Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Accidental Eggplant Parmesan

I didn't wake up last Monday thinking I'd make eggplant Parmesan. It happened much more haphazardly than that--an accidental confluence of ingredients that led me to the conclusion that eggplant Parmesan needed to be on the day's agenda.

I'd bought two glossy purple eggplants at the farmer's market on Saturday and knew I wanted to use them before the week was out. (Mondays, when I don't go to my job, are my best non-weekend cooking opportunities.) I had a quart of roasted tomato sauce in the fridge that either needed to be used or put in the freezer. And I had a hunk of smoked mozzarella left over from a recent pizza. All of a sudden it was clear that eggplant Parmesan was the thing.

I'd thought of making my beloved Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin, which I've only made once this year. But as much as I love eating it, I don't always want to devote most of an afternoon to making it. Plus, I had all that sauce in the fridge, and it didn't seem to make sense to make a different sauce when the one I had would work just fine.

And so I opted for a quicker variation. One thing that made it quicker than a more traditional eggplant Parmesan is the eggplant preparation. I read several recipes that called for breading and frying the eggplants. That seemed like too much work and had too much potential for soggy, greasy eggplant slices. So, I used the technique from the gratin recipe--slicing the eggplants thickly (1/2 inch per slice, or so), brushing them with olive oil and then baking them in the oven for 25 minutes. This method saves time and oil both, and once baked, the eggplant slices are fully prepared to serve as layering material.

Once that was done, most of the work was done. I put down a layer of eggplant in the gratin dish. I spooned sauce over the eggplant. I grated the smoked mozzarella over the sauce. I sprinkled some Parmesan cheese on as well. And then I did it again. There were still a few eggplant slices left, but rather than add a third layer, I made a single dish that I put in the freezer for later. I also didn't worry about the oven temperature. I was also baking yet another batch of blueberry crumble bars, and I put the eggplant in the oven at the same time. The only precaution I took was to cover it for the first 30 minutes so the cheese wouldn't get too brown.

And that was it. The smoked mozzarella is key, I think--it adds another layer of flavor to the already layered flavor of the sauce. But that's not to say not to make it if you don't have smoked mozzarella. Or roasted tomato sauce, for that matter. I can say, though, that if you use both things, you won't be disappointed.

Three signs that this dish is a keeper:
  1. After eating it for lunch three days in a row, I was disappointed that there wasn't any left for lunch #4.
  2. Even before the first batch was finished, I was already thinking about the next one.
  3. When batch # 2 was in the oven, exactly one Monday later, I was on the phone with Alex and mentioned what I'd made. He was on his way home but promptly turned around in the bowling alley parking lot so he could be at my house in time for dinner.
To those I would add that I'm eying the one measly serving left from batch #2 and contemplating my cooking plans for the weekend. Let's just say I won't be surprised if there's more eggplant Parmesan in my immediate future.

Eggplant Parmesan: A Variation

2 medium-sized eggplants, about 2 lbs.
1 quart roasted tomato sauce, or other sauce
8 oz. (approx.) smoked mozzarella
grated Parmesan cheese, to taste

Preheat oven to 375

Slice eggplant into 1/2 inch thick slices. Brush with olive oil on both sides and place on cookie sheets. Bake for 25 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 350.

Layer eggplant slices in a gratin dish or other large pan. Spoon tomato sauce generously over eggplant. Grate smoked mozzarella to lightly cover the sauce. Sprinkle (or grate) Parmesan cheese. Repeat for second layer.

Cover dish with tin foil and bake for 45 minutes, removing the tin foil after 30 minutes.

(As noted above, I've baked it at several different temperatures with equal success. If you're baking something else and want to stick this dish in the oven at the same time, it's flexible enough to take a slightly different temperature. Just leave the tin foil on for the first half hour so the cheese doesn't get too brown.)

