Nosh: Herb and Cheese Grits

I am, undeniably, a northerner. I come from a land where the word d-o-g is pronounced “dawg”, where the temperature has to dip far below 60°F before we even consider a sweater. I come from a place where we say “youze” instead of “y’all” (or “all y’all”), and where calling someone “ma’am” is the polite way to insult someone to her face, kind of like how “bless your heart” actually means, “you idiot”. (To my friends from the south…you know what I mean.) But despite our cultural differences, there is one thing for certain that we can agree on.

Grits. Beautiful grits. I love ’em. Weird, right? I know! It surprised me too, but my love runs deep. I love ’em for breakfast with bacon and hot sauce and toast. I love them smothered in onions and cheese. I would love them with shrimp but I’m allergic, so I’ll leave that low country treat to the fine Carolinians that it won’t kill. And I love them when they’re quick-cooking, when they’re slow-cooking, and either makes me happy when I have them for dinner. I’m not talking about the grits’ cousin, the finely-ground, smooth beauty that is polenta. I love that too, but in a different way. I love the nubbly, hearty, coarsely textured porridge that is a beautiful serving of pure comfort. And it warms you from the insides on a cold winter’s night, like the ones we’ve been having here in the frozen northeast. Here’s what I used:

  • 1 medium onion, cut into a small (ish) dice
  • 2 or 3 (or more) cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons oil (olive, vegetable, sunflower, whatever you prefer)
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • Salt and black pepper (season now, and again at the end of the cooking time)
  • 1 cup corn kernels (frozen is fine)
  • 2 cups almond milk (or regular milk, if you prefer, but almond milk = OMG YES in grits)
  • 2 cups water or broth
  • 1 cup grits, quick-cooking grits are just fine
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 Tablespoon each of chives and parsley, finely chopped

There ain’t much about making grits that’s pretty, so let’s just get right down to it. Get out a fairly large pot-one big enough to accommodate 4 cups worth of cooking liquid, plus vegetables–with a heavy bottom. Put oil in the bottom of the pan over medium heat. While the oil is heating, chop onions and garlic.

Yes. That really is how much garlic I used. And I'm not ashamed.

Yes. This really is how much garlic I use. And I’m not ashamed.

When the oil is hot, add onions and garlic, and a shot of salt and pepper. Let them saute together for a few minutes, then add thyme leaves. Give the leaves a few minutes to incorporate themselves with the onions and garlic, then add in the corn and, if you’re at all like me, another mega-hit of black pepper.

IMG_0107-001

There is so much good happening in this pot, I swear it should almost be illegal. Almost.

Be careful with adding too much salt at this point; you’re going to put some cheese in soon, and that will bring a load of salt to the dish. Patience. You can always add more at the end.

Let the corn and onions saute together for a few minutes. Grate the cheese and chop the herbs you’re going to finish the grits with, in the meantime. Once the veggies have had a few minutes to cook together, add the almond milk or milk, and water or broth. It’s up to you as to what you have and what you prefer to use. Scrape up any brown bits that have cooked onto the bottom of the pot and let that incorporate into the cooking liquid. Bring that to a boil and once the boil happens, you can whisk in your grits. BEAR THIS IN MIND: if you use quick-cooking grits, the dish will move very quickly to completion once the grits hit the liquid. Make sure your finishing prep work is done before you pour the grits in so you can add everything with smooth assurance and you’re not frantic.

Back to the instructions. When it boils, whisk in your grits.

Everybody in the pool! Wheeee!

Everybody in the pool! Wheeee!

Stir stir stir! Again, if you use quick-cooking grits this will start to thicken almost immediately; check your container to see roughly how long the cook time will take. (I sound like a shill for the quick-cook variety but if that’s what you use, this whole dish can come together in about twenty minutes.) When the grits have thickened into a creamy mass, add the cheese, chives, parsley, and butter.

I know it looks like an insane amount of parsley but I also chopped a bunch to add to my salad. Plus, I like it.

I know it looks like an insane amount of parsley but I also chopped a bunch to add to my salad. Plus, I like it.

