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To Eat? Or Not To Eat (Meat)? – Black Bean Soup with Canadian Bacon

Right now my loving husband is working on our next post. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will hint at the fact that the love of my life, and our household’s chief engineer, is going to be presenting to you an essay and some technical hints on the preparation of one of our most favorite libations. But for more on that, you will have to wait, at least a teensy while longer.

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And now that I have piqued your interest with a glimpse of things to come I would like to switch gears entirely to discuss the topic that has been “top of mind” for me over the last few months. I have spent a great deal of time lately ruminating on ideas related to the grand theme (and current social buzz word) of “Sustainability.” More specifically, I have been reading, researching and listening to various different sources in hopes of developing some deeper understanding of how my decisions, as a consumer, impact the environment, and, furthermore, how environmental impacts may threaten future generations ability to thrive.

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The modern American Diet, with its focus on meat protein and packaged convenience foods, has taken a toll both on the health of our people and on the environment. I recently completed an eye-opening course on the American Food System on Coursera. The course provided an impactful overview of both historical and modern systems of agriculture and food animal production, as well as the policies, such as the American “Farm Bill”, which drive the complex networks of subsidies as well as the protocol governing food assistance programs and the dissemination of information related to nutrition. But among the many segments was most illuminating to me were the lectures on industrial food animal production systems and their environmental and health costs.

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Not only do Industrial Food Animal Production systems have a stark impact on the ecology of the immediately surrounding area, but the industry’s hunger for resources, from water, to energy, to pharmaceuticals is stripping the nation of many resources and putting us at risk for environmental disaster. And that is to say nothing of the nasty byproducts of the production such as animal waste, methane gas, and potential for diseases that come hand in hand with large scale facilities. It is clear that something needs to change, in terms of our patterns of meat consumption (which, until recently, had been on the sharp rise over the course of the last century) as current trends are simply not sustainable.

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While the facts of food animal production are certainly harrowing and, indeed, a bit off-putting, for me, the solution to lessening the impact of my food choices on the environment is not to simply forgo meat altogether. It is clear to me that meat protein should play a far smaller role in our modern diet. In our home, we have committed to eating less than a single small (3-4oz) serving of meat per day and endeavor to vote with our food dollars to support farmers who use sustainable practices in raising food animals. The recipe for black bean soup featured below was developed around a traditional practice of using a small portion of meat as flavoring for an otherwise plant-based meal. While the amount of meat used may be small, it’s smoky and savory favors make a big impact on the hearty soup, which is a warming treat to share with loved ones on a rainy spring day.

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Before I delve into the recipe, lets take a moment to talk about soaking beans. If you look through our blog history you will note that I have shifted away from using canned beans. Canned beans are a great convenience food and can make a quick addition to a dish in a pinch but what you gain in convenience comes at a nutritional cost. Canned beans are traditionally packed with sodium, while rinsing the beans before using them does make an impact on the amount of sodium that makes its way into the final dish, even proper rinsing techniques are only able to mitigate about 40% of the added sodium. Dried beans are not an ingredient that can be used instantaneously in the way that they canned counterparts may be, but I, personally, find them no less convenient. Not only do I find the home cooked beans to be superior from a textural perspective, but I appreciate the opportunity to soak, rinse, resoak, and rerinse the beans before cooking. Putting the beans through multiple (2-3) changes of water over the course of an 8+ hour soaking process helps to rid the end product of some of the indigestible carbohydrates that give beans the monicker of the “magical fruit.”

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One final note here on using dried beans, the dried nature of the beans used in this dish allows for them to be cooked for a much longer period of time without compromising the texture of the bean. With the longer cooking window the beans absorb a greater deal of flavor from the bacon and aromatics in the soup creating a richer end product. If substituting canned beans the overall cooking time for the soup will need to be much shorter in order to avoid reducing the beans to mush.

Black Bean Soup with Bacon (Serves 8)

500g (2.5c) Dried Black Beans
3 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Divided)
About 15 Slices of Thinly Cut Canadian Bacon
1 Large Yellow Onion, Chopped
2 Cubanelle Peppers, Diced
3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1 TSP Chipotle Powder (or Hot Smoked Paprika)
1 TSP Ground Cumin
1oz Tequilla (Blanco, or Reposado are OK – I would Avoid Anejo)
1/2 a Bunch of Cilantro, Washed Well and Chopped
1 TBSP Lime Juice
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Start by soaking your beans. I start mine in the evening after dinner and drain them and change out the water just before going to bed. If you are concerned about wasting water – the liquid drained off of the beans can easily be saved to water houseplants.

