Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin

According to Food Lover's Companion (Herbst, S.H. 2001, 3rd ed.), a Gratin is any dish that is topped with cheese or bread crumbs and browned until crispy under a broiler or in the oven. A Gratin can also refer to the actual cooking vessel of the ingredients, and is usually shallow and wide to allow for maximum surface area of crispy cheese and breadcrumbs. Either way, gratins (as a cooking vessel or as a prepared dish), are beautiful things!

In most instances, thinly sliced vegetables are layered into a shallow baking dish with herbs, seasoning, butter or olive oil, and sometimes cream or stock, and then baked until savory soft, topped with cheese, breadcrumbs, or both, and then browned under the broiler. Sometimes the vegetables can be cut in larger chunks or slices, or even cubed. Potatoes are most commonly used in gratins, but most vegetables will work. Vegetables especially suited to gratins include root vegetables (celery root is terrific), eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash. Adding cream, butter, and cheese in between layers will create a very rich gratin, while using just olive oil and softer, juicer vegetables are good for lighter, less filling gratins.

The following recipe is simple and quick to prepare despite what looks like lengthy directions. The slicing of the vegetables and chopping of herbs takes 10 minutes, and making the breadcrumbs takes 5. Use already prepared breadcrumbs if you like, making prep time even less. My recipe for garlic breadcrumbs makes more than you will need, but they freeze very well and are easy to pull out and sprinkle on almost anything baked to add flavor and texture. Top fresh tomatoes with the crumbs and broil for a great side dish, or use as a binder or soup thickener. I used 2 small eggplants for this dish weighing about 3 ounces each. I prefer small, baby eggplants or thin Asian eggplants over the large globe style; I find them less bitter and feel they have better flavor and texture. If you use a large eggplant, which is perfectly fine, you will probably need less slices to cover the bottom of your baking dish. For my cooking vessel I used a shallow Le Creuset ceramic baking dish (a wedding gift from my wonderful culinary arts students), but any shallow baking dish will work. You can also make individual gratins if you like, separating the ingredients into individual creme brulee style ceramic dishes and shortening the cooking time. The cooking time for this gratin is lengthy (most are), but necessary to create a savory soft texture and to concentrate the juices from the tomatoes.

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin with Garlic Breadcrumbs

For the Gratin
-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
-8 slices eggplant, ¼ inch thick
- ½ sweet yellow onion, sliced thin
-9-10 slices fresh tomato, ¼ inch thick
- ½ tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- ½ tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
-salt and black pepper

For the Bread Crumbs
-3 slices bread, toasted until dry
-2-3 cloves garlic, minced
-1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
-1/2 tablespoon of gratin herbs
-small pinch of salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400̊F.

Mix the chopped herbs together, setting aside ½ tablespoon for the bread crumbs.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil all over the bottom of a 9” by 9” ceramic gratin or baking dish. Layer the slices of eggplant on top of the oil, overlapping if necessary. Season with a small amount of salt and black pepper. Spread the thinly sliced onions evenly over the eggplant. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil and half of the chopped fresh herbs. Layer the tomato slices evenly over the onions, overlapping if necessary, and drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over the tomatoes. Season again with a small amount of salt and black pepper, and the rest of the fresh chopped herbs. Place the gratin dish, uncovered, into the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the sides begin to brown and the eggplant begins to soften. Place a cover over the gratin and continue baking another 20-25 minutes, or until the vegetables begin meltingly soft and tender. Remove the cover and bake 10-15 minutes more to concentrate the juices. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a food processor fitted with an S-blade, grind the dry bread slices into crumbs. Add in the minced garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and reserved ½ tablespoon of chopped herbs. Grind again to mix. You will have more bread crumbs than you need, so save or freeze for another use.
Turn the oven to broil. Sprinkle 3-4 tablespoons of the bread crumbs over the top of the gratin. Place under the broiler and broil until the crumbs become brown and crispy, and the gratin juices are bubbling. Serve hot, warm, or even at room temperature.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Portabello Mushroom, Arugula, and Pine Nut Salad

Your probably beginning to notice that I love salads. Salads can contain almost anything you like and do not have to be restricted to just greens and chopped vegetables. Salads can be composed of cooked grains, potatoes, and pastas; they can be hot, warm, or cold; and they can contain a variety of textures, colors, and flavors. This salad in particular combines warm, cooked mushrooms with cool, spicy arugula, sweet tomatoes, and creamy pine nuts. The vinaigrette utilizes the warm juices from the cooked mushrooms to give it a depth of savoriness that you could never find in a store bought dressing.
Please do not be afraid of the ingredients list, I know it seems involved. The salad comes together quite easily and quickly. You can also use grilled mushrooms instead of baked, chopped tomatoes instead of cherry or grape tomatoes, and walnuts instead of pine nuts. Roasted and chopped red peppers would also be delicious here. Ahh, the wheels are turning and the possibilities endless. Most of the prep work can be done a day ahead, just do not combine any of the salad ingredients until last minute to keep them from getting soggy. The mushroom can always be re-warmed right before tossing the salad.