Stir that in and before you know it, you’ll have a beautiful, rich, fragrant batch of grits that will warm you to your bones. Check for seasonings and add more salt and pepper, if necessary. I would add more black pepper, just because I can’t help myself. But that’s me.

The grits you’ll end up with will be richly textured, simultaneously creamy and coarse. They have a savory bite from the onion and bursts of sweetness from the corn kernels. And they’re satisfyingly warming in the winter cold, but also promise a little bit of summer thanks to corn and herbs.

Oh hell yes.

Oh hell yes.

We enjoyed our grits with roasted zucchini coins and a green salad. And then I ate grits again for lunch. Why? Because I could, that’s why. 

Bon appetit, y’all! And to my fellow Yankees, do yourselves a favor and give grits a chance, huh? Eh, c’mere, youze. Ahhhh, fuhgeddaboudit.

Advertisements

Nosh: Roasted Spiced Beet Tatin

I’m not sure why, but I woke up yesterday with a hankering for beets, and a desire to putter around in the kitchen. Sometimes, good things happen when I start to putter. Mmmm, beets. Sweet, earthy, dense, jewel-colored, beautiful. Beets!

A few days ago a friend of mine posted a link to a beet tarte tatin, which is basically beets made like an upside down cake, topped with puff pastry. Savory beets + buttery pastry? I’m in! But here’s the thing: every single recipe for a beet tarte tatin that I found online involved drowning roasted beets in butter and sugar, before baking them inside pastry that is inherently butter-gorged. It’s a delicious idea in principle, but this? Is totally unnecessary. Beets are the candy of the vegetable world. They’re grown FOR their sugar. Adding sugar to them is overkill. And how much butter do you really need to eat at dinner? Save your butter intake for the shortbreads you’re sure to encounter this holiday season.

So what’s a girl to do? We improvise.

Here’s the basic principle of a tarte tatin: arrange edibles in a pleasing design in the bottom of a cake pan, cover with puff pastry, bake, invert, eat. Got it. Now let’s get to it! REMEMBER: This is a dish made for a day you have time to putter; it will probably take about an hour and a half (maybe even closer to two hours) from start to finish, between the prep-work and the cook time. And so, with no further ado…

  • 3 good-sized beets, scrubbed, peeled, and cut into quarters, then roasted according to this recipe (so you’ll also need thyme/rosemary/cinnamon/red pepper flakes, red wine and balsamic vinegars, salt & pepper, see recipe link for specifics)
  • 1 large red onion
  •  1 smallish handful (1/4 cup, maybe?) pine nuts; walnuts (chopped) would also be nice here if you didn’t have pine nuts on hand
  • 1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
  • 1/2 cup grated horseradish cheese or Swiss cheese (optional)
  • olive oil

Take the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter to defrost. Don’t leave it in the fridge to defrost; I’ve found out the hard way that it won’t defrost in there as much as you would like. Just set it on a plate on your counter top and forget about it for the next 50 minutes or so.  I’m assuming you’re using frozen puff pastry, because… No reason. Just because. Look, I make a lot of stuff from scratch. But delicate pastries like this? I’ll buy it pre-packaged, thank you very much.  Preheat the oven to 400°, because the first thing you’ll want to do is peel and roast the beets. Bear in mind that you want them to look pretty post-roast, so when you prep them for roasting, cut them into uniform-looking quarters. 

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

Now get to roasting, gorgeous beetses!

The fatter ends of the beets are pretty dense, so give these about 40-45 minutes to roast. Toss with herbs, spices, vinegars, salt and pepper, and oil, and put it in the oven. Turn once about halfway through. When they’re done, set them aside, but you’ll be using them fairly soon after they’re out of the oven so don’t worry about letting them cool completely. Drop the oven temperature to 350°.

