Sunday, March 27, 2011

eggplant "lasagna"

Hey everyone - thanks for checking in, and please forgive me for the lack of a post last week!

The husband and I were enjoying a ski holiday at Alta, and I had a week long break from the kitchen. Of course, cooking could never be too far from my mind, so I read what turned out to be a fantastic new memoir on the flight: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune in New York. In fact, my dueling-for-the-armrest, strange-man-nodding-off-in-my-personal-airspace, center-seat hell was barely noticeable; I was that absorbed in reading. When the wheels touched down in Salt Lake I was almost torn about closing the book and getting on with my vacation!

It's not just that the subject matter was interesting; some of the writing shattered me - in a good way (and that's not something I ever thought I'd say about food writing, but this book is so much more).

Anyway, I returned to Vermont jet-lagged and pleasantly muscle-weary, and all I could think about was eggplant; probably because much was made in the book about eggplant in Italy. I wanted something simple and fresh, but comforting and filling too. That's how I ended up with the following faux lasagna, in which eggplant slices replace pasta sheets. Although eggplant in casseroles is often breaded and fried, I opted to curb calories and make things easier by broiling slices instead.

Eggplant "Lasagna" with Light Tomato Basil Sauce

4 medium eggplants
2 teaspoons kosher salt for salting eggplant
olive oil for brushing eggplant slices

Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 pints home-canned tomatoes or 2 16-oz cans plum tomatoes
small bunch fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
salt & pepper to taste

Ricotta Filling
3/4 pound ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/2 cup freshly grated romano or parmesan cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and pepper to taste

First, prepare the eggplant for roasting:

Peel eggplant fully or partially, depending on preference (I like to leave at least some peel for texture, color and flavor). Cut into 1/4 inch slices and toss slices with salt. Allow to drain in large colander one hour if possible.

Prepare the sauce:

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until well-softened, but not browned. Add tomatoes and their juices, breaking them up as you add them. Shred basil leaves into 2 or 3 pieces each and add to taste. Add red pepper flakes. Simmer, uncovered, until thickened to a light sauce consistency. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. You want a well seasoned sauce to flavor the eggplant.

Prepare the ricotta filling:

Mix ricotta, egg, grated romano or parmesan cheese, and 1/2 cup grated mozzarella in bowl. Add salt and pepper.

When eggplant has drained an hour, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse eggplant slices lightly under running water, then squeeze a handful of slices at a time to wring out moisture. Lightly brush slices on one side with olive oil, place oiled side down in one layer on 2 sheet pans and brush tops with a little more oil.

Place one sheet pan at a time under broiler and broil first side until lightly browned, then flip slices and broil second side briefly (watch carefully so it doesn't burn) - about 10 minutes total for each pan.

Turn oven to 375 degrees.

Lightly oil a gratin dish or 9" square baking pan (I used an 11 x 8" oval gratin dish). Place 1/3 of eggplant on bottom. Place 1/2 of ricotta mixture over eggplant in large dollops. Top with 1/3 of tomato sauce, also placed in dollops. Repeat with another third of eggplant, pressing down to flatten ricotta layer; then add final ricotta layer and second third of sauce. Finally, place a third layer of eggplant, top with remaining sauce, and sprinkle with remaining grated mozzarella cheese.

Bake about 45 minutes, or until mozzarella is melted and juices are bubbling.

Remove from oven and set aside about 10 minutes to allow eggplant to absorb some of the juices.

Serve and enjoy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

irish oatmeal muffins with maple butter

I love a good bowl of oatmeal in the winter, but sometimes life necessitates grabbing breakfast on your way out the door. Muffins are serviceable for dashboard dining, but they usually don't have a lot to offer nutritionally.

These muffins are not the type that could be mistaken for cake if you ate them with your eyes closed. They are hearty, lightly sweetened whole meal muffins, perfect for sustaining you through outdoor winter pursuits; sort of like carrying a bowl of oatmeal in your pocket. If you're not on the run, however, they're wonderful toasted with a smear of maple butter and a big mug of tea.

