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.

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Nosh: Sauteed Eggplant, Peppers and Potatoes

I’ve discovered I really enjoy Spanish food.  Usually when we think of Spanish food here in the US…well, first we think of Mexican food until someone else reminds us that no, Spain is on a different continent and they’re really not the same.  Fair enough.  Then we think of things like paella and sangria, which are of course notable–indeed, even mighty–dishes in their own right (though me + paella = death by allergy), but Spain is more than two dishes and some romanticized, gauzy image of bullfights and naps popularized by Ernest Hemingway.   Spanish food is as diverse at the many regions of Spain.  But there are common tendencies in Spanish cooking and if you want to give me a dish that involves smoked paprika and sherry vinegar and peppers and tons and tons of garlic and call it Spanish, I won’t complain.

Thanks to an afternoon spent in a Baltimore tapas restaurant, that’s exactly what I did.

Their eggplant was just. Too. Good.  So even though I was home and cooking not even 24 hours after eating tapas and you might think enough is enough and how many potato and eggplant dishes can one girl dine on in two days’ time, I was busy trying to reverse engineer what I ate.  With delicious results.  Here’s what I used:

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 1 medium onion
  • tons and tons of garlic (I think I used 6 or 7 cloves for this)
  • 2 peppers, you can decide how hot you want the dish to be
  • 1 pound of potatoes, either very small so they can be thrown in whole or cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, and it can be smoked hot paprika if you’re feeling unstoppable
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • water or broth to achieve desired consistency
  • salt & pepper to taste

Chop the eggplant into manageable chunks.  Put it into a nice hot pan and start it cooking right away.  Eggplant has that…I’m not quite sure if quality is the right word…where it can become a luscious piece of silken deliciousness wrapped in a dream if it’s cooked thoroughly.  BUT!  If it’s not well cooked then it’s like nature’s chewing gum made out of chalk, vegetable gristle and woe.  So get it going first and let it cook and cook and cook.  If it starts to kind of break down and become a sauce (but it won’t because you won’t be cooking it THAT long but even so, if it does), so what?  At least you’ll know it’s cooked through, and it will wrap the rest of the dish in love.  Anyway.  Eggplant.  Some olive oil.  In the pan.  GO!

If you never believe another thing I write, at least believe me when I tell you not to undercook your eggplant.

If you never believe another thing I write, at least believe me when I tell you not to undercook your eggplant.

Let this cook for a few minutes to start getting nice and brown and then?  Things go in.  Add onions, peppers (I went semi-spicy; the cubanelle I used was, of course, totally mild but the Hungarian wax pepper had quite a lovely kick. Use whatever kind of pepper you’d like), and garlic, and let them saute together for a few minutes.  Then add thyme, bay leaves, paprika and turmeric, give them a good stir and let them cook in for another minute or two.

Mmm hmmm, it's looking quite yellow at the moment.

Mmm hmmm, it’s looking quite yellow at the moment.

If you decide you want to add some kind of crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne to the mix (because hot food is your friend) you can add it here too.  Or not, it’s your decision. Once it all starts to cook together for a few minutes at medium heat, you’ll probably start to notice crusty brown bits of caramelized food and spices (a/k/a the “fond“) adhering to the bottom of your pan.  This is a good thing, but in order for that goodness to become reality you need to deglaze.  This, is a foodie (and concise) way of saying, “you want to pull all that yummy stuff off the bottom of your pan and re-incorporate it into your food before it all burns”.  Which is precisely what you’ll do, by pushing the contents of the pan slightly off to one corner, thereby exposing the fond, and pouring your sherry vinegar onto it.  It will steam and make a hideous hissing sound, but give it a stir and get whatever’s stuck on the pan back in your food where it belongs.  It won’t take more than a minute.  Then add the can of diced tomatoes, the potatoes, and enough broth and/or water to bring the liquid level high enough to make you feel confident it will cook your potatoes.  (Of course, you can always parboil or steam the potatoes prior to adding them to the pan, but that just adds an extra dish when it’s not really necessary so…why bother?)

I love the smell of a one-pot meal in the...uh...well, that line just falls apart out of context, doesn't it?

I love the smell of a one-pot meal in the…uh…well, that line just falls apart out of context, doesn’t it?

Cover for twenty minutes or a half-hour or so and cook at a medium-high heat, until the potatoes are cooked through and the sauce has thickened to the consistency you’d like.  Once everything is cooked through, it’s ready to eat.  Yes, it really is that simple.

When eaten on the back porch, it's EVEN BETTER.

When eaten on the back porch, it’s EVEN BETTER.

We ate this with roasted beets and goat cheese, sauteed beet greens and kale (recipe coming) and a crisp green salad.  It?  Rocked.