Excellent served with pasta and more roasted tomato sauce.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sauce for a sad tomato season

As anyone who lives on the east coast knows, this has been a sad season for tomatoes. We had a rainy June, and a not-sunny-enough July, and the Late Blight set in. I planted 20 tomato plants this year, all bought either from an organic stand at the farmers market or from a local greenhouse. I planted seventeen at the community garden and three at home. My three plants at home were fine--just as the potato bug has not yet realized that there are potatoes in my garden, the blight did not find its way to my garden either. (Because I have woods on two sides and my neighbors are a small distance away, there's no other garden in the immediate vicinity.) The community garden, alas, was another story.

First the Beefsteaks went, then the Brandywines and the Jet Stars, then the large plum tomatoes I planted especially for sauce. Interestingly, the only ones that seemed to survive were the small plum tomatoes, the name of which I'm not sure. I can't even remember where I got them. I just know that even earlier this week when I was at the garden, I could rummage amidst the weeds and dead tomato vines and pick several pounds of the little ones. I have no idea why this is--perhaps they have some kind of survival instinct the larger ones don't. (I think maybe because they ripen more quickly, it's easier to pick them before they start rotting. But who knows.)

The reason I planted so many tomatoes is that last year, I didn't have as many, and I didn't make my usual vat of sauce to put in the freezer, and I missed it. But this year, blight or not, I was determined to make sauce for the freezer, whether it was from my own garden tomatoes or not. (At the farmers market, there are fewer organic and heirloom tomatoes, and the ones that are there are more expensive, but there are plenty of non-organic and non-heirloom kinds. For the most part, I decided that local, rather than local and organic, was going to have to suffice for this year.)

Anyway, I decided to go as local as possible and drove down my street, where condo developments have replaced too much of the farmland. But there are still several working farms, and from the stand at one of them, I purchased a 25 lb. box of "canning" tomatoes for $12. The tomatoes were mostly clean and intact, but I didn't want to take any chances of inviting excessive numbers of fruit flies to my kitchen, so I took them home and started chopping them up immediately.

Enough about the tomatoes. Every year, I always make some plain sauce, the long-simmered kind with onion and garlic and basil and bay leaves. But I also always make a large quantity of roasted sauce as well. My favorite recipe is from Chez Panisse Vegetables, a lovely book I found so intimidating because of its beauty that I hardly used it for the first few years I owned it. And then I discovered this sauce. It has depth to it, because of the roasted tomatoes but also because of the other vegetables in it, not just onion and garlic but also leeks and carrots and a lot of basil. The roasting brings out the flavor in the tomatoes, so even less than ideal tomatoes will make good sauce. It also doesn't take quite as much time to cook as the long-simmering kind.

I hardly ever make just one batch of this, since it's so easy to make and freezes so well. For my most recent batch, I used 10 lbs of tomatoes (5 x the recipe) and ended up with about 3 1/2 quarts of sauce. (2 1/2 quarts of that are in the freezer, and the remaining quart was used for an amazingly delicious eggplant Parmesan that I'm going to write about next.)

I've made just a few changes to the recipe. In all these years, I've never figured out what Alice Waters intended you to do with the garlic--she says to split a whole garlic bulb in half but doesn't say what to do with it. I've chosen to mince it and add it to the other vegetables. Another alternative would be to roast it with the tomatoes. I tend to roast the tomatoes longer than the recipe suggests, though this is a judgment call and also depends on whether you're ready to proceed with the sauce or not. Tomatoes that are more roasted are not a problem. The recipe also says to put the sauce through a food mill at the end. I find that this makes for a very thin sauce, and I prefer mine thicker, so I just puree the whole thing with an immersion blender at the end. (It may be tomato sacrilege, but for the most part, I don't worry about peeling and seeding the tomatoes. I've never found tiny bits of tomato skin to be a detriment to the sauce being delicious.)

I was too busy getting the sauce ready for the freezer to take a photo of it (next batch, I will), but here are some tomatoes in their sticky roasted glory.