I started with a recipe from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham, and embellished a bit from there. While her recipe calls for rolled oats soaked overnight in buttermilk, I figured if I was going to soak anything I might as well add steel-cut oats, as they lend a stronger oat flavor and a rugged chewy texture I like. I also added a hefty dose of cinnamon and a sprinkling of raisins. Finally, being a Vermonter, I had to figure maple syrup in there somewhere. The maple butter is an easily made special flourish that truly brings out the best in these muffins.

Irish Oatmeal Muffins with Maple Butter
(recipe adapted from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham)

2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup steel cut oats
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup raisins
2 large eggs
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons canola oil

Makes 11 - 12 large muffins

Combine buttermilk and oats in a large bowl. Add raisins. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or preferably overnight.

If making maple butter, place a stick of butter out at room temperature to soften overnight.

In the morning, grease a muffin pan and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Beat eggs in a small bowl; add brown sugar and whisk until smooth. Add egg/ sugar mixture to oat mixture and stir well. Add flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and oil and mix until all ingredients are well incorporated.

Fill muffin cups almost to the top for large muffins.

Bake 15 - 20 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean.

Serve warm with maple butter.


*If you don't already have an oven thermometer, I strongly encourage you to buy one. The first time I used mine I discovered the oven was fifty degrees too high! Now I take that it into account and set the temperature fifty degrees lower to compensate.

*Do not firmly pack brown sugar unless you desire a sweeter muffin.

Maple Butter

8 tablespoons butter, well-softened
1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons maple syrup, to taste

Whisk butter in a small bowl. Drizzle syrup in while whisking until it is completely incorporated. Pack into a small ramekin and serve with warm muffins.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

chicken curry with sweet potatoes & sugar snaps

Once, when I was young and misguided, I was caught with a friend in a blinding nor' easter in Boston's South End, back before its streets were lined with stylish restaurants. We were ravenous for dinner, and couldn't travel by car, so we wandered the seeming ghost town in white-out conditions hoping to find anything open. Finally, I spotted a smudge of neon glowing like a beacon in the distance, and we worked our way to it to discover a tiny, family run Thai restaurant, open and ready for business. I had never been to a Thai restaurant, and the menu's descriptions were cryptic. It seemed to us the whole menu was based on either red or green curry, but we didn't know what distinguished one from the other, so we asked our server. Due to a language barrier, she didn't appear to understand our question, so we pantomimed and, I'm embarrassed to say, probably resorted to speaking more loudly, as if that would help her learn a new language instantly. Finally, it seemed we had made a breakthrough. Our server's eyes lit up and she said, "Ah! Ah!," while nodding knowingly. "The difference," she said, "is in the flavor!"

Several years later, I left for cooking school in France. Throughout my experiences there, the Thai woman's comment, which I found funny at the time, continued to swim around in my head, assuming different meanings, and becoming more significant. I lived in Paris and did my food shopping at the local butcher, the cheese shop, the bakery, the fishmonger. I bought scallops in their shells, and separated muscle from viscera in my tiny kitchenette. I bought chickens and ducks with heads and feet still attached, and overcame my squeamishness to reduce them to parts. I bought whole fish and filleted them at home. I bought ripe, fragrant fruit and vegetables fresh from the farm. No kidding; I was living a dream.

Then it was over, and I began living and working in Boston. Although old Beantown was quickly evolving into a more food savvy place, at first I mourned the loss of Parisian neighborhood markets: there would be no more goose fat for my pommes de terre, or gelatin sheets from the pharmacy for my Coeur a la Creme. Eventually, as I gained experience cooking in what would now be described as an eclectic "New American" style restaurant, my focus parted ways with traditional French cuisine, and cob-smoked bacon nudged goose fat from my mind. Over the years, my favorite local market, Bread and Circus, became Whole Foods, and Trader Joe finally came to town. Things were really looking up. Then I moved to a tiny town in the Mad River Valley of Vermont.