Nosh: Eggplant Rollatini

I’ve had a little bit of an urge for the aubergine lately, an itch that I had to scratch. As my cupboard was bare–I mean, we really cleared out the fridge and I was looking at a little bit of hummus, milk for the coffee and some leftover spaghetti sauce–we had to fully restock at the store which meant dinner could be any little thing our hearts desired.

But I had that leftover spaghetti sauce. And I haaaaaaaate when spaghetti sauce goes to waste, because that means I’m not eating enough spaghetti or things like it. I’m a fool for my own sauce; there, I’ve said it. Sauce was one of the first things my mother taught me how to make, and I used to have “sauce duty” certain days of the week. Wednesdays, if I remember correctly, and then whenever the need prevailed on other days. You know, as a chore. Come home from school, get dinner going, start cooking a giant vat of sauce because I come from a big family and that? Was how we rolled. And so, years of tinkering, and playing, and experimenting, and I have a sauce I am proud to call my own. It is vegetarian; long before I started living with a vegetarian, I realized I preferred vegetarian sauces, since meat sauces are delicious, but tend to be so heavy. It is rich and complex, a little sweet/sour/spicy, and there are times I wake up demanding we have spaghetti for dinner so I can make some sauce. I haven’t eaten the jarred stuff in years.

Do you see why I hate seeing it go to waste? Some might say this is an OCD sort of thing and to that I say, if you think I’m OCD then I would like to introduce you to my sock drawer. It’s like a crime scene in there. Anyway.

So, I have the aforementioned leftovers, and I have a boyfriend who makes killer eggplant. Not, you know, deadly or poisony eggplant or anything, just really effing good. What’s a girl to do?

Rollatini. That’s what. What’s not to love about rollatini? Killer, non-poisony eggplant wrapped around cheese and herbs, and baked in sauce? I’m not much of a praying woman, but this sounds like a little bit of Heaven to me.

I used this recipe as the basis from which I worked but of course, modified. Wonderful eggplant-makin’ boyfriend coats his eggplant in whole wheat flour and wheatgerm instead of white flour and bread crumbs, and it gets slightly sweet and a little bit nutty and super hearty. And we bake it instead of frying it, so it punches up the nutritional value even more than the whole wheat/wheat germ combo does, because eggplant is nature’s sponge and will absorb all the grease you want to fry it in.

That’s the main deviation from this recipe. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s the biggie.

Anyway, getting to it. First: slice your two, medium-sized eggplant. You want to slice them lengthwise and create long paddles in which to place your delicious cheese filling.

Notice the use of the thumb as a guide for the knife, not as a target. Good form!

And then, flour-egg-wheatgerm (or bread crumbs, if you prefer) so they look like this:

Ready for the oven.

And put them on a baking sheet you’ve coated in cooking spray. (Or, of course, you can fry them, a minute or two for each side of each eggplant). Put them in an oven you’ve already heated to 350, turn them once after about ten minutes and check them for doneness at twenty. They’re done when they’re bendy and pliant.

Meanwhile, make your filling. Again, I stuck pretty closely to the recipe, though I used fresh basil and parsley (since I had them, and highly recommend) and put in some pepper flakes. I also couldn’t resist a shot of fresh nutmeg on the spinach. But I think that’s all I did that deviates… 🙂 Really! I’m not being coy.

Koi.

Wrong sort of coy. Moving on.

Filling. Here you go:

Filling underway.

I have a picture of the filling with the defrosted spinach sitting on it but frankly, it looked like Swamp Thing had his way with my cheese…it’s pretty unappealing. It looks better when the spinach is all mixed in but that? Was not the picture I took.

And now, it becomes a matter of simple assembly. First, cheese up your eggplants, about two tablespoons per paddle.

No more than a third of the eggplant should be covered.

Roll ’em up and put them into a 9×13 baking tray, that you’ve already given a light coating of olive oil.

Rolled up eggplant = good times.

And then, make things happen with sauce and more cheese for the top. Oh, one more thing! The recipe calls for two cups of cheese for the topping, but I didn’t use nearly that much; maybe half. And I also grated a little romano on it, because I love its salty bite. But. Do what you’d like, since it’s your food and that’s the fun of cooking.

THAT is what I imagine Heaven to be like.

Put them back in the oven you never turned off and bake for about twenty-five minutes. If they’re not brown, boost the heat and broil them for five, or however long it takes you to make them turn golden and delicious. When they’re out, give them a fresh shot of parsley at the end; you want them to look like this:

Om. Nom nom.

And if you can’t enjoy that…I don’t know what else to do. I’ve done my best.

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