Grilled Ratatouille and Wheat Berry Salad

If I didn’t do a major eye roll every time I read an overly-detailed recipe name, I’d call this “Double-Tomato Grilled Ratatouille Salad and Wheat Berry Salad with Tomato Seed Dressing.” Or perhaps I should go with “duo of tomato” instead; it sounds so very Top Chef-y. But wait, does that make it triple tomato if they’re fresh, roasted, and in the dressing? “Trio of tomato” does have a nice ring to it. Ah, let’s just call it what it is: a good, hearty, vegetarian one-dish meal that’s a nice salute to the last of summer produce. I wish I could tell you that all of the vegetables came from the garden, but alas, my green zucchini was a victim of the dreaded squash wilt, and the sweet basil just didn’t bounce back after being neglected while we were out of town during one of the hottest, driest weeks of the summer.

So what garden goodies (besides boatloads of jalapeños, of course) are still coming in now that the weather is starting to cool down? Tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers, and tons of fresh herbs that aren’t sweet basil. You name it (besides sweet basil) (ok, and dill; it went to seed) (alright alright I never have luck with cilantro either), I’ve got it: rosemary, chives, oregano, parsley, lavender, thyme, Thai basil, tarragon, sage…

With the abundance of eggplant, peppers, herbs, and tomatoes, ratatouille (even though I’d never made it before) seemed like a good direction to go in, with one problem: I wanted it to be a main dish, and—as much as I love vegetables—I knew I would be headed for a hangry meltdown in the afternoon if all I ate for lunch was a pile of veggies. I could just see myself losing all patience in the classroom and turning into That Mean Teacher Who Gets Really Angry About Everything And Doesn’t Have Any Patience.

Not wanting to be that person, I added wheat berries to the salad to make it more of a meal. I am a fan of the kind labeled “hard red winter wheat berries,” which is code for “you have to cook them a long time, but they don’t get mushy.” It’s kind of like the difference between steel cuts oats and instant oatmeal. Bonus: they are way less expensive than trendier items like quinoa. Even at the bulk bins at Whole Foods (Whole Foods!) they cost less than $2 per pound.

To put everything together, I grilled all the vegetables except the tomatoes, which I used fresh; I also tossed in some roasted cherry tomatoes that I’d made earlier this summer and had stashed in the freezer. For the dressing, instead of lemon juice or vinegar, I used  the seeds and the juice / gel around the seeds from the fresh tomato, and I didn’t skimp on the herbs. Mission accomplished: a ratatouille-inspired vegetarian lunch that’s substantial enough hold its own as a main dish.

Note: This salad—minus the fresh tomatoes and basil—can be prepared in advance and stored in the fridge for several days. You can also cook and freeze the wheat berries and the roasted cherry tomatoes ahead of time. 

Also, the bell peppers I’m growing this year are really small and have very thin walls, so I used 5 of them, but I call for 1 large in the recipe because the grocery store kind are significantly bigger and fleshier.