Initially drawn in by its untrammeled beauty and lack of commercialism, as well as my favorite skiing in New England, I started out here part time until my future husband, a full-time resident, beckoned me to stay. It was all romance and wine by the fire then; how could I be expected to anticipate the culinary woes to come? But once again, the hardest thing about relocating was letting go of my foodways. Things I took for granted in the city assumed a vital importance when I couldn't get them here. No leeks? No mint? No lamb shoulder? No Greek yogurt?  It's not like I was searching for banana leaves (that was last month); these were common staples to me. But inevitably, just when I'd given up hoping for them - voila! -  there they'd be, weeks later, when they weren't on my list. By then, I was busy cultivating a new grudge about the lack of bok choy, or fresh coconuts, or whatever was on that day's list

I don't know when I finally realized if I was going to be a contented cook in my newly-adopted (and beautiful, by the way - did I mention that?) town, I was the one that was going to have to change. City markets had spoiled me; I was used to walking out the door and having everything I desired within easy reach. But gradually, I've acquired the old Yankee penchant for making do with what I have. If I go to the store with something special in mind and come home with something different, it doesn't ruin my day. I make substitutions a lot. I don't fret if I can't make a dish that is truly "authentic' as long as it's tasty. And, ironically, just as I'm getting comfortable with this new approach, better and better shopping options have cropped up in town. We now have a local co-op stocked with the very specialty items I used to lug back from Boston, as well as a new farm store with take-out foods and baked goods. Greek yogurt, of many varieties, is readily available. And of course, summertime, with its much anticipated farmer's markets, will soon be rolling in. So things are looking up, all over again.

Now what do I do if I'm craving, say, Vietnamese curry, and I can't get my hands on lemongrass? I reassure myself by thinking, yes, the difference is in the flavor, and that's okay. I'll call it something else, dress it up a bit, and we'll eat very well nestled here in the mountains.

The recipe below reflects my personal tweaking.

Chicken Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Sugar Snaps
(adapted from Quick and Easy Vietnamese by Nancie McDermott)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1 cup sliced onion
5 slices fresh ginger
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut into big bite-sized chunks
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 cups chicken broth or water
one 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 1/2 - 2 cups sugar snap peas
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

In a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the chicken, spread it out in one layer (cook in two batches if necessary) and cook briefly on one side until it just begins to brown. Toss chicken well and cook 2 minutes more, until chicken is very lightly golden brown. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

To oil remaining in pan, add onions, garlic, ginger and curry powder. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is softened. Add fish sauce, sugar, salt, chili flakes, broth, coconut milk and sweet potatoes.

Bring to a gentle simmer and return chicken to pan. Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, then add sugar snap peas and cook about 5 minutes more. When sweet potatoes are tender and sugar snaps are just cooked, remove pan from heat.

If the sauce is very thin, strain entire mixture into a bowl, reserving juices. Return juices to pan and boil over high heat, stirring regularly, until sauce is slightly thickened (don't overdo it; you don't want a really thick sauce) - about 2 minutes, depending on the consistency you started with. Return chicken mixture to pan and toss with sauce. Stir in lime juice.

Serve over jasmine or basmati rice.

Serves 4 to 6


If you have lemongrass, by all means use it. The original recipe calls for 2 stalks, trimmed and cut into 2-inch length pieces, added at the same time you add the ginger.

The original recipe did not call for sugar snaps, but I found fresh-looking ones and thought them a welcome addition for their color, crunch and flavor. I also changed the preparation slightly, used a bit more chicken and reduced the amount of broth added. (Even still, the sauce was a touch thin; hence the reduction at the end, which works well while still preserving lots of sauce for the rice.) Finally, I like to garnish each serving with chopped peanuts and cilantro if I have them handy, although it's wonderful without them too.