, I will also let you know that it has very far strayed from this combination, sometimes to include zucchini, chopped peppers, kale, chard or even white beans. Why not?

So this time around, I included:

About 2 pounds of ripe tomatoes, all varieties, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large white onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, smashed by still relatively whole
2 tablespoons of olive oil
About 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar
A handful of fresh basil
Crushed red pepper to taste
Salt & pepper to taste

In a large pot on medium heat, add your olive oil, onion and garlic. Get the aromas floating around and stir frequently for about 3-4 minutes. The onions should start to soften and the garlic should break apart a bit. Add your carrots and continue to stir. Add some salt, pepper and crushed red pepper. I tend to add less in the beginning, knowing that more can always be added later. The thing about crushed red pepper, however, is that the sooner you add it into the recipe, the more the flavor will intensify over cooking time. So just a little bit will go a long way.


Add your tomatoes and, after about 1 minute, as you notice they are starting to break apart, add your balsamic vinegar. (Now is also a good time to add a touch more olive oil, should you feel that it's necessary.) Stir until mostly softened and your tomatoes have begun to liquefy. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for however long you want.

What?

Yes, it's true. The beauty of this sauce lies in its flexible ingredient list AND cook time. The great thing is this sauce can be considered "ready" whenever you are. Do you have lots of time on your hands, things to do around the house, mail to sort through, September issues to browse? Go ahead, lounge, read, nap (well), etc. This sauce has nothin' but time. It will continue to sweeten and deepen in flavor the longer you let it simmer, so try a few different timeframes and see how the flavor varies and decide what you like best.


As for me, I let this pot of goodness simmer for nearly four hours. FOUR HOURS. I must be crazy, but I figured I'd make this a long race instead of a short one. (Get it? Sprint? Marathon? You get it. You do.) A few minutes before you turn off the heat completely (and be sure to give it a solid stir every now and again to ensure nothing is too sticky), add your fresh basil. You don't want to add fresh herbs too early on in the cooking process, otherwise their delicate flavor can get too muddled.

Turn off the heat and allow to cool for about 20-30 minutes. Then, using a handheld blender, gently purée your sauce until it is mostly smooth. A few good chunks always add to the experience, I say. If you only have a regular countertop blender, you can still complete this step by adding your sauce in small batches, mixing and returning to the pot.

So there you have it. Sauce in a flash or sauce in an hour (or more), this version is slightly sweet with a hint of vinegar tang and perfect for saving, jarring and sharing with friends. Warning, though: Once you do this, there's no going back to the jarred stuff. Though, let's face it, were you ever really there in the first place?




9/11/2013

nomad pizza!

Yum

I've had a lot of pizza in my 26 (nearly 27...!) years. A lot. Of pizza. Most of it good (after all, how can one mess up dough, sauce and cheese?), some of it not as good because let's face it, every once in awhile someone gets a little too liberal with the salt-to-sauce ratio or the cheese isn't actually fresh mozzarella. You get it.




Still, for the number of times I've had pizza, stateside and abroad, nothing thus far has come close to the trifecta of perfection served up by Nomad Pizza. With two locations, one in Hopewell, NJ and one in Philadelphia (and a third on the way, as well as one badass traveling truck), the Napolini-style pies that Nomad produces can't be beat. Unless, maybe, you actually went to Naples. I'll add it to my food bucket list and let you know.


Using only fresh, local and as often as possible organic ingredients, Nomad has a tiny menu of both traditional and funky pies and salads that change with the seasons. This time around (and there will be many more, I'm sure) we went with Arugula Pizza, a Margherita de Bufula topped with baby arugula, organic olive oil, organic parmesan and black pepper. ZING. We also added a special pesto pie, topped with fresh local goat cheese and roasted red peppers.



One of the most unique characteristics of these pies is the dough: fermented for several days with an incredible chew to it, these personal (HA!) pizzas are unlike any other. Cooked in a traditional tiled oven, these pizzas bubble and char to perfection within 60-90 seconds. Oh, and did I mention we also got a class Marinara pie to go?

Obviously, right?