While the beets are roasting, thinly slice the red onion into nice, big rounds, sprinkle them with some salt, toss them with oil, and get them in a pan over medium-low heat. These are going to caramelize, and that takes…oh, about 40-45 minutes. Once they start to soften and turn gold, then brown, you will need to pay a little attention to them. You don’t want them to get crisp, just soft and sweet, so stir them fairly often. If you notice them starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, you can do one of two things to loosen them. You can 1) add more oil, which I don’t favor, because I feel like it just fattens up the works, or 2) toss in a little veggie broth or water, which I do favor. It also helps steam them into softness, and is that much less oil you need to worry about. Eventually, the onions will turn rich and brown and soft and super-sweet, and you’ll remember that the world is indeed a beautiful place, that you can extract such gorgeous flavor from a sulfuric root vegetable.

Almost too good to be true.

Almost too good to be true.

Once the beets are cooked and the onions are caramelized, take an 8-inch cake pan and grease it with a little bit of olive oil (meaning: pour a little dime-sized spot of olive oil in the cake pan and rub it around the bottom and sides with a bit of paper towel). Start to arrange your beets in a pretty pattern. Pay attention to this detail because it will figure into the presentation later. When you invert the tatin to serve it, you’ll want the beets to be the stars of the show. Try and imagine how they’ll look, upside down and backwards. 🙂

It's worth it. Trust me.

It’s worth it. Trust me.

Nice, evenly-spaced circles look great and require practically no skill to arrange. That’s what I went for.

Top this with caramelized onions, and then top the onions with a sprinkling of pine nuts.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

I love it when a plan starts to come together.

The beets and the onions are both seasoned with salt and/or pepper, so I wouldn’t opt to add any more seasoning at this stage. Just let the foods as they’ve been cooked come together. Top the beets and onions with the sheet of puff pastry. You may need to roll the puff pastry out to get it to cover the entirety of the pan, but that’s easy to do. Just lay it on a flat surface and make a few passes over it with a rolling pin. It should readily stretch. Then you just lay it out on top of your cake pan, trim off any crazy excess corners, and tuck the pastry all around the edges of the pan.

See? Easy-peasy.

See? Easy-peasy.

Note the holes. This dough is docked, which means I poked a bunch of holes in it with a fork. Now it won’t bake up to be super-puffy, just kind of puffy, yet still totally delicious. Put it in the oven for 30 minutes, turning once half-way through. When you take it out, it should be toasted and beautiful.

Golden perfection!

Golden, slightly puffy perfection!

Let this sit for 10 minutes to give the tatin a chance to set. Now is the time to decide what to do: do you want to serve it as-is? Or do you intend to top it with cheese and broil it for a few minutes? Because…

If you want to serve it as-is, put the serving dish you plan to present it on, on top of the cake pan. If you want to top it with cheese and put it in the broiler, put a cookie sheet on top of the cake pan. Then: FLIP!

YES!

YES!

I told you that my anal-retentive attention to detail would pay off. 

Wait, let’s get another food-porn look at this, shall we?

Well, hello, beautiful.

Well, hello, beautiful.

I did choose to top this with horseradish cheese, because I think almost everything is better with horseradish cheese. But for real, it is perfectly heavenly right now. You could go cheeseless and be fine. But me?  I cheesed it up and stuck it under the broiler for a few more minutes.

Now I'm sad I don't have any more leftovers.

Now I’m sad I don’t have any more leftovers.

We ate this with a simple tossed salad with arugula, and a roasted pear and pumpkin soup (recipe coming). It was a table full of warm, wintery comfort. It wasn’t a speedy dish to put together, it was absolutely a “Sunday in the kitchen” sort of meal, but it’s surprisingly easy and oh, so, so satisfying. Enjoy! I know I did.

Carrot Tops Are…Edible! And Make Great Pesto.

Did you know that? Did you? Did you huh?

I'm EDIBLE? --he seemed to say. Photo from rottentomatoes.com

I’m EDIBLE? –he seemed to say.
Photo from rottentomatoes.com

No. Not that kind of Carrot Top. (Not without a nice, long braise, anyway, and who has that kind of time?)

Thaaaat's more like it.

Thaaaat’s more like it.

This kind of carrot top. Yes way! I know, right? What I had always sort of considered a kind of…curious produce by-product is, in its own right, an overlooked potential addition to the dinner table. We got our CSA delivery this week, brimming with all sorts of vegetal goodness, and great fluffy frondy carrots.  Hmmm, I said to myself. It would be a shame if this went to waste. I wonder…. To the internets!