Once the beans have soaked for at least 8 hours, drain them again and set them aside.

Heat 1 TBSP of the olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the canadian bacon and cook until any fat has rendered and the meat is slightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and set aside. Add and onions and sauté until soft, add the Cubanelles and continue to cook until they too soften.  Stir in the canadian bacon, garlic, chipotle, and cumin and sautee for another minute or so before tipping in about 8 cups of water. Add the beans to the pot and stir.

Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. While the soup does not require constant monitoring at this point be sure to periodically check on the pot to ensure that there is still enough liquid present to cover the beans. About every 20 minutes or so, skim off any foam that rises to the surface, and then give the mixture a few slow stirs to ensure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Be sure to do this in this order, skimming first and then stirring, as you do not want to stir the foam back into the soup.

The cooking time for dried beans can vary widely depending on the age of the beans and length of soaking time. After the first hour and a half of cooking time test one of the beans to see if it is tender. To do so, remove a bean or two and set it on a plate, as the beans may still be rock hard it might not be the best plan to toss it in your mouth and chomp down – instead test one between your thumb and forefinger to see if there is any give. If the bean is still completely hard keep the pot simmering away and test again after another 30 minutes have elapsed. If the bean has reasonable give you can move on to an actual taste test to better gauge the texture. When Dustin is put in charge of testing the doneness of things he invariably asks me how to know when it is done – here I will offer the same advice I give to him, when you like the way the beans taste, and the texture is to your liking, they are done. Once the beans are cooked to your preference, stir in the tequila, about half of the chopped cilantro, and the lime juice. Taste the soup and determine if more lime, cilantro, or salt is needed and adjust these seasonings until they, too, meet your flavor preferences.

This soup is great on its own but also pairs well with homemade cornbread – I love the cornbread recipe featured on the Anson Mills website. The recipe is as simple as it gets but is remarkably good. If you have not explored Anson Mills’ site before, it is a stunning resource for information on grains such as Oats, Corn, and Rice and their freshly milled ingredients are a world above anything available in even the best grocery stores.

Bring on Fall – Please (Or What To Do When Summer Just Won’t Quit)

If you had approached me back in April to ask me what I was most excited about for the upcoming CSA season I undoubtedly, without blinking or even thinking twice would have rambled on and on about just how oh so very excited I was about ripe, sweet, summer tomatoes. I mean, I was literally itching to get my hands on a big fat heirloom tomato and have myself a super sweet super flavorful and texturally delightful feast. But ladies and gentlemen, it is September now, during the course of the last three months I have sliced, diced, sauteed, stewed, minced and have even made jam of these gosh darn fruit and am finally fed – the heck – up. That’s right ladies and gents, I am fed up, done, and just totally over tomatoes.

Readers, the sad part of this story is that I just know that in about three months, when the tomato glut has finally subsided, and heirlooms are no where to be found, the cravings will begin again. I am just so sure that in the deepest darkest depths of winter, when the ground is covered in frost and I am sitting at home, bundled up like an Eskimo, with my little booties and bathrobe on, sipping piping hot tea, I will be dreaming about tomatoes. Now I know what you are thinking, isn’t this blog about SEASONAL cooking? Why, oh why are we talking about your wintertime tomato yearnings? Well readers, we are talking about winter today because, when the season end approaches, and I have finally had my fill of tomatoes, I do my darndest to preserve that ripe tomato spark to warm my heart with the sweet flavor of summer during the dark and cold of winter.


In my mind, the best way to carry the sweet summer tomato flavor through to the winter is to roast tomatoes and freeze them. Here at Penchant for Produce we employ a fairly simple method for roasting tomatoes that can be adapted to suit a variety of different dishes. You can truly roast any kind of tomatoes you like, but I find that this works best with the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes. Even tomatoes that taste slightly too acidic can be mellowed and sweetened with long slow oven roasting. To roast a batch wash your tomatoes and sit them aside to dry. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees and line a jelly roll pan (or really any pan with sides) with parchment, foil, or a silpat mat (this will make for easy clean up later.) Cut the tomatoes in half and place them in a single layer, cut side up, on the prepared pans. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle LIGHTLY with oil (at least for now, we don’t want to confit the poor tomatoes.) Place them in the oven and roast them for an hour to an hour and a half. Et, Voila! you have roasted tomatoes.

