Nosh: Braised Eggplant with Mushrooms

Ahh, the cooler weather is settling in (unless you live south of the Equator; in that case, happy Spring!) and–I know, people don’t get this, there’s such a cult of summer, but whatever–I am glad to see the heat gone.  I admit that flip flops are my favorite form of footwear, but I’ll happily trade them for tights and cute shoes and the likelihood that I won’t break out in a sweat when I get up from the couch to get a glass of water.

Anyway.

Cooler weather means a return to using the oven on a regular basis, and the oven is one of my favorite ways to cook.  You get your food going, and then?  You walk away and let heat do the work for you.  Amen.

I already had an eggplant in my fridge, thanks to my mom unloading the contents of her home on us at the end of a visit (“Here, take these eggplant.  And some lettuce.  These onions. This stepstool.  Some recycled newspapers.  And the neighbor’s new dog, I really don’t like the yappy little thing.”…and I digress…Love you, Mom!).  We had two eggplants at one point, but the first had already been used for parmesan and two large eggplantses parmed up for two people?  More than we needed, really.  So.

I am here to sing the praise of the braise.

Braising, basically, means “browning your food and then letting it cook for a while, and it’s best if it’s a steady, constant heat”.  I grew up eating pot roast; it’s the same principle here, only applied to eggplant and mushrooms.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 medium-to-large eggplant
  • 1 medium-to-large onion
  • 6-7 white button mushrooms (or cremini, if you prefer), coarsely chopped in big chunks
  • Approximately one ton of garlic, minced, or a tonne to my UK/Canadian/Aussie friends (honestly, I think I ended up using like 8 cloves)
  • 4-5 stalks of Swiss chard, stems chopped, leaves sliced (totally, entirely optional; I had these on hand and wanted to use them and only mention chard because it’s in the pictures)
  • 1 large heirloom or 2 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2 large handsful (3 tablespoons, if you’re a measurer) pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins/golden raisins/currants/any combination thereof
  • 1 teaspoon sumac (we’ll talk about this in a minute)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
  • 2-3 Bay leaves
  • Salt & Pepper to taste (go heavy on the pepper)
  • Chopped parsley to garnish
Chop everything first so it's all ready to go.

Chop everything first so it’s all ready to go.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

FIRST, I must disclose: my boyfriend is a fastidious eggplant salter.  I don’t care about it at all and think it wastes time and paper towels.  If you must salt your eggplant and press it, by all means do it first, do it now, so you have time to let it sit for 20-30 minutes before you rinse it, dry it and saute it.  Otherwise, just chop it into a nice dice and set it off to the side.

You need a large pot or Dutch oven, something that can go from stovetop to oven.  On the stovetop, start heating up said large pot since you’re going to brown everything first over a medium heat.  Once it’s hot add some olive oil and then toss in your coarsely chopped mushrooms.  Grind some pepper onto them but don’t add salt, since that will leach the water out of them before you want that to happen.  Leave them alone in the bottom of the pan for a few minutes–don’t stir them, don’t touch them…don’t even look at them–and they’ll get all nice and caramelly brown.  Only after that can you give them a stir and then remove them from the pot into a bowl you have waiting to serve as a landing pad.

In the same pot, add more oil if necessary and your onions.  Give them a few minutes to cook and then add the garlic, chard stems (those red things, upper right, in the picture above) and pine nuts.

"Two large handsful" is accurate enough, people.

“Two large handsful” is accurate enough, people.

Let these cook together for five or seven minutes or so, until the onions get soft and translucent and your ridiculous amount of garlic gets beautifully fragrant.  And then?  Into the same bowl with the mushrooms, so they can hang out together and start to let their flavors mingle while you get busy with the eggplant.

There's a party in my kitchen!

There’s a party in my kitchen!  Woot!

Now.  Eggplant.  Your lovely diced eggplant needs to be rinsed and dried if you salted it, or…picked up and tossed into some hot oil if you didn’t.  However you prepped your eggplant, add more oil to your pot if you need it, get it nice and hot and toss the eggplant in.  Let the eggplant start to saute for a few minutes before moving on to the next step, but once it starts to sort-of stick it’s time to move on.