Grilled Ratatouille and Wheat Berry Salad

makes 4 main-dish servings

  • 1 cup uncooked hard red winter wheat berries
  • 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt, plus some
  • 5 Tbsp. olive oil, divided, plus some
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 1 large zucchini
  • 1 large red bell pepper
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 medium fresh tomatoes—heads up, you’re going to save their seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. fennel seed, crushed in a mortar and pestle
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • scant 1/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1/2 cup roasted cherry tomatoes (see recipe below)
  • 20 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
  1. Cook the wheat berries: Put them in a sauce pan with the 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt, cover with plenty of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, partially cover the pot with a lid, and cook until tender but chewy, 45 minutes to an hour. Drain and cool.
  2. Roast the garlic: Preheat the oven to 350º. Put the unpeeled garlic cloves on a piece of foil, drizzle with a little olive oil, and wrap tightly. Cook until the garlic is soft, about 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool, and then peel.
  3. Grill the veggies: Preheat a gas grill to high heat and oil the rack. Slice the zucchini and eggplant lengthwise into strips about 1/4″ wide, and slice the onion crosswise into disks about 1/4″ wide. Deseed the bell pepper and slice into strips about 1″ wide. Brush everything with 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Grill the veggies about 5 minutes per side, or until cooked to your liking. (I did this in 2 batches: I cooked the zucchini, onions, and eggplant directly on the grill, and then used a grill pan for the peppers.) When done, remove all the vegetables from the grill, and when cool enough to handle, chop everything into bite-size pieces.
  4. Make the dressing: Deseed and chop the fresh tomatoes, reserving 1 1/2 Tbsp. of the seeds and juice / gel that surrounds the seeds. Put the 1 1/2 Tbsp. of tomato seed-juice into a small (1-cup) food processor, and add the remaining 3 Tbsp. olive oil, the peeled roasted garlic cloves, the fennel, thyme, and oregano, and the table salt. Blend until emulsified.
  5. Assemble the salad: Toss together the cooked wheat berries, the grilled vegetables, the parsley, and the dressing. (At this point, the salad can be refrigerated for several days.) Top with the chopped fresh tomatoes and sliced basil leaves just before serving.

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes:

Note: I make these in the summer when the cherry tomato plants in the garden are producing more tomatoes than I can eat. After the tomatoes are roasted, I freeze them on plates and then transfer them into plastic bags to keep in the freezer. They’re great to add to salads, sandwiches, frittatas, etc in the fall and winter.

  • 2 c. cherry tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 300º.
  2. Slice the tomatoes in half and place, cut side up, on a baking sheet.
  3. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.
  4. Roast until shrunken and drier but not crisp, about an hour.

When Life Gives You Jalapeños, Make Jalapeño Kettle Corn

Here’s what not to do with a glut of particularly-spicy garden-grown jalapeños: Stuff them like bell peppers (but with taco-seasoned beef, cheddar cheese, and onions—sounds ok, right?!) and try to serve them as a main dish. No amount of sour cream will tame the fire.

So what do you do with an aggressively healthy jalapeño plant? After the failure of the stuffed-pepper experiment, I had two main ideas: 1) Make a bunch of pickled jalapeños. (But what would the advantage of that be, besides simply being able to put off figuring out how to use them? I’d still be stuck with all of the jalapeños, only in a less-versatile pickled form.) 2) Give them away to friends and coworkers. (But come on, that’s such a joke; it’s like when your parents bring you old crap that they don’t want anymore because they don’t want to throw it out and they’re hoping that you’ll have a use for it. I’m not going to make other people responsible for getting rid of my jalapeños. They might be happy to have heirloom tomatoes and fresh herbs from the garden, but no one is going to get excited about a homegrown jalapeño. You save all of 20 cents and it tastes exactly like the supermarket kind.)

And then I discovered a solution after spending a weekend in Canaan Valley with some friends. While we were there, we went to the Brew Skies Festival, where the beer was good, but the jalapeño kettle corn from Almost Heaven Kettle Corn was downright addictive. As in, they ran out of it and we begged them to make more because the two bags that we’d already polished off were not enough. Like all kettle corn, it was salty and sweet, but it was also a little spicy, and every couple of handfuls had a few slices of crunchy, cooked jalapeño. I came home on a mission to recreate it with the peppers from the garden.

One of my friends asked the vendor if they wouldn’t mind sharing the recipe, and they said that they use both pickled and fresh jalapeños, and that they cook the popcorn in the oil leftover from frying the jalapeños. I tried cooking pickled jalapeños and didn’t enjoy the texture, so I just stuck with all fresh ones. I also found that slicing the jalapeños fairly thinly helps them say crunchier for longer after you cook them. Not that it takes that long to eat a batch, but just in case you’re trying to prep it ahead of time for a cookout or something, you know.

Note: Jalapeños can vary in their heat level, so try one of yours before you begin. Also, you could reduce or increase the sugar by up to a tablespoon to suite your tastes. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my husband is a stovetop popcorn fiend and swears by Orville Redenbacher kernels.