If this formula sounds a tad too boring, do not fret, there are literally hundreds of ways to mix your own flavor into this simple recipe. Frequently, we add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and some sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary to the tomatoes before the pans hit the oven. You could experiment with sprinkling on a pinch or so of Mexican spices like cumin and chile power, or mix some harissa with the olive oil for a North African flair. To freeze them, cool the tomatoes to room temperature, wrap the entire pan in plastic wrap, and place it on a flat plane in the freezer until the tomatoes are just frozen. Once frozen place them in a single layer in a freezer bag (clearly labeled, you know, with like, important stuff, e.g. the contents and date, and any spice embellishments that were added prior to roasting, written on it, preferably in permanent marker) and then seal the bag almost all the way, using a straw to suck the air out of the bag before quickly sealing it shut.

There are oh so many ways to put these little gems to use. They make a superb topping for pizza, and can quickly be sauteed (thawed) with olive oil and garlic to make a fresh tomato “sauce” for pasta. If you carefully thaw the tomatoes on paper towels (cut side up) you can plunk them down on a salad or mix them in with either hot or cold couscous to make a nice grain side dish. You can puree them for a sauce, or drizzle with olive oil and a little extra balsamic and serve them on pan fried bread for bruschetta. The possibilities are endless. However you choose to use them, these are a real delight and allow you to enjoy the taste of summer for months to come.

Which came first – the chicken or the eggplant? – Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant

I recently went through a stage of Sweet Corn obsession. You see I found this little, ok, not so little, really, actually, quite big, Amish Stand in Green Hills, next to the Green Hills Y, that had (probably still has but I am trying to avoid making eye contact with this food candy for at least the next few weeks – ok days) the most amazing corn ever (to my former English teachers, yes, that is a run on sentence, and yes there are probably more commas than needed and all in the wrong places, you tried, I know, but I probably wasn’t listening.) This corn made me giddy, it was probably all of the sugary carbohydrates talking, but I wanted to do a little dance when I ate it (which I am wont to do – both the eating and the jig dancing that is.)Image

I am not entirely sure what the Amish Farmers that raise this corn feed their soil, but I am pretty sure it should be examined and exploited to make more delicious corn for the rest of the world. Now most of you probably do not get this excited about corn, I mean, its just CORN, Right? the crop has been around for-ever, we use it to do all sorts of things, and I agree, it has, and we do. And I realize that I am raving on and on about a crop that has gotten a good smattering of bad press in the last few years. Some of that negative image is, indeed, warranted. But, I think there is good reason that man has persisted in cultivating corn for the last 4500 years or so.

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Corn is the most widely grown crop in the Americas. In the United States, 40% of the corn produced goes into our gas tanks, a frightening thought, and a topic for an entirely different debate, the other 60% is divvied up between feed for livestock, and food stuffs for the general population. Corn’s popularity in the states is nothing new, Native American populations fostered a unique growing methodology for corn growing it on the side of steep hills. The corn was planted in tandem with bean crops, the corn provided structure and support on the steep hills for the beans, which in turn provided the much needed nitrogen in the soil to fuel the corn’s growth. This method is still used today around the world where farmers typically employ a crop rotation methodology planting first a nitrogen-fixing crop like alfa alfa or soy beans, and the planting the corn in the enriched soil.

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With these advancements and subsequently, the relative ease of growing corn in the Americas, we have found ourselves in a situation in which corn can be found far and wide, in or cars, in soda cans, in pretzels, breads, in feed for cattle, and as pale and meager looking ears stacked on Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. Spread around like this, it is easy to see how corn has gotten itself a bad reputation (what a food industry floozie!) But this recipe, by the ever genius Yotam Otolenghi, takes advantage of (well raised, peak season) corn’s sweetness, its supple texture and starchy consistency, and exploits these traits to create a homey and comforting fresh corn polenta that will make even the best mashed potatoes or restaurant cooked polenta look pale and homely by comparisson.

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This dish to me is the epitome of August cooking, it employs foods that are the glut of the late summer harvest and turns them into a truly comforting and elegant meal of restaurant quality. I made some significant changes to Ottolenghi’s methodology in devising this dish, First, though I am typically not a huge fan of microwave cooking, I had heard that microwaving cubed eggplant sandwiched between layers of paper towels and plates would prevent it from absorbing nearly its body weight in oil during the initial sauteing process. I placed the cubes on a single layer on a large paper towel lined dinner plate and microwaved them for three minutes to steam them. Once all of the cubes had been cooked in batches I sauteed them in a non-stick skillet with minimal oil. An addition of tomato paste during the sautee helped create a brilliant crust on the eggplant as the paste created a caramel-y sear.