And moving on means adding spices.  Assemble your (clockwise from the top) sugar, cumin, sumac, cayenne and cinnamon.

Mmmm, here's where things start to get awesome.

Mmmm, here’s where things start to get awesome.

A word about sumac, which isn’t common in American pantries: it’s delicious, you should get some.  It adds a particular tart tanginess to your food and there isn’t really a good substitute for it.  But.  If you can’t find it/don’t want to buy it, then add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your dish instead.  It won’t match the flavor but will bring in the tartness.  Only don’t add lemon juice until just before you’re ready to eat, as prolonged exposure to heat can turn lemon juice bitter.

Toss your spices in.  Add in some salt and pepper.  Right on top of the eggplant.  And let them simmer together until the spices get kind of dry and everything starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or so.  Deglaze with the peeled and chopped tomatoes (the acid in the tomatoes will start to pull up the brown bits on the pan right away) and the quarter-cup of vinegar. Give that a minute or so to cook together, and add the raisins or currants and the chopped Swiss chard leaves.  Stir it all together then add the mushrooms and onions back into the mix with the vegetable stock and bay leaves.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it's dinner.

You say stew, I say braise. Whatever, so long as it’s dinner.

Put this in your nicely preheated oven and leave it alone for the next 30-45 minutes.  Enjoy the smells, because they will be extraordinary.  At the end of its time in the oven everything should be soft and delicious and thoroughly cooked in a rich, fragrant, spicy sauce (you won’t have much sauce, but you will have some).  Taste, as always, to adjust your seasonings.  Garnish with chopped parsley and enjoy the heck out of your dinner!  It makes for some amazing leftovers, too.

I can almost smell it anew.

I can almost smell it anew.

We served it with roasted potatoes with rosemary and roasted kale (which I have to walk away from if it’s on the table as I will eat every last morsel of it in one sitting), since we had the oven on so why not?  Ohhh, so good.  This will go into my make again and again file.

I hope you enjoy!  I know I did.

Nosh: Cauliflower with Whipped Goat Cheese.

You read that right.

Whipped goat cheese.

WHIPPED GOAT CHEESE.

whipped goat cheese

Yes.

How, you wonder, does one go about preparing such a culinary delight?  Such a feast for the senses?  Such a groovy thing to do with cauliflower?

Easy!  It takes a little time, but that doesn’t change the “easy” factor.  Here’s what you need for the cauliflower.  I’ll talk about what to do with the goat cheese later, mostly because I’m evil and want to heighten your anticipation.  Can’t bring it home too early, see.  Anyway.  Cauliflower.

  • 2 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Juice from 1 lemon and juiced lemon remains
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon sugar/honey/agave nectar
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 10 whole peppercorns
  • 1 head of cauliflower, leaves removed
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional

Cooking this cauliflower requires two steps; braising makes the cauliflower tender and infuses it with a variety of flavors, while roasting coaxes out the savory nuttiness and gives it a crusty texture.  Plus, it looks and sounds elegant as hell.  (Is that a legitimate term?  Who cares.  You all dig, I’m sure.)  I’m a hearty advocate of making things that sound impressive to boost my cooking cred.

Oh, yeah.  P.S., it tastes great.

Trim the cauliflower so it’s cleared of leaves and its stem is pared down so that the cauliflower can sit flat on a serving plate.  Assemble all the ingredients you need for the braise.

Pretty uncomplicated ingredients, I'd say.

Pretty uncomplicated ingredients, I’d say.

When choosing the braising wine, make it as dry as you can stand.  You don’t necessarily want the cauliflower to become oaky or sweet, you just want it to become fragrant and delicious.  So go dry, and make it a decent bottle.

Put the wine, salt, butter, oil, lemon (juiced, and then toss in the halves as well because why not?), sugar, bay leaves, and peppercorns in a large pot and get them cooking over a high heat.  I did add some red pepper flakes when I made my cauliflower but frankly, I didn’t think they brought much at all to the party, so meh, only add them if you’re really committed to their presence.  When everything’s going along at a pretty steady boil, add the cauliflower.  CAREFULLY, so you don’t cause a big splash and burn yourself with water and boiling oil.