In New England, at least, there is a nip in the air. (The annual battle of the window closings has begun in my house--I am in favor and the cats against. My fat cat, Chaya, races around the house as I close windows, wedging his rotund body underneath as if to prevent any thought of window closure. He makes a compelling case, but I usually still win eventually.) Especially if some of your windows are open because you're placating your spoiled cats, it's not a bad time to have something roasting in the oven and a pot of lovely tomato sauce--even if the tomatoes are not from your own blighted garden--simmering on the stove.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables

2 lbs. ripe tomatoes (I've used both plum tomatoes and regular tomatoes for this.)
1/4 cup olive oil (I cut down on this somewhat.)
1 large yellow onion
1 medium leek
1 small carrot
several cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
1 small bunch basil (about 1/4 lb.)
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350F
Cut out a cone at the stem end of the tomatoes to remove the core, and cut the tomatoes into quarters. Toss with half the olive oil. Put the tomatoes in a baking dish and roast them, uncovered, for 30-60 minutes, stirring a couple of times to encourage even cooking. The tomatoes are cooked when the flesh is very soft and the skin separates easily from the flesh.

Peel and slice the onion. Trim, wash and dice the leek. Peel and dice the carrot. Mince the garlic.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a stainless steel or other nonreactive (not aluminum) pan. Add the vegetables and the garlic and cook over medium heat until completely soft--about 10 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes and the herbs. Simmer, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, until the flavors come together, for 30-45 minutes. Pass through food mill (if you want very thin sauce) or puree in blender ( my preference) and season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September Blueberry Bliss

So, this post could have easily been titled "August Blueberry Bliss" or "Summer Blueberry Bliss," but alas, I didn't get my act together til now. But, it is still blueberry season, if the tail end, so there is still time to indulge yourself with these lovely blueberry bars.

As I've mentioned previously, I love blueberries and have made it a summer priority to pick berries so that I always have a supply in the freezer for winter blueberry treats. Emily and I went blueberry picking last week, along with Tommy, now 7. While we were picking, we reminisced about some of our earlier blueberry journeys with Tommy, including the year he was two plus, when he really, really, really wanted to knock the bucket of blueberries over with his stick and was only persuaded not to by force of parental will and repeated exclamations of how unhappy everyone would be if he did. And then there was the year he was three, when his little brother Jamie was a tiny baby. Em was stressed out about leaving Jamie, and Tommy was in no mood for blueberries and had to be set up amidst the blueberry bushes with his blanket and book. And he still didn't like it.

This year, overall, was much calmer. Tommy brought a Tin-Tin book to read, in case he got bored, and though he was mildly irritated by the bugs, he rallied and instigated a blueberry picking contest in which the loser (who picked less) would bake blueberry muffins for the winner. I won, by a very small margin, but I have not demanded my prize (yet).

Most of those berries are in the freezer now, but I saved just enough to make just one more batch of these blueberry breakfast bars. This is a recipe I discovered the weekend that Alex, in a fit of blueberry enthusiasm, took advantage of the 15 pints for $30 deal at the farmers market. Once he had the blueberries home, he was a bit overwhelmed by his blueberry bounty and gave me 3 pints to bake with. My usual blueberry treats include my beloved peach-blueberry crumble and my new standby, blueberry buttermilk cake. But I wanted something that used a lot of blueberries all at once, and I liked the idea of bars. I contemplated Smitten Kitchen's Blueberry Crumb Bars, but I wanted something that was more crumble-like. And then I stumbled on these Blueberry Breakfast Bars from Farmgirl Fare.

Their set-up is simple--a crumble bottom, a berry middle and a streusel topping. They are easy to make, adaptable, not terribly bad for you and totally delicious. I made a few changes to Farmgirl Fare's otherwise excellent recipe. I cut the amount of butter down rather significantly (from 2 sticks and 2 tbsps. to just over a stick) and added some lemon zest in with the berries. I also experimented with swapping out some of the white flour with whole wheat pastry flour (this works fine) and cutting down a bit on the sugar in the berries. (This had mixed results. The less sweet bars were still delicious, but I think they were better with a bit more sugar. Still, I think you can fiddle with the amount. Given the brown sugar in the crumble layer and in the topping, they will be somewhat sweet no matter what.) In most of my batches, I added walnuts to the top layer, which I'd definitely recommend.