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Trying to be true to our “healthy cooking” identity, I significantly reduced the amount of butter and cheese in the polenta itself. To me, and to Dustin – who happily gobbled it up by the bowlful, the fat was not missed, in fact, I suspect that the nearly double dose of Feta would overpower some of the sweetness that I loved so much about the corn mash. I blended the corn in my food processor, which, with its long flat blade and smooth spinning motion, were perfect for the job. If you don’t have a processor, a food mill or stick blender will work well. Just let the mixture cool slightly before processing with these tools (especially the stick blender) to keep the mixture from hopping out of the pan (or mill) and singeing your skin. I would caution against a high power blender, like a vitamix, for this endeavor. The high velocity vortex that these contraptions create may make the corn simultaneously too aerated, and even gummy.

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Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant (Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)

1 Medium Eggplant Cut Into 1/2-Inch Dice
1-2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 TBSP Tomato Paste**
1/4 C. White Wine (Dry – I Used a Cheap Dry Chardonnay)
1 C. Chopped Fresh Tomatoes*** (You Can Use Canned If Fresh Aren’t Available)
1/2 C. Water
1/4 TSP Salt
1/4 TSP Sugar
1 TBSP Chopped Fresh Oregano

6 Ears Sweet Summer Corn
2 1/4 C. Water
2 TBSP Butter
3 Oz. Crumbled Feta (I Used a Strong Brined Feta)
1/4 C. Sour Cream
1/4 TSP Salt
Freshly Cracked Pepper to Taste

Notes: **Trader Joes sells tomato paste in lovely little tubes, like the ones that you buy anchovy paste in, that you can keep in the fridge to use as needed, no more opening cans each time you need paste for a recipe and wondering what to do with the leftovers.

*** The original recipe called for skinning the tomatoes, my tomatoes were nice thin skinned heirlooms (Brandywines, I believe) I didn’t bother with the peeling and the sauce was delicious. If you have something against tomato skins or are just particularly sensitive to their presence, cut an x in the bottom of the tomato and drop it into coiling water, as soon as the skins start to loosen at the bottom, drop it into a prepared ice bath. Proceed to peel and chop as normal (careful, peeled tomatoes are particularly wily and try to flop off of the cutting board and flee.)

To start off, place the eggplants on a paper towel lined (microwave safe) plate in a single layer. Place another sheet of towels on top of the eggplant cubes and a plate on top of that and microwave for 3 minutes. Repeat in batches until all of the eggplant has been steamed in this fashion.

Heat oil in a large nonstick saute pan (I used a 12 inch scanpan with nonstick coating) add eggplant and sear, stirring often for 4-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste starts to form a crust on the eggplant. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the wine and allow it to cook off before adding the remaining ingredients. Sautee for another 4-5 minutes and then remove from the heat and set aside until needed.

Place the corn in a large pot and fill with water until covered by about 1 inch. Add a pinch or two of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 4 minutes. Drain the corn in a colander set inside of a large bowl. Place the drained corn in a food processor along with about a cup of the reserved cooking liquid and puree. The mixture should still look a bit coarse and gritty but with no visible whole kernels remaining. Return it to the pot along with another cup or so of cooking liquid, it should look like a potato soup consistency, we want to reduce this now, over medium low heat, until it looks more like mashed potatoes.

Once you reach a consistency you like, remove it from the heat and add the feta, butter, and sour cream. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.

Serve topped with a mound of the eggplant in the center (see photos above) and enjoy!

Summertime and the Living is Easy – Greek Salad with Wheat Berries and Bulgarian Feta

The last few weeks in Nashville have been riddled with sweltering hot afternoons and equally steaming evenings. With little respite from the heat our garden began to look depressed and tired, its little green stems drooping towards the ground, leaves yellowing. Water as we would the veggies protested the heat, our cucumbers became warped and deformed from a lack of moisture, pinching in at their “waist”to resemble barbells. The tomatoes cracked under the pressure.

At a canning class organized by Delvin Farms (who run our CSA) the farmers asked the participants to pray for rain. And perhaps the power of those prayers – palms to palms, foreheads to ground, or swishing feet in dance – brought down upon us the rain that so swiftly ensued, but not more than two days after that class entered the deluge. Days and days of rain, almost unsettling amounts of rain poured down upon our city, a city already a bit wary of copious downpour following the recent flood that took out much of its low lying tenements, burying entire malls in water, closing roadways and barring much of Nashville’s commerce for days on end.

As humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt to changes, our bodies adjust to temperature fluctuations with relative ease, we weather the rain and snow, inhabit barren desserts, and marshy wetlands, indeed we are capable of so much variety. It always amazes me that with such an uncanny ability to thrive in almost any climate, almost any area, that many people are downright unreceptive to change in their own lives. Rather then spending the sullen sweltering days standing over the stove or grill moaning about the heat, I try to target my cooking to techniques that suit the hotter climate, saving steamier projects for those unseasonably cold days that take us by surprise during the summer months.

In our kitchen, one of those rainy day projects typically involves cooking a large batch of whole grains. Rather then spending time boiling and cooking grains like farro or wheat berries for a salad, I typically cook a large batch once or twice a month and freeze cooled portions in bags for later use. They defrost fairly quickly and, provided you cool them completely before freezing they should keep well for 3-4 months (not that they will last that long :) I would recommend running cold water over the grains or dunking them in an ice bath and then draining them well before freezing as this will keep them in the best condition possible throughout their time “on ice.” I do my very best to flush out as much air as possible before freezing the grains to keep them fresh.

With the grains cooked this salad is fairly easy to throw together on a sweltering summer day. It does require a fair bit of chopping, but I have a feeling that this is something that many produce lovers are well accustomed to – those veggies don’t chop themselves now do they. Personally, I would not used dried oregano in the stead of the fresh oregano listed here, if you cannot find it, I would reach for mint, or basil as a substitute before rummaging around for the dried oregano as it wont bring the zing that is needed to balance out the dressing. I love the sharp tang of Bulgarian feta in this dish, it is pungent and unctuous and adds a slightly gaminess to the otherwise straightforward dish. As the salad does follow fairly traditional “Greek salad” lines it would make a nice addition to a pot luck dinner or picnic, and may be a nice way to get new diners indoctrinated into the grain salad “movement” (I know its not really a movement but it should be!) So without further ado, I give you my new favorite grain salad – Greek style. Enjoy!

Greek Salad with Wheat Berries and Bulgarian Feta

This Recipe makes a large bowl – enough to feed a small picnic crowd or large family gathering, it can easily be halved for smaller get-togethers.

4 Cups Cooked Wheat Berries (Farro or other hearty whole grains may be substituted)
3 Cucumbers Cut into 1/2 inch Dice
2 Pints Cherry Tomatoes, Halved
1 1/2 Red Onions, Halved, Sliced Thinly, Slices Cut into Thirds or Quarters
2 TSP Sugar
Juice of 1 Lemon
1 TBSP White Balsamic or Good White Vinegar
4 Small Cloves of Garlic, Peeled and Sliced
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 TSP Salt
2 Green Bell Peppers, Diced
2 TBSP Fresh Oregano, Finely Chopped
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Parsley
About 20 Pitted Kalamata Olives, Rougly Chopped
1/2 Cup Crumbled Bulgarian Feta (or substitute another brined feta)
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Place the Cucumbers and Tomatoes in separate colanders and sprinkle liberally with kosher salt (don’t worry about the amount of salt, it will be rinsed off later) This salting helps draw some of the water out of the vegetables so they don’t make the dressing watery later on. Allow the cucumbers and tomatoes to sit and drain in the sink while chopping the other veggies.

Place the Onions in a large bowl with the sugar, lemon juice and vinegar and toss to combine. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes to take the bite off of the onions. Add the garlic and slowly whisk in the olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste.

Rinse the tomatoes and cucumbers well with water and drain. Add to the bowl with the dressing along with the bell peppers, parsley, oregano, wheat berries and olives. Toss well, seasoning as you see fit, remember that the feta will add a bit of additional salt. Crumble the feta over the top just before serving and toss lightly (if combined too early the feta will color and look murky.) Serve to friends and enjoy!

A Classic – Early Summer Ratatouille

In a flash, a bang, and a pop, the wedding has come and gone. Was it everything I could have hoped for? Yes, absolutely but at the same time it was also so much more. I want so much to thank all who attended, and all of those who, in presence or in absence, have  supported and encouraged our union.  Your smiles, your embraces, and tears of joy have affirmed what I have always known in my heart – that I have found my best friend, my soul mate, my partner in life.