Hooray for the incredibly practical mesh spider!

Hooray for the incredibly practical mesh spider!

If you think you still need a little extra cooking liquid in the pot, feel free to add some water or broth.  Lower the heat to a simmer and let it cook for 15-20 minutes or so, until the cauliflower is soft enough to sink a knife in but still offers some resistance.  You don’t want it to be mush, you just want it to be soft-ish.  When it’s ready, take it out and let it drain.

The nice thing about this dish is, you can park the cauliflower here for a while if you need to take care of other business in the kitchen; once the braise is done you’ll only have to worry about getting it in the oven when you’re in serious dinner-prep mode.

When you are ready for Phase Two: Roasting, make sure your oven is pre-heated to the not-messing-around temperature of 475° and that your oven rack is positioned roughly in the middle of the oven.  Put the cauliflower in a baking dish, give it a light drizzle of olive oil and toss on some salt and pepper.  Then?  In it goes, for 30-40 minutes.  Turn it once halfway through.  You’ll want to pull it out of the oven when it’s nice and browned and toasty on the outside.  It should look something like this:

Roasted cauliflower perfection.

Roasted cauliflower perfection.

While it’s roasting you can whip your goat cheese.

Because seriously, words fail.  Just saying it is sexy: Whipped goat cheese.  Yes!  It’s that good.  You need:

  • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 3 ounces feta
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened Greek yogurt (or more, in the interests of a smooth and creamy texture)
  • drizzle of honey
  • Fresh-cracked pepper to taste

Measure out your ingredients.

That extra 1/8 oz is a nibble for the cook. :)

That extra 1/8 oz is a bonus nibble for the cook. 🙂


And then…ready for this?  Put all the ingredients in a food processor.  Process.

That’s it.

I mean, taste it and see what you need to add.  I don’t say you should add salt because feta and goat cheese are plenty salty on their own, but if you feel like the salt–or the pepper, or the honey–are lacking, then adjust accordingly.  If you think it needs to smooth out a little more you can add some more yogurt, or some milk or water, but only do so in small increments so as to not make it too soupy.  You want it to stick to the cauliflower, not run off.  As further evidence that this may seem complicated but isn’t really, your goat cheese can be whipped ahead of time.  I made mine the night before and it was perfect, I just had to let it warm up to room temperature and give it a couple of stirs to loosen it up.

Your guests, your family, your dining companions will be dazzled sho’ ’nuff when they walk in your kitchen and see this waiting for them.

I repeat: Elegant as hell.

I repeat: Elegant as hell.

It’s soft enough to cut with a serving spoon, so don’t be afraid to dive into the cauliflower, dress it with a happy dollop or seven of goat cheese and feast yourself silly.  A dish this gorgeous makes every dinner better.  Set aside a little time.  It’s worth it, if for no other reason that it’s ultimately really simple and if you do what the dish requires (braise, roast, food process), you’ll look like a kitchen rock star.

Nosh: Braised Shallots

You know what shallots are, right?  Little oniony-lookin’ things, often sold in those weird little meshy bags and are kind of spendy if you want any decent amount of them…

Shallots. Yes, I intentionally included the quarter for scale.

I remember standing in slack-jawed astonishment at a farmer’s market in France (way to represent: hey, check out the American mouth-breather!), not only because they look like this:

Molly conducted herself in the market with far more grace than I.