Jalapeño Kettle Corn

makes about 5 cups, or 2-4 servings

  • 1 cup 1/8″-thick slices of fresh jalapeño (about 3-4 jalapeños); no need to remove the seeds
  • 1/4 c. vegetable oil
  • 1/4 c. popcorn kernels
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • scant 1/2 tsp. table salt
  1. Turn on your oven vent if you have one. If not, be prepared to start coughing when you cook the jalapeños.
  2. Line a plate with a double layer of paper towels.
  3. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Add the jalapeños and stir constantly until nicely browned, about 6 minutes. Keep an eye on them and turn the heat to medium if they are coloring too quickly; once they get going, they cook fast. Think of it like cooking bacon: you want the slices dark but not burned, so that they get crispy after they cool down. As soon as the jalapeños are browned, remove them with a slotted spoon and place on the paper-towel lined plate to drain. Take the pan off the heat, but do not throw out the oil that’s left in the pan.
  4. Once the oil that’s left in the pan has cooled a little bit, strain any seeds out of it, and then measure out 2 Tbsp.
  5. In a cold medium saucepan with a well-fitting lid, stir together the 2 Tbsp. of jalapeño cooking oil that you reserved, the kernels, the sugar, and the salt. Put the lid on the pot and turn the heat to medium-high. When you hear the kernels start to pop, start shaking the pot occasionally (hold the lid on while you do this) in order to evenly distribute the sugar and prevent the popcorn from burning. In between shaking, set the pot back down on the burner. When the popping slows down, pour the popcorn out into a large bowl and let it cool for a few minutes. It will get crispier as it cools.
  6. Taste a cooked jalapeño slice to see how spicy it is, and then add as many of them as you want back into the kettle corn. (I used all of them.)
  7. The kettle corn is best when it’s freshest and should be eaten within an hour or so of being made; the jalapeño slices may lose their crispness after much longer than that.

French-Style Tomato Tart (with an option for Homemade Puff Pastry)

Given: Nostalgia can make food more delicious. When you reminisce about that amazing dish you had in New Orleans (and let’s not be mistaken, it was one of the best restaurant meals you’ve ever had), the memory of its taste, plus all of the positive associations of being on vacation, plus the consciousness of the fact that you probably won’t go back there again any time soon, if ever—all of it just comes together to have this crazy synergistic effect on your recollection of how good it was.

That’s Dijon, not butter.

This memory-enhanced taste perception isn’t unique to dining out on special occasions. It also happens at home when you make things that are inextricably connected to other experiences: the warm fuzzies turn a great recipe into an exceptional one. Homemade biscuits (irresistible!) are my dad insisting that they needed to be cut 1/2″ thick while cooking on one of our rare but cherished “breakfast for dinner” nights. Amelia mud pie (a chocolate ice cream and Kahlua combination in an Oreo cookie crust; not the same as Mississippi mud pie) is summer family birthday get-togethers when my mom was in charge of dessert. Bourbon and ginger ale is decorating the Christmas tree while listening to John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas album. And so on.

This tomato tart is having dinner in the backyard of a friend of a friend in France, being shocked that something so simple could taste so good, and wishing that I had a cute little garden with outdoor lights. (12 years later, mission accomplished on the garden.)

Store-bought puff pastry works perfectly well in this recipe, and the only things that top it are Dijon mustard, sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper, and (if you live in France) a certain type of cream poured straight out of the container—something in between whipping cream and sour cream. Pourable, but not thin. I scrounge together my own version with half-and-half, sour cream, and whipped cream cheese. With the addition of cream cheese, I hesitate to even call this tart “French-style,” but I like its flavor, and it gets the mixture to the right consistency.

This was my first attempt at made-from-scratch puff pastry. I got the recipe from a French website and didn’t change much except converting the metric measurements to US standard and clarifying the rolling/rotating process. Out of curiosity, I weighed my completed pastry and compared it to Pepperidge Farm puff pastry. The French website says that it serves 8, but according to the Pepperidge Farm box—which claims that one serving is 41 grams—I had nearly 14 servings on my hands. Ha!