Totally edible. Not poisonous. The stems are a little woody, so they require a bit of work, but in general? Delicious. Kind of carroty and sweet and bright, with a little bit of a parsley bouquet that you almost taste in your nose. I came across a few recipes for pesto, but they served as inspiration more than an actual recipe, so I’m going to claim full ownership of this one.  🙂 Take:

  • One bunch farmer’s market/CSA carrot greens from your delicious carrot bunch, which you’ll use for dinner (if you have a smallish bunch, like mine, have some additional spinach or baby arugula on hand)
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 handful (about a half a cup) walnuts, toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 handful parsley
  • 3 slices cotija (or some other crumbly, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste. If you use cotija cheese, DO NOT USE SALT until the very end, if you need it. The cheese is very salty.
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey, for balance
  • Olive oil, as needed

First things first: Toss walnuts in a dry pan and toast them for five minutes, or until they’re fragrant and their flavors have deepened, but they’re not burnt. If you make more than you need, you’ll have extra to snack on, so don’t worry about fastidiously measuring them. Set aside to cool.

Clean the carrots and carrot tops. Chop the carrot stalks into bite-size-ish pieces.

They're so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

They’re so fresh they practically emanate goodness.

If you have mostly stalks (like I had) rather than the airy fronds, you may want to blanch the stalks for a minute or two in a pot of boiling water, just to soften them up and make them more pliable. Drain them, then assemble your goods.

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

Garlic, cheese, lemon, carrot greens. Sounds like a party!

A word about cotija cheese: Cotija is a dry, crumbly Mexican cow’s milk cheese used like parmesan. It’s crumbly. It doesn’t melt. It’s salty-salty. It’s DELICIOUS if you crumble it on top of things. And it’s got a brisk, clean taste. I chose it partly because I have it in my fridge, but I also have parmesan and pecorino romano. I wanted cotija for its clean, yet salty, taste. For the purposes of this recipe, if you don’t have cotija, use pecorino romano rather than parmesan. Parmesan’s a little too nutty. Moving on.

Zest the lemon, then juice it. Toss the zest, carrot tops, spinach or arugula if you need it, garlic, cheese, honey, half the toasted walnuts (to start), about half the parsley, and a couple of glugs of olive oil into a food processor, and grind in as much black pepper as you can stand. If you want, you can also put in a couple of shakes of crushed red pepper and some fresh-grated nutmeg. Because I did. And yum.

Let's get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Let’s get rrrrrready to rrrrrrumble!

Give that a whirl, then taste it for flavor and make requisite adjustments; is it tart vs. peppery vs. oily vs. texturally correct? What do you need?  Does it need a little more oomph because it’s too pasty, or not punchy enough? Toss in some lemon juice. Is it not rich enough? Toss in some oil. Is it too sharp? Add some more walnuts. Does it need to be “green”-er?  Parsley!  And so on. If you pay careful attention to what you want a pesto to taste like, and what’s in front of you, you can tinker until it becomes one harmonious mix of carrot greens and all other good things.

Pestolicious!

Pestolicious!

OK. So you’ve got your pesto. Now what?

Slice an onion into half-moons and caramelize the whole thing. You probably won’t eat all of the onions today, but you’ll thank me tomorrow when you’re looking for something to perk up your salad at lunch.

Cut the carrots into thin slices. We also had a small handful of baby beets from our CSA; I took the stems and leaves and separated them to cook with some kale (recipe coming soon) for a lovely side dish. As for the beautifully sweet baby beet globes, I washed and peeled them and cut them thinly, roughly as thick as the carrots.

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

And the little stripey chiogga beets are so pretty!

Then toss them in a pan with some oil, ground fennel, and salt and pepper. Saute them for…oh…however long it takes. Fifteen minutes?  They’re both hard root vegetables, so they do take a while to saute, but they’re also tender baby versions, so exercise judgment. Taste as you see fit. Let them go for at least ten minutes, giving the pan an occasional shake. When they’re almost cooked and ready to eat, take some white balsamic vinegar and pour it in a slow drizzle once or twice around the pan. Let that cook down for another two or three minutes to create a light glaze.