-2 large or 4 small portabello mushrooms, cleaned of any dirt
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
-1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
-salt and black pepper
-2 large handfuls baby arugula
-1 large handful baby spinach
-1 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes
-1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
-1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Balsamic Vinaigrette
-1 tablespoon strained mushroom juice
-1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
-1 1/2 teaspoons stone ground mustard
-1 teaspoon agave syrup
-3 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin olive oil
For the Mushrooms
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the mushrooms in a shallow baking dish, gill side up. Mix together the minced garlic, chopped parsley, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Generously brush this mixture over the mushrooms, using all of it. Lightly season with salt and black pepper. Cover the pan with foil and place in the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender. Strain the juice that has collected in the pan and save. Set aside mushrooms and keep warm.

For the Balsamic Vinaigrette
In a bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon of the reserved strained mushroom juice, the balsamic vinegar, mustard, and agave syrup. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, while constantly whisking, to create an emulsified vinaigrette. Alternately, combined everything but the olive oil in a small glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake vigorously. Add in the olive oil and shake vigorously again. This will not create a permanent emulsification, but it is much easier to mix up when needed.

To Compose the Salad
Slice the mushrooms thinly on a bias and place decoratively on a platter. Toss the arugula, spinach, tomatoes, basil, and pine nuts together gently. Lightly season with a little salt and black pepper. Drizzle on as much vinaigrette as you like, without saturating, and gently toss with your hands. Pile the dressed salad on the platter with the mushrooms and serve.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lime and Peanut Bathed Soba Noodles

This dish is actually a soba noodle salad filled with crunchy vegetables, cooling herbs, and a tangy lime-peanut dressing. I just think it sounds nice to be bathed in lime and peanut! I have been making soba noodle salads for a long time, and there are so many ways to vary this one recipe. Use calcium packed almond butter or tahini in place of the peanut butter, and change the vegetables and herbs according to the seasons. Replacing part of the nut butter with a light or dark miso will give the dressing a more dynamic Japanese flavor, while leaving it as is keeps the dish on the South East Asian side.

Soba noodles are a terrific, versatile ingredient. They are Japanese in orgin, and are made from a mixture of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. Sometimes wild yam is also added. Soba noodles have a darker color and heartier flavor than traditional wheat and rice noodles, which also work perfectly in this dish. Using a thin rice noodle would be more traditional to the South East Asian flavors of the other ingredients in the recipe, but I like the additional nutrition and flavor that soba noodles offer.

Buckwheat itself is native to Russia, and the so called grain is actually the seed to the buckwheat plant which is weed like and related to rhubarb. Buckwheat is grown all over as a crop cover to replenish lost nutrients in soil. It thrives is cold climates. The sprouted greens are quite nutritious as well and make a great addition to any salad. They have a very mild, earthy flavor. The grain is very substantial and will fill you up fast. It also digests slowly, so is wonderful for anyone suffering from blood sugar imbalances. Buckwheat is particularly high thiamine, riboflavin, and other B-complex vitamins. It is also high in calcium and phosphorus, as well as other minerals, and boasts quite a high lysine content (6.1%), which is greater than any other cereal grain. Buckwheat is also considered a good blood builder, removes toxic wastes from the body, and is good for the kidneys.

Soba noodles can be used in many different preparations other than this salad. They are great anywhere that a rice noodle or wheat noodle would be used in any Asian inspired dish. I particularly love them in a hot broth with fresh basil, cilantro, and jalapeno slivers added right at the end, finished with a squirt of lime. Very tasty! For the salad, make sure your mung bean sprouts and herbs are as fresh as possible. I love mint and cilantro, but any kind of basil would also be fantastic in this dish. I use shoyu in this recipe, which is an unpasteurized, naturally fermented soy sauce, but you can use low-sodium soy sauce if you like. I also use agave nectar (a syrup made from the same plant as tequila) because of its neutral flavor and low impact on blood sugar levels. Agave can be found in any health food store or Trader Joe's, is an excellent substitute for sugar, and is much more of a whole food.

Lime and Peanut Bathed Soba Noodles
For this salad, slicing the raw vegetables thinly is very important. I suggest using a Benrinner mandolin, but a sharp knife will work just as well. I slice the carrots into thin planks on my mandolin, and them cut them into very fine strips with a sharp knife. You could also grate the carrots on a box grater, or even peel them into long strips with a wide peeler.