For the puff pastry, you essentially make a simple dough of flour, salt, and water, and then fold it around a rectangle of pounded butter. This little package of dough-wrapped butter gets rolled out and tri-folded a grand total of 6 times, et voilà. There is a lot of resting in the fridge (3 1/2 hours total), so it takes a while from start to finish, but it’s not overly complicated.

If you’ve got a few hours to spare and some other things to do at home while it’s resting, it doesn’t feel so time-consuming. If, like me, you’re trying to figure out how to avoid wasting all of the garden tomatoes that seem to be ripening at the same time and are eager to use more than the 3 or 4 piddly ones called for in this tart, while your puff pastry dough rests it’s a great time to roast some cherry tomatoes or blanch, peel, and freeze the beefsteaks for later.

Note: I’ve found that this recipe works best with plum/Roma tomatoes since they’re less juicy, but it works okay with other tomatoes as well, as long as you seed them first.

The puff pastry recipe is adopted, barely, from this recipe for pâté feuilletée from Le Journal des Femmes.

French-Style Tomato Tart

I wanted this to serve 4, but let’s not kid ourselves; 2 people can take it down easily

  • 2/3 sheet of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, defrosted OR 1/4 batch of homemade puff pastry (see below)
  • 1/2 lb. tomatoes, preferably plum/Roma (about 3-4 medium) (see note)
  • 1/2 Tbsp. sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp. half-and-half
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. whipped cream cheese (the whipped kind can be blended straight out of the fridge; sub the regular kind at your own risk)
  • 1 Tbsp. smooth Dijon mustard
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400º.
  2. Slice the tomatoes 1/4″ to 1/3″ thick, sprinkle lightly with kosher salt, and place on a double layer of paper towels to drain while you prep everything else.
  3. In a small liquid measuring cup, whisk together the sour cream, half-and-half, and whipped cream cheese until relatively smooth. It’s ok if it’s a little lumpy.
  4. Flour your work surface and roll the puff pastry into a square that’s about 9″ x 9″. Place directly onto a baking sheet.
  5. Brush the pastry with the Dijon mustard, leaving a 1/2″ border. Arrange the tomato slices evenly on top and then pour the half-and-half mixture evenly over the tomatoes. It’s not going to completely cover the whole thing; I usually just make a spiral starting in the center. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.
  6. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is deep golden.
  7. Cut with a pizza cutter and serve immediately.

Homemade Puff Pastry

serves 8 (according to the French site) or almost 14 (if you go by Pillsbury’s serving sizes)

  • 13 Tbsp. (1 stick + 5 Tbsp.) unsalted butter
  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. water, plus a little more
  1. Cut the full stick of butter in half crosswise, wrap all 3 pieces of butter in plastic wrap, and flatten gently with your palm or a rolling pin until it’s more or less in the shape of a rectangle. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the 1/2 cup of water. With your fingertips, incorporate the flour bit by bit until you have a ball. If necessary, add a little more water so that the dough comes together. It will be very shaggy; that’s ok. Cut an X in the top, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.
  3. Flour your work surface. You can be generous with the flour. Take the chilled ball of dough, unwrap it, and flatten it out with your palm, then use a rolling pin to roll it out into the shape of a cross. Leave the center part a little thicker than the rest.
  4. Take your chilled butter out of the fridge, unwrap it, and place it in the center of the cross. Fold over the arms—left, right, top, then bottom—to completely enclose the butter.
  5. Add more flour to your work surface as necessary. Roll out the dough away from you, trying not to let any butter escape and making a rectangle 3 times as long as it is wide. Rotate the whole thing a quarter turn (90º) clockwise. Fold into thirds, starting with the left and then the right. Try to line up the sides nicely and keep an even shape. Add more flour if you need, then roll it out away from you again into a rectangle 3 times as long as it is wide, rotate it a quarter turn clockwise, and fold into thirds, starting with the left side and then the right. The first two turns are now complete. Mark the upper right-hand corner by putting a dent in it with your finger, wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes but ideally an hour.
  6. Repeat step 5 two more times, including refrigerating after the last time you fold it. When you take the dough out of the fridge, be sure to start with the mark you made in the upper right-hand corner of the rectangle.
  7. The dough is now ready to be used. After folding the pastry for the last time, I cut the whole batch into 4 squares. They kept in the fridge (well-wrapped in plastic wrap) for a few days, and also worked great after being frozen and then defrosted.