9/04/2013

birthday banh mi

Yum

Coming from someone who at one time could barely even think about tofu without wincing, we sure have come a long way now, baby. Another food feature of cute Colin's birthday this past August 3rd involved a lunch of banh mi, a traditional Vietnamese style sandwich. Though banh mi is technically the Vietnamese term for "bread" (already in, guys), this sandwich, despite being wrapped in a traditional crusty baguette, is so much more.


For the vegetarian tofu version of banh mi, though for you meat-eaters a pork variety is also popular, you'll need:

1 package of extra-firm organic tofu, pressed and patted dry
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
1 medium cucumber, seeded and thinly sliced
1 jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame or olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1/3 cup brown sugar
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
About 1/4 cup of organic mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Sriacha 
1/3 cup soy sauce 
1 crusty baguette or 2-3 crusty rolls, depending on amount served
1 small bunch fresh cilantro


If you remember to do it, it's best to prep your tofu and carrot-cucumber combo up to a day in advance. In a pinch, 1-2 hours ahead of time will do. Any less than that, and you're running the risk of a lack of flavor and saturation.

Begin by prepping your tofu: after being firmly pressed (again, as far in advance as possible in order to ensure getting rid of any excess moisture), cut into one-inch strips. Place in a bowl and evenly coat with 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup soy sauce. Toss to coat evenly and top with a sprinkle of both salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for up to one day but at least one hour before cooking so that your tofu can marinate.

Meanwhile, you can start prepping your vegetable slaw topping, which will give your sandwiches a nice fresh punch with a hint of sour from the vinegar. Toss your thinly sliced and shredded veggies in another bowl with the rice vinegar and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Add a large pinch of salt, cover and refrigerate for one hour or up to one day before serving.

When you are ready to cook your tofu and assemble your banh mi, heat a small pan over medium heat. Add your sesame (or olive) oil and place your prepared tofu in the pan. The sugar and soy sauce will give the tofu a nice crispy finish on all sides, so be sure to turn evenly and often to make sure the all sides touch the heat of the pan.



At the same time, combine your Sriacha and mayonnaise a small bowl: trust me, as primitive as this might seem, it's what makes the sandwich. The creamy and spicy balance each other so perfectly and give your bread a little moisture and a lot of kick.


Once your tofu is cooked on all sides, it's time to put this bad boy together. If you want your bread to have a little extra crunch, start by toasting your rolls until heated through. Spread some Sriacha mayo generously on one half (or hey, both if you're feeling daring) of your bread. Add four to five tofu strips per sandwich and top with a generous heap of your carrot-cucumber combo. Sprinkle with thinly sliced jalapeño and a few torn cilantro leaves.


Though I skipped cilantro on my own sandwich (after a rather unfortunate bout of stomach flu in Mexico, I can't even smell the stuff), this sandwich practically mirrored the authentic version I'd tried only several weeks prior. Such a unique, fiercely fresh (but filling!) lunch. Just enough goodness to hold us over until dinner at ... Nomad Pizza! Stay tuned.




9/02/2013

a birthday cake for colin

Yum

Birthdays are a big deal around here. I know, everyone has one and there are the so-called milestone years, your golden birthday (missed that one before I even knew I had it), but every year is worth a big celebration which, of course, entails a big cake. To me, it doesn't matter how you bake it, top it, frost it, if it's frozen ice cream or decadent, buttery, sugary, if it's in cup form or sheet. Just let there be cake. What a motto to live by.

For Colin's 29th birthday (!), rather than pick up a flawlessly executed concoction from one of our local bakeries (or as I'd done in the past, a you-can't-tell vegan version from Whole Foods), I decided I was going to be the executor this year. WHAT, you may say/ask/gasp, you never baked his BIRTHDAY CAKE before? Well? I get it. I'm definitely head over heels for the baking process and have posted, let's face it, way more baking recipes than dinner recipes (oops) so far this year. Hey, they still fall under vegetarian, so sue me. But a birthday is a different level of occasion altogether. I often enjoyed the expectation that you could call up, request a flavor, a size and even a pick-up time, and the cake would appear before you in less than a week's time, just as you imagined it. I've never made a cake for a birthday for the same reason I've never made one for a wedding, another cake-crucial occasion: if the cake is bad, people are out of there. (To all my friends who have graciously invited me to their wedding celebrations: love you.)