-6 oz dry soba noodles cooked according to package directions and cooled
-2 small cucumbers, sliced thinly into half moons
-2 small to medium sized carrots, peeled and cut into fine strips on a mandolin
-1 1/2 cups very fresh mung bean sprouts
-6 leaves crunchy lettuce such as romaine, sliced into thin strips
-1/2 cup cilantro leaves
-1/4 cup thinly sliced mint leaves
-1/4 cup toasted and chopped peanuts (optional)

-1/3 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
-1/2 teaspoon chili paste, or more to taste (I personally like more)
-3 tablespoons agave nectar
-2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)
-1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
-1 clove garlic, minced fine
-3 to 4 tablespoons smooth, organic, natural peanut butter (use more if you like a thicker, fattier dressing).

To Make the Salad:
Combine the cooked and cooled soba noodles with all of the vegetables, but not the herbs. Combine well in a large bowl and set aside. To make the dressing, whisk together all ingredients until completely smooth. Taste to adjust seasoning with agave syrup, shoyu, and chili paste if desired. More shoyu means more saltiness, and agave more sweetness. Pour the dressing over the noodles and vegetables and toss to completely coat. Add in the fresh herbs. Remove the salad with tongs from the large bowl to a serving dish or tray. Sprinkle with the chopped peanuts. Any dressing leftover in the bowl can be used on any other salad.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

New World Quinoa Pilaf

Native to Chile and referred to as the "Mother Grain" by the ancient Incas, Quinoa has been nourishing and sustaining civilizations for thousands of years. Quinoa is not a true grain in biological terms. It is the seed to a bushy plant that is a distant relative of spinach. Quinoa is used however just like most grains, and is a perfect stand in for rice and wheat. It is a small, round, flat seed that varies in colors from beige, to red, to black. It is a whole food, retaining both its germ and bran. When cooked, the germ creates a whitish ring around the quinoa with a little curly tail coming from the grain. I have been passionately in love with quinoa since the day I met it six years ago in a restaurant I worked in. I have been seeing it pop up more and more in cook books and food magazines, which is terrific as it deserves a high place in any whole foods kitchen.

Don't let the modesty of this tiny, mighty seed fool you; it is a powerhouse of nutrition. Quinoa is one of the few grains (amaranth and teff are the others), that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids. Most grains are low in the amino acid lysine making their protein profile incomplete, but not quinoa. Quinoa is high in fiber which helps to protect our bowels and heart; it is packed full of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, iron, copper, and manganese; it is high in B vitamins which are essential for energy production, and it is also high vitamin E, a wonderful antioxidant and cell protector. Quinoa also contains no gluten, making it perfect for gluten sensitive people. It has a rather mild flavor that is quite pleasing, which I think would make it kid friendly. Quinoa goes well with most foods, but especially South American and Mexican flavors. It has an affinity for chilies, cumin, cilantro, lime, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocado, tomatoes, and squash. Use quinoa in place of rice for a more nutritious meal. Quinoa can also be found in flour form and can be used in place of 25% of wheat flour in most recipes. Quinoa may first be rinsed before using to remove its natural coating of saponin, which is natures bug repellent. The saponin can be bitter and soaping tasting, but I have found that it just depends on the quinoa. I always cook a small bit just to see if this is even necessary, and I usually find that it is not. Saponins are not bad for you, so it is not a big deal, it all depends on your tastes. Quinoa can be found in any health food store or Trader Joes.

New World Quinoa Pilaf
This is not a completely traditional pilaf cooking method. Normally when cooking in the pilaf style, all of the ingredients are cooked together. However, I don't like overcooked summer squash with raw potato if you get my drift, so I tweak the method a little. The quinoa itself is cooked like a pilaf, then the rest of the ingredients are sauteed on the side and folded in.

-1 cup quinoa, rinsed
-1 3/4 cups water
-1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
-1/2 cup small diced purple onion
-1 teaspoon fresh ground cumin
-2 small Peruvian purple potatoes, diced small
-1 cup green beans cut into 1/2 inch lengths
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 Gold Bar summer squash, diced
-2 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
-salt and fresh ground pepper
-lime wedges to garnish

In a medium sized pot heat 1/2 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add in the diced purple onion and sweat until translucent and beginning to soften, about 3-4 minutes. Add in the fresh ground cumin and cook about 30 seconds to 1 more minute. Add in the rinsed quinoa and stir to coat with the onions and oil. Let the quinoa slightly toast, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the water, a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. The second it boils, turn down to a low simmer and cover. Cook the quinoa until all liquid has been absorbed and the germ of the quinoa begins to curl, about 15-20 minutes. Let rest, covered for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, Heat the rest of the extra virgin olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add in the diced potatoes. Stir often to prevent the potatoes from sticking, purple potatoes can be rather starchy sometimes and will stick easily. Cook until the potatoes begin to slightly brown and soften on the edges. Add in the cut green beans and a pinch of salt. Cook about2 more minutes. Add about 3-4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) water or stock to the pot and cover. Let steam about 3-4 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost completely soft. Remove the l;id and add in the squash and garlic. Continue cooking until the squash is just tender, as well as the green beans. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir the sauteed vegetables and chopped cilantro into the quinoa. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve with lime wedges.