Yeah! That's what I'm talking about!

Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!

Toast some bread. Put down a layer of pesto, add some beets and carrots, and top with caramelized onions, a dash more fresh parsley and another grind or two of cracked pepper and voila! You’ve got a great, summery, no-oven, open-faced sandwich that is as close to nose-to-tail cooking with vegetables as you can get.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch.

I liked it so much, I had it again for lunch. Note the beet greens and kale in the background. Don’t worry, I’ll get that recipe out to you.

Served with a green salad and the braised kale and beet greens, this dinner was insanely satisfying. Each bite of the open-faced sandwich ran a wonderful gamut of flavors, from peppery and savory to sweet and brisk and cheesy-rich. Served with a side dish of bitter greens laced with an obscene amount of garlic, this is the sort of dinner that covers all the bases. Relatively easy to make, no oven, barely any refuse to clean up, delicious. What are you waiting for?

Nosh: Two Way Fennel and Capers with Pasta

Hi folks.

Good to see you all again.

I know, it’s been a few weeks.  I had a rough one.  I had a bout of the blues, a touch of PTSD after my car accident, and a major funk when I reflected on 2013, which was a dismal year for me.  Thankfully I have a patient boyfriend and friends who care enough to let me open up to them.  Right now, it’s all good.

So I’m back!  And I want to talk to you all about the savory goodness of fennel.  Consider it a New Year’s gift.  Resolutions often involve eating more vegetables.  Sticking with more vegetables means eating them in surprising and tasty ways.

Fennel, fennel, fennel.  Big oniony-looking bulb, stalks that resemble celery, frothy fronds at the top.  Vaguely smells of licorice. What. The hell. Does one do with that sort of thing?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

Delicious dietary addition or freak veggie?

The answer, friends, is a simple one.  EAT IT!!!

Currently in the US, fennel is mostly seen a sort of curious, marginally exotic mystery vegetable that one can only cook if one is a wizard or a professional chef.  In the US the bulb usually shows up sliced thin and raw, in salads, with oranges, which is certainly delicious but, limited in its scope, a sad underuse of fennel and all its works.  If a vegetable is nose-to-tail friendly, as it were, this would be the one.  The fronds are a fantastic garnish for everything from chicken to pasta to green beans to potatoes to hummus.  The stalks are nice and crunchy and would be a great addition to any snack bag or crudite tray, and they shave nicely into salads.  The bulb, though…you can do anything with it.  Saute it.  Fennel is fantastic grilled.  Braise it in milk (yes, really).  You’ll thank me for it.  Or…

You can turn it into healthy and delicious pasta sauce.  Because yum.  Here’s what I used:

  • 2 medium-to-large fennel; stalks very thinly sliced, bulbs cored and diced, fronds set aside
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (to taste)
  • 1 teaspooon thyme
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 or 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 cup (ish) of vegetable broth
  • 2 generous tablespoons drained and rinsed capers (or more, if you’d like)
  • A handful of fresh chopped parsley

And I always cook for one package of pasta, because I completely lack the patience to measure ounces of pasta.  I’m no stranger to leftovers, and this sauce is even better the next day.  Moving on.

The first thing to do is attack the fennel, so to get started…scroll back up and look at the picture above.  Halve your fennel bulbs and cut out the knobby core at the bottom of the bulb.  Cut off the stalks and slice them very thinly; set them off to the side.  Dice the bulb like you would an onion: planks, sticks, then cubes.

planks sticks cubes-001

Straightforward, no?

While you’re at it, cut an onion in the same way, and mince however much garlic you’d like.  Get a big pan warming to a steady medium-level saute heat, and when it’s hot enough (you don’t need it screaming hot, just hot), add oil and toss in the diced fennel.  Fennel can be dense and it often surprises me that it takes longer than onions to cook, but there’s the truth.  So.  It goes in first, and let it cook happily for a few minutes.  It may start to brown; that’s fine, just don’t let it burn.  After five minutes or so, add the onions, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and some fresh-ground pepper.  Zest the lemon right over your pan; the essential oils that spray out of the skin when you zest will go directly into the pan, adding to the subtle, but present, lemony goodness.