Zucchini Eggs

Sometimes the last day of vacation makes me feel like I’m reliving one of the more forgettable parts of adolescence: that unshakable grumpy mood and, accompanying it, an overwhelming sense of sheer crapiness pervading everything. Fortunately (for me, and for those who have to be around me), this sullenness isn’t the all-day affair it used to be, at least partially because there are two things I always look forward to when I come home. The first is catching up on snuggles with this puppy:

And the second is seeing what happened in the garden while we were gone. I am like those proud aunts who exclaim “The last time I saw you, you were only this big!,” only I’m saying it to my squashes and peppers. I mean, we got home at 11:30pm and I was literally out there with the flashlight app on my phone, knowing it was too dark to see much but not being able to resist a quick glance through everything. I had asked a friend to help herself to anything that ripened while we were gone, but when I really checked out the garden in the daylight, would I find any new baby watermelons? Did everything survive? Would there be anything that was ready to pick? The answers, as I discovered the next morning, were: Yes, Mostly, and How did I not see that zucchini before I left? Did it seriously grow a foot and a half in a week?

Summer squashes are better when they’re on the smaller side; they can get bitter and tough when they get too big. Being practically incapable of getting rid of produce simply because it’s past its prime, though, I couldn’t toss this monster directly into the compost bin. He would just have to be grated and cooked into submission.
“Zucchini eggs,” as I uninventively call them, have been a summer brunch staple for 5 or 6 years now. They are one of my favorite weekend breakfasts because they taste awesome. Oh, also, they’re easy and quick, and I usually have all the ingredients on hand. And, unlike some brunch fare, they don’t put you in a food coma or make you feel like you don’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

Basically, you sauté some zucchini with a bit of garlic, crack an egg into it, and scramble it all up. The trickiest part is forming it all into a couple of patties, which you then place on a toasted English muffin, top with some cheese, and pop in the broiler for a couple of minutes. It’s better with normal-sized zucchini, but if you have a gargantuan one to use up like I did, it works just fine with those too.

Note: You can double this recipe, and I have successfully tripled it before, but I wouldn’t recommend doing more than doubling it. It just gets too unwieldy in the pan.

Zucchini Eggs

serves 1; can be doubled (see note)

  • 1 English muffin, split
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup coarsely grated zucchini (about 1/2 medium)
  • kosher salt
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 oz. sliced mild melty cheese, such as provolone or Colby Jack
  1. Have a small baking sheet ready. You will also need a silicone-coated or wooden spoon and a small flexible spatula (the pancake-turner kind).
  2. Turn the oven on 350º and put your English muffin halves directly on the oven rack to toast. No need to preheat the oven; the muffin will toast slowly as you make the zucchini and egg.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan to just over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the zucchini and a pinch of kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally with the spoon, until the zucchini has started to release its water. Stir more frequently until the water has evaporated.
  4. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
  5. Check your muffin. Mine is usually done toasting now. Take it out of the oven and place it on the baking sheet. Turn the oven up to broil.
  6. Crack the egg directly on top of the zucchini, break the yolk, and mix it all up really well. Stir frequently with the spoon so that it cooks relatively evenly. Add a little more salt if you want. When the egg starts to dry out enough to hold some shape, separate the mixture into two mounds, mold them into patties that are roughly English muffin-sized, and let them cook a little on one side. Flip the patties once with the spatula, and continue cooking until the eggs are done.
  7. Place the two patties on the toasted English muffin and top with the sliced cheese.
  8. Broil until the cheese is melted, just 1 or 2 minutes.