I want to extend a special thank you to the Reverend Doss, who gave such eloquent voice to the feelings that Dustin and I share – to Kathy and Mike for lending their ceremony to us and allowing us to make it our own. Dustin and I hope to follow in your footsteps as we share times of joy and sorrow, holding on to the good memories, and learning from our missteps. A true thank you as well to all of the attendees (particularly to Ken and Alicia and the Padalino family) who were so amazingly understanding and patient with us through the date change – through your support and kindness, and patience with our vision, we were able to enjoy a truly beautiful evening as a unified family. To those who traveled in from far away we appreciate you making the trek to join us, you presence helped make the day a truly memorable occasion. To Kristen, our patient photographer – thank you for making me smile, for your grace and poise and keen eye for detail.

To my new sisters and brother, thank you for the hugs and kisses, and for the amazing warmth and acceptance you have shown me. To my own sister a thousand thank yous for your patience with me, I know I can be a real trial. You showed amazing grace and support in the nerve biting moments before the big event. Thank you for loaning me some of your keen fashion insight, we both know how clueless I can be. To Peggy, thank you ever so much for your support with the flowers, you helped make our big day a beautiful success. To Gram, thank you for your endless support, for your wisdom and your prayers, we know we have angels looking out for us.

To my own parents, its hard to even begin. Thank you for your years of teaching. For thousands of hugs and kisses, and for the occasional tough love it took to keep me, your “head in the clouds” daughter, on track. It is through your guidance that I have learned to be loving, and your perseverance through times of adversity has taught me to stand tall, and above all – to never let the [bad guys] get me down.  Thank you both for giving me such a special day, to Mom for her beautifully executed vision (it truly was a Mid Summer Night’s Dream) and to Dilip for his beautiful toasts and for that – often silent but always felt – support. Thank you both for the gift of allowing us to all share this day together as a family.

Just as love, family, and friendship are timeless and fill us with warmth, this dish that follows is a true classic. It takes advantage of the plenty of the summer harvest and transforms it into a light stew, full of sustenance and comfort. Leftovers can be easily transformed into a wealth of different dishes – from tarts, to pot pies, to soups, to bruschetta. To all of those who have supported us, this one is for you. We hope that it warms your hearts as you have ours.

Early Summer Ratatouille

2 Small Eggplant Cut in Half and Cut into 1/2 Inch Slices
4 TBSP Olive Oil, Divided
3 Red or Yellow Bell Peppers
3 Bay Leaves
3 Sprigs Thyme
1 Sprig Rosemary
2 Red Onions, Cut in Half and Sliced Thinly
6 Cloves of Garlic, Peeled and Sliced
3-4 Zucchini or Yellow Squash (a Mix is Great Too!) Cut into 1-Inch Cubes
5 Plum Tomatoes, Scored with an X on the Bottom
At least 3 Cups Boiling Water
1/2 Cup Roughly Chopped Parsley
Small Splash of Good Balsamic Vinegar (optional)
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Heat the broiler to high. Place the eggplant in a single layer on a cooling rack atop a baking sheet (see the first photo above for an illustration.) Brush with 1 TBSP of Olive Oil, sprinkle with a spattering of salt and pepper and place beneath the broiler and grill until just browned (depending on the evenness of your broilers heat distribution you may want to rotate the pan half way though.) Remove the tray, flip the eggplant, brush the other side with another TBSP of olive oil, sprinkle on a bit more salt an pepper and repeat the broiling until just toasted and remove.

Set the cooling rack aside to cool and place the bell peppers on the baking tray. Pop the peppers in the oven under the broiler and cook until charred on all sides. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover with saran wrap and allow to steam for 5 mins.

While the peppers steam place the remaining 2 TBSP of olive oil in a large sautee pan over the stove. Add the bay leaves, thyme, and rosemary, sautee one minute, stirring often. Once the herbs are very fragrant add the onions and sautee until very soft (about 5-7 mins) and almost translucent.

While the onions sautee place the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with 2-3 inches of boiling water. Allow to cool before removing them with a slotted spoon to a cutting board. Peel off the skins (these should slide off easily now.) Quarter the tomatoes and remove the worst of the seeds. Place seeded and skinned tomatoes on a cutting board and chop roughly. Transfer tomatoes along with their accumulated juices to a bowl and set aside.

When the onions have cooked for 5-7 mins add the sliced garlic to the onions in the pan and sautee another 2-3 mins, stirring often.

Remove the peppers from their bowl, leaving the accumulated juice inside. Peel and core the peppers. Slice thinly and return to the bowl with the juice.