Twenty-nine is a big year. It's the closing of such a huge part of your life, so many big stepping stones to adulthood, so many defining scenarios that have shaped and molded so much of what will become the rest of your life. A lot of big changes, adjustments, pitfalls, disastrous haircuts. I think everyone has immortalized the big 3-0 as the year you have to buck up and face your future, but I would like to counter that 29 is bigger in grandeur, if not numerical value. Am I putting too much weight on the situation? Perhaps. Either way, I knew this occasion called for a cake like no other: a peanut butter and jelly (one of cute Colin's favorite combinations) with a layer of fudge frosting in between.

OH YES.



To begin, for the cake you will need:

1/2 cup of creamy peanut butter (Most people who incorporate nut butter into baking will often advise that, though less nutritious, often times the varieties laden with added oil and sugar make for a better baking experience. Since I have never given a damn what people advise, to my own success and detriment, I went ahead with a natural option that contained only peanuts and salt. It worked great. Pish-posh and carry on.)
1/4 cup butter, softened 
3/4 cup of sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups cake or fine flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk (The higher the fat content, the better the results will be!)

For the frosting:

1/3 cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky, depending on your preference here)
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3 cups confectioners sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract


And:

1/2 cup (ish) of seeded raspberry jam
1/2 cup dark cocoa powder
6-8 large chocolate peanut butter cups or other chocolate candies

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. You can prepare either a 9-inch square pan or 2 8-inch round pans by lightly greasing and setting aside. In a large bowl, cream together your peanut butter, butter and sugar. (Danger! Danger!) Add your eggs and milk, which you should do quickly so you don't eat the entire mixture in front of you. I'm more serious than not. Whisk well to combine.


In a separate bowl, combine your flour, baking soda and salt. Incorporate your dry ingredients slowly with your wet, mixing well with each addition. And simple as that, your cake batter is done. Yes, I'm serious, it's that easy. Pour into the pan of I choosing and bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.


While you're waiting, and since waiting is so hard to do in this type of situation, especially considering that when the cake emerges from the oven you STILL MAY NOT EAT IT YET, you might consider whipping up your frosting. I love frosting. I know a handful of unnamed folks who despise it, and though I call these people friends, I admit that will always drive a wedge between our possible closeness. Facts are facts. But while I love to eat frosting, I do admit that the preparation process tends to feel a bit tedious. There is always a moment while mixing when you can't fathom that all this powdered sugar is going to blend in and disappear, but carry on and you will find that, yes, eventually, it will.

In a medium bowl, cream together your butter and peanut butter. Add your sugar (I did one cup at a time), milk and vanilla and beat until everything comes together in a silky, slightly nutty, slightly salty glory. Scoop out about 1/2 cup of said mixture into a smaller bowl, and mix in your 1/2 cup dark cocoa powder: ta-da, chocolate-peanut butter frosting!


Once your cakes have cooled (the edges should have pulled away slightly from the pan, so it's a cinch to flip these guys out onto a wire rack), it's time for the fun part: icing your cake! It's truly one of my favorite things to do. If there was a life meant for a professional cake froster, you could count me in. As far as my skills go ... well, you can see they aren't quite professional level or even close. I'll work on it. Who's birthday is next?


The rules here are pretty flex. It is cake, after all. If you want to make more chocolate frosting, you can coat the outer layer in fudge and reserve the peanut butter frosting for the middle. I went the other way, putting chocolate-peanut butter icing on one half, raspberry jam on the other, sandwiched them together and proceeded to cover the top (and sides!) with the remaining peanut butter icing. I also sliced up some peanut butter cups to decorate the top, though any candy bar or peanut butter candy will do. No judgement.

I have to say, for my first big-birthday attempt, I was pretty pleased with how this turned out. The peanut butter lends a drier, coarser crumb to the cake, so my only big adjustment might be to bake for a little less time, maybe closer to 25-28 minutes. But other than that I'd have to humbly call this one a success, and I think cute 29-year old Colin would agree.





9/01/2013

power salad for votes, please!

Yum

Hey everyone! I entered this Freestyle Recipe contest with Vegetarian Times where they encouraged all at-home cooks to snap a shot of one of their favorite standby make-as-you-go moments.

You can find mine here for my Power Salad and vote up to five times per day, but don't wait: voting ends tomorrow, September 2nd!

Thanks in advance for your votes!