Baked Pasta with Eggplant and Mushrooms

Baked Pasta with Eggplant and Mushrooms

It’s the inaugural post of Things Made with Stuff from the Garden! This week, we have Too Much Eggplant and Herbs That Are Starting to Flower. Later this summer, I’ll probably be featuring What Do I Do With All This Zucchini and Holy Crap Why Did We Plant So Many Tomatoes Again.

The tomato sauce for this dish doesn’t use fresh tomatoes; the first time I made it, I was trying to use up one of those huge 28 oz. cans of crushed tomatoes, and it was easy and turned out well. (For those of you who, like me, want to curse recipes that call for a 15 oz. can of crushed tomatoes because you swear they only exist in 28 oz. cans—I finally found 15 oz. cans. Furmano’s brand.) The crushed tomatoes are reduced until they’re nice and concentrated, and then vinegar, fish sauce (yes, the kind you see in lots of Thai recipes—I thought it would be easier than opening a can of anchovies…), fresh oregano, and fresh thyme get added; pasta water finishes it up so it’s spoonable but not thin.

I have to tell you, I’m not an eggplant expert. This is the first year I’ve grown it, thanks to a coworker who also gardens and graciously offered to get me some Japanese varietals from a farmer she buys plants from. She told me that she often uses eggplant in pasta dishes, so that sounded like a good place to start from. Mushrooms and eggplant pizza is a favorite of mine, so portobellos became the second veg.

I didn’t peel the eggplant because I read that it’s unnecessary, especially for the smaller kinds that don’t have tough skin. I did soak the eggplant in salted water before sautéing it because that’s what my hairdresser suggested. Seriously—she loves eggplant and prepares it a lot, and she said that the salt water soak prevents it from absorbing too much oil when you cook it. I did some research and it looks like it’s more common just to salt the eggplant, let it sit, and then rinse off the salt. This is also supposed to help remove the bitter flavor, which apparently is only an issue with larger, older eggplants. I did the salt water soak anyway because it sounded fun. (And it worked well the first time I tried it, so why not stick with it?)

The finished product is sort of like lasagna, but without lasagna noodles: pasta is layered with veggies, cheeses, and tomato sauce, with a sprinkle of fresh basil to top it off. I am not a huge fan of ricotta cheese, so I used goat cheese.  Normally I would balk at turning on the oven for a baked pasta dish in the middle of the summer, but I think this is worth the 30 minutes of oven time. It has made it into the dinner rotation twice in the past couple of weeks, and it will probably be a regular as long as the eggplant keeps coming in.

Note:  This isn’t 100% vegetarian because of the fish sauce.

Also, I used 2 huge (6″) portobello caps, which yielded about 5 cups of chopped mushrooms. You could substitute an equivalent amount of baby bellas / creminis.

Baked Pasta with Eggplant and Mushrooms

serves 4 people who aren’t super hungry

  • 4 oz. dried pasta; I used medium shells but I bet any smallish shape would work
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup pasta water
  • one 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 2 tsp. red vine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups chopped eggplant (1/2″ dice)
  • ≈ 10 oz. portobello caps
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 oz. soft goat cheese, crumbled
  • 3 oz. fontina cheese, coarsely grated
  • about 8 large basil leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain, saving a cup of the pasta water. Set aside the water and the pasta.

For the tomato sauce:

  1. Heat 1/2 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. The tomatoes are going to splatter and bubble, so go for one that has high sides.
  2. Add the can of crushed tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick and pasty, about 25-30 minutes. (I used this time to prep the eggplant and mushrooms.) You might need to lower the heat or stir more often as the tomatoes cook down.
  3. Remove the tomatoes from heat and add the vinegar, fish sauce, oregano, thyme, and 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water. If you want the sauce thinner, add more pasta water by the tablespoon until you get the consistency you desire. I added 2 additional tablespoons.
  4. Season to taste—be careful with the salt because fish cause is salty—and set aside.

For the eggplant and mushrooms:

  1. Soak the eggplant in a bowl of salted water while you cook the mushrooms.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a 10″ sauté pan over medium heat.
  3. Remove the stems and scrape the gills from the portobello caps. Chop into 1/2″ cubes.
  4. Add the mushrooms and a healthy pinch or