Like so.

Like so.

Juice the lemon and set the juice aside.

Get a pot of water going for your pasta, if you haven’t done so already.  When your water is ready and you cook the pasta, you’ll take it to not-quite-doneness, as it will finish cooking when you add it in to the fennel sauce at the end.  And before you drain your not-entirely-cooked pasta, reserve a half-cup or so of pasta water, some of which you’ll add to the fennel sauce to finish.

Let the fennel and onion mixture all cook together in your pan, over a nice medium heat.  You’ll want to see the onions get soft and the garlic fragrant, which should take another 8 or 10 minutes.  Again, some browning and sticking to the bottom of the pan is fine.  Desirable, even, since it creates the fond which, when pulled up with some stock and stirred back into the pan, adds a tremendous flavor boost.  When the fennel is soft and the onions are translucent, pour in the stock and stir well with a wooden spoon, so any browning on the bottom of your pan comes up.  Add the bay leaves.  Simmer for 10 minutes or so.

This is moving along as it ought.

This is moving along as it ought.

You can also deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup of white wine before adding in the stock, since fennel loves to work with white wine.  I just didn’t have any in the house.  If you do, then pour in the wine, give it all a stir to pull up the fond.  Simmer for a few minutes, until the alcohol cooks out and the wine smells more like sauce and less like hot wine.  Add the stock at this point and carry on.

A note about the amount of stock: I say use about a cup, but this is entirely dependent on how you prefer your pasta sauce.  I want the sauce to be nice and thick, so I’m not going to use enough stock to make the sauce soupy.  The stock is going to cook off a little in the simmer, and then the entire thing will be blended together.  You’ll have an opportunity to thin the sauce after blending if you’d like, so my advice is to approach stock with a gentle hand and see how it goes.

Anyway.

Get another pan going and add your very thin slices of fennel stalk, with just a little salt and pepper added to bring out the flavor. You’re going to want to get these nice and browned and yummy, to serve as a crisp contrast to the soft fennel of the sauce.

Truth: cut them thinner than this.

Truth: Next time, I will cut them thinner than this.

Once these are nice and brown, remove them from the heat and top with the reserved lemon juice.  Set aside until the pasta is complete.

When all the contents of your pan have cooked together and the veggies are nice and tender, remove the bay leaves and give everything else a whirl in a blender or food processor.  Put the blended sauce back in the pan and back on the heat and if you feel like it’s too gloppy for your liking, thin your sauce by adding very small increments of stock.  Add in your drained pasta and the grilled fennel stalks, and a splash or two of reserved pasta water.  Let that cook together a minute or two longer, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has become a lovely, clingy unit.  Check for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.  Chop some fresh parsley, and drain and rinse your capers.

Normally I’d say capers and parsley are optional, but…not in this dish, they’re not.  The capers add a playful, deep, briny punch to the mellowed aroma of the fennel and heightens the hints of lemon in the sauce, and the parsley adds a fresh green pungency that lifts this dish off the plate and right into yo’ mouth.  You can also add some of the fennel fronds as a garnish, but I used most of them in the salad.

I want to make this again.  Right now.

I want to make this again. Right now.

When we sat down to eat dinner, my boyfriend took his first bite, then looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, “Wow!  And it’s not…totally weird!  You don’t need some fancy palate to enjoy this!”

Ummm.

Actually, though, that’s really cool.  Reviewer Number One thinks my fennel pasta sauce is yummy and generally accessible.  I’ll take it!  As this dish stands it’s entirely vegan, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be amenable to a shot of cream or butter at the end, or a sprinkling of good, hard cheese.  We ate this with a fresh salad and sweet and spicy Brussels sprouts that were insanely good.  We ate it the next day, too.  We’re going to eat this again and again.  Yay for fennel!  Eat more of it, because it’s delicious!  You don’t even have to be a wizard.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

George standing between two absolutely enormous wild fennel plants; Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland.

Enjoy!

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.

No more posts.