But also because they had shallots by the overflowing boxfuls.  Buy ’em by the pound!  Or the…It’s Europe, so whatever, kilogram, buy as many as you’d like because they wouldn’t go bad around me, and I’m only a very little bit joking as I have been known to get like Forrest Gump’s Bubba when he waxes nostalgic about shrimp…you got’cha braised shallots, shallot vinaigrette, crispy shallots on Thai food, sauteed in olive oil over pasta…I’m sure you get my point.  So.  Imagine my surprise delight unbridled joy when, on a visit to Philadelphia’s 9th St. Italian Market, I saw one of the vendors with a giant box of by-the-pound shallots.  And I bought them.  By the pound.  I’ve had kind of an iffy relationship with Philly in the past, but the 9th St. Market did a LOT to restore my faith in the city, and not just for the produce; have lunch at Ralph’s Italian Restaurant, get the spaghetti and meatballs, it will change your life.  (Side note: if you’re in an ethnically defined neighborhood–like one that boasts a many-blocks-long Italian marketplace–and you see some of the older locals meet for lunch somewhere?  That’s where you want to eat, too.  And I digress.)

Anyway, back to the shallots.  So I braised them.  Start, naturally, by peeling them.  Cookery books will often tell you to blanch them for a minute to loosen the skins, but that can take *forever* as you still have to trim the root ends and make little X’s in the skins and then wait for them to cool so you can handle them and then peel them…and the peel doesn’t always come off as easily as they tell you it should.  Meh.  I have no patience for that.  I just go at ’em with a paring knife and if I lose a layer, I lose a layer.  I’m not a restaurant, I don’t have to mind my margins, I’m just a girl who wants to tear into some braised shallots ASAP.  So peel them, however you deem appropriate for your time and shallot-preparation sensibilities, and cut the larger ones in half.

{{{love}}}

And so, get a little oil, a little butter going in a pan (you CAN have the best of both worlds!) and add the shallots.  I also like to add in a bunch of garlic, because I love it and why not?  But you can also forgo the garlic if you’re not feeling it that day.

You got'cher butter, yer oil, a little salt...

Let them start to brown, give them a few minutes, but keep an eye on them because while the shallots can take some browning, garlic can get ruined if you’re not careful, and if the garlic gets killed, the dish gets killed.  When you think they’re ready, toss in some herbs (for this batch, I used herbes de Provence, because, you know, they’re shallots and sort of Frenchish and nyah, I had them on hand.  But thyme is delicious in this dish…tarragon would probably be lovely…see what you have and use what you like) and pepper and balsamic vinegar and a good glob of honey.  Let those ingredients mingle for a few minutes in the pan, start to get all friendly-like.  Almost immediately the shallots will start to draw in the vinegar and look something like this:

This is a one-way ticket to Nomville.

And THEN, pour in your braising liquid.  I use vegetable stock to keep it vegetarian (and if you wanted to keep it vegan, just leave the butter out and voila!), but you can put in whatever kind of liquid you want, provided it will contribute to shallotcentric deliciosity.  White wine + vegetable stock?  Sure.  Red wine instead?  OK!  Chicken stock?  Why not?  Even water will work, though you won’t get quite as rich-tasting a product in the end.  Use what you like, but you want to make the pan look, approximately, like this.

Everyone in the pool! Wheeee!

Keep the heat at a medium-ish temperature, cover it, and just let them cook.  Let them get to know each other in the pan, become besties with the vinegar, take in the stock and exude their shalloty goodness into the braising liquid.  It will probably take anywhere from twenty minutes to a half-hour to get where you need to go, so check on it every so often and give the pan a whirl to make sure nothing sticks during cooking.  Poke one with a sharp knife; if it goes in like butter, then you’re almost home.  Leave the lid off so the liquid will reduce to a nice, rich, thick, sticky, “OMFG how can something on this Earth really be this good” sort of sauce, and when it gets to that stage…throw in a little more butter for good measure.  (Really, I’m not trying to channel Paula Deen, and you don’t need much but mounting it with some butter at the end will add that little extra bit of richtasticness and gloss to the dish that it would be OK without but is sooooo much better with.)  When it’s all said and done, your beautiful shallots will look something like this:

Well, hellooo, gorgeous.

Serve as a side.  Serve with crusty bread and a little shave of Emmental or Gruyere.  Serve on orzo.  Just for your own safety, don’t serve them around me because I will knock. You. Down. To get my hands on them.  It’s what I told my mother I’d do, and if I said that to my own mother, then you’d better believe you’re going down, people.

(I didn’t really knock my mom down.)

Enjoy, with my most sincere wishes.

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