Add the zucchini to the onion herb mixture and sautee stirring regularly for 4 mins. Add the peppers, tomatoes, and their juices and cook another 3 mins, stirring. If the dish appears too dry or starts to stick and brown on the bottom add a 1/4 cup of broth or water to loosen. Add the eggplant and cook until just heated through. Be careful not to overcook the zucchini.

Remove the pan from the heat. Scatter parsley over the dish and stir, taste and season as needed with salt and pepper adding a dash of balsamic if desired. Carefully fish out the bay leaves and what remains of the rosemary sprig and thyme (the parts that have cooked into the dish are fine to remain in place.) Serve warm, cool, or transform into a myriad of other dishes from tarts to bread soup.

Just P-p-p-p-pump it Up – Pepitas and Pumpkin Back Bean Soup

Let us begin Part II of the pumpkin chronicles. As Dustin and I discovered last week, one average sized pumpkin makes A LOT of pumpkin puree. Which is great if you are planning to feed an army of pumpkin pie eating adults during the holiday season, but if, on the other hand, you are two young professionals who like to eat food on occasion that does not involve pumpkin, using all of the puree requires a significant amount of creativity. First and foremost I highly, highly recommend freezing a portion of the puree. I typically pack portions into large zip lock bags for freezing, just make sure to extract as much air as possible before placing the pumpkin in the freezer. Once frozen the puree will keep for several months and can be easily defrosted by submerging the bag in a bowl of room temperature water for a few hours.

Now, in my mind, one of the greatest pleasures of slicing, dicing, roasting, and pulsing your own pumpkin to make puree, is that you also have a golden opportunity to take advantage of the little treasure that hides inside of the pumpkin, the seeds. Like pumpkin puree, pumpkin seeds, which are often referred to as “pepitas” (the Spanish name for the seeds) can be bought in many supermarkets, but home made pepitas are noticeably different than their store bought counterparts. Most store variety pepitas are sold with the outer shell removed, which makes for a softer bite but a less toasty flavor. I found a recipe for home made pepitas which calls for the seeds to be first boiled in salted water and then roasted, the result is a crunchy exterior, strongly toasted flavor, and delicate center. I personally, much prefer this to the store variety, and highly recommend trying your hand at it at home!

To make the pepitas, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Separate the seeds from the stringy core and rinse them well. In a small saucepan, add the seeds to water, you will need about 2 cups of water for every half cup of seeds. Stir in about a half tablespoon of salt for each cup of water and bring to a boil. Let the water simmer for  about 10 minutes before removing the pan from the heat. Pour the seeds into a colander over the sink to drain.  Toss the seeds in about a tablespoon of olive oil and spread them on a baking sheet. Bake the seeds for 15 mins or until they turn a nice golden color. These make a nice crunchy afternoon snack and are great on salads.

Part of my motivation for the great pumpkin puree project was to have an opportunity to try out a great fall soup recipe I had found for a black bean and pumpkin soup. As I read over the recipe and began to thinking about a strategy for incorporating some of my own favorite flavors into the original, I thought about how I could better leverage the pumpkin itself, and the byproducts of the roasting process, to make a better soup. What I discovered, was that a roasting pumpkin tends to release a lot of water, and I decided that, rather than discarding the pumpkin water I would try to save as much as possible and us it as a sort of broth for the pumpkin soup.

This soup really has that special “Je Ne Sais Quoi.” There is a nice subtle hint of smokiness and spice from the sausage, vegetarians can recreate this flavor profile with a little hickory salt and some pepper flakes. In terms of pepper flakes, my veggie friends, I would try either Aleppo or Chipotle, don’t go overboard, the soup is not intended to be “spicy” just spiced, a pinch or two will suffice. The texture is really divine, give the beans a good long whirl in the food processor, if the mixture is too thick to really “whirl, try thinning it out with a bit of water, or broth, or tomato puree from your canned tomatoes, whatever makes the process easier. To all of the vegans out there, the butter in the recipe isn’t really necessary and a nice olive oil can be easily substituted – combining this with the spice substitution I recommended above will transform this into a delicious and vegan friendly fall recipe.