What I love about this recipe, besides its sheer deliciousness, is that the bars travel well and keep well and stay delicious, if slightly smushed, for days. They're great plain or with ice cream, for breakfast, tea or dessert. (And on one fine night, Alex and I skipped dinner entirely and just ate blueberry bars with homemade peach ice cream. Yum.) The recipe also makes a generous batch, although the first time I made them, they were such a revelation that three of us managed to polish off half a pan in one sitting . . . and after a good dinner. They're that good. After three batches of the plain blueberry bars in a rather short span of time, I branched out and made the peach-blueberry version. I included her recipe variation below, but if you want more detail, Farmgirl Susan talks about it here.

And not that my handsome Kalu and sunflowers have anything to do with blueberry bars, but I couldn't resist. I decided that he liked lolling around next to the sunflowers because they complimented his eyes.

Blueberry Breakfast Bars
Adapted from Farmgirl Fare

Bottom Layer
2 cups old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (Can substitute 1/4 cup whole wheat (pastry) flour for 1/4 cup white)
3/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

5-6 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Top Layer
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (can replace some white flour with ww pastry flour if desired)
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 stick (4 tbsp.) butter
approx. 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional) or more to taste (If you don't use the walnuts, you might want to up the amount of flour, up to 1 cup total.) 

Middle Layer
3-1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries (I usually upped this to 2 full pints.)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup granulated sugar (depending on sweetness of fruit and your own taste)
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (1/4 tsp. if freshly ground)
Zest of one lemon

For the Bottom Layer:
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a 9" x 13" pan. (I put a piece of parchment in the pan and lightly sprayed that with cooking spray.) In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Stir in the melted butter and vanilla until thoroughly combined. (With the smaller amount of butter, you'll need to spend a bit more time on the mixing part to get everything combined.) Press this mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan with your fingers. (You can also use the bottom of a stainless steel measuring cup to help make the crust flat and even--Farmgirl Susan recommended this, and I concur.)

For the Top Layer:
Place the flour, brown sugar, and butter in a small bowl and use a fork, pastry blender, or your fingers to combine until the mixture resembles large crumbs (some pea-sized clumps are okay). You can also use a food processor or mini-chopper, pulsing briefly to combine everything. Set aside.

For the Middle Layer:
Place the blueberries in the bowl you mixed the Bottom Layer in and toss them with the rest of the ingredients. Pour them evenly over the Bottom Layer in the pan. (If the sugar/flour doesn't stick, you can sprinkle them over the blueberries once they're in the pan, but I didn't have any problem with this.)

Sprinkle the Top Layer evenly over the blueberry mixture. Bake at 425 degrees F for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden, and the edges are starting to brown. Let cool in pan on a wire rack. Store in a cool place or refrigerate. Bars may also be frozen.

Just Peachy Blueberry Breakfast Bars:
Substitute 3 cups of small peach chunks (about 2 peaches, no need to peel them) and 2 cups of fresh or frozen blueberries for the 3-1/2 cups of blueberries. (It also works vice-versa, with 2 cups of peaches and 3 of blueberries.) Toss the sugar and flour directly with the fruit before spreading it over the bottom layer. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the oven to 350 degrees and bake until topping looks "dry" but edges aren't too brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Alex on the radio

A real post is long overdue (and has been in my head for days now), but the excitement of this Labor Day is that Alex was interviewed for the public radio program The Story about the year he walked across the US and took photos. It's a really nice, thoughtful interview (not that I'm biased, or anything). They've included a couple of Alex's photos from the trip as well as a link to his blog, where there are many more photos.

The link to the program is here: The Story, Labor Day Special. Alex is second on the program and starts at about 22 minutes in. I'd never actually heard of The Story before--it comes out of North Carolina Public Radio, and none of the NPR stations around here carry it--but now that I know about it, I'm going to keep my eye on the rest of their stories.

More soon. Really.