Pumpkin Black Bean Soup – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 TBSP Olive Oil
1/2 Pound Cooked Chicken or Turkey Sausage (Preferable an Andoullie, Chorizo, or other Smoky and Spicy Variety)
Three 15 1/2 Ounce Cans Black Beans, Rinsed Well
1 Cup Canned Plum Tomatoes, Chopped
1 1/4 Cups Diced Onion
1/2 Cup Shallot, Thinly Sliced
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 TBSP Plus 2 TSP Ground Cumin
1 TSP Salt
1/2 TSP Freshly Cracked Pepper
2 TBSP Unsalted Butter
4 Cups Pumpkin Broth – See Note Above on Pumpkin Broth (or Vegetable or Chicken Broth)
1/2 Cup Vodka
1 1/2 Cups Pumpkin Puree

Start by placing the beans and tomatoes in a food processor. Lock on the lid and let it whirl. If the mixture is too thick add up to a 1/3 cup of water to make the pureeing process easier.

While the beans puree to a nice smooth consistency, begin cooking the turkey sausage (vegans and vegetarians, omit this step.) Heat a 8 qt stockpot of medium heat, add a TBSP of olive oil and sautee sausage until lightly browned on all sides. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add enough oil to the pot to equal about a TBSP and a half. Once the oil is hot add onion, shallot, garlic and cumin and sautee until translucent. Add salt, pepper, broth and vodka and bring to a boil. Boil for about 3 mins to cook off some of the alcohol, reduce heat to medium and add beans and pumpkin puree.

Stir well and add additional water if needed to reach the desired consistency. Simmer for about 15 mins. Finally, taste for seasoning adding additional salt and pepper as needed.

Serve topped with home made pepitas and enjoy!

A Side to Remember – Classic Tabbouleh

I love to peruse the New York Times dining section, in particular I am continually amazed by the column called “The Minimalist.” Mark Bittman, it’s author, is a culinary genius, his recipes are so diverse and yet are all reduced quite elegantly to a set of simply choreographed video recipes. The other night I followed Bittman’s advice and roasted a chicken, it was beautiful and golden and juicy. But I’m not really here to talk about the chicken, Mark Bittman’s post does that so well already. What I would like to share with you today is the side dish we enjoyed with that delectable bird.

Tabbouleh is one of the Middle East’s most popular dishes, and eating this it immediately becomes clear why. This flavorful dish is coated with a light lemon based dressing perfumed with the nutty notes of toasted cumin and a slightly spicy punch of cayenne. Actually, the name Tabbouleh comes from the Arabic word Tabil, which means to spice or season, its no wonder that the spices in this dish are featured front and center. Additionally the salad is chock full of one of my favorite grains of all time, bulgur. Bulgur is a whole grain made from white wheat that has been par boiled and dried. The par boiling makes this grain quick to prepare, to make the tabbouleh the bulgur only needs to be soaked in boiled water for about 20 mins and then drained.

I always recommend using farm fresh tomatoes when cooking if they are readily available, however, for this dish, finding the worlds best tomatoes is less crucial than it would be in, say, a tomato mozzarella salad. I used some nice, ripe looking Romas with great success. I am fairly certain that, if you wanted to, you could swap the tomatoes out entirely for some nice crisp cucumbers, though you would not get the striking color contrast of green on red that the tomatoes provide. For this dish you will likely need a little more salt than you initially expect, so season, taste, and season some more. I find that it is helpful to let the dish sit for a few minutes after it is all mixed together, before adding in the additional seasonings as the flavors will meld during those few minutes of rest and give you a more accurate picture of what the dish will taste like come dinner time. The flavors pair quite well with any grilled meat or veggie, lamb or eggplant kebabs would go stunningly with this, leftovers, if you have any, can be served up for lunch the next day in a wrap with hummus or turkey. However you choose to enjoy this dish, share with friends and family and dig in!

Classic Tabbouleh

1 Cup Fine Bulgur Soaked in Just Boiled Water for 20 mins (or until al dente)
6 TBSP Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 Cup Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
2 TSP Ground Toasted Cumin
1 TSP Aleppo Pepper Flakes
1 TBSP Kosher Salt
5 Roma Tomatoes, Chopped
5 Scallions, Whites Chopped into Thin Rounds
1 Bunch Flat Leaf Parsley, Thick Stems Trimmed off, Chopped
3 TBSP Mint Chopped (or 2 TSP dried)

Soak bulgur in just boiled water until al dente and drain well.

Mix olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, aleppo, and salt together in a small bowl and mix.

Mix together bulgur, tomatoes, parsley, scallions, and mint in a large bowl. Dress lightly with some of the dressing and toss. Taste. Let it sit for 5 mins and taste again, adding additional dressing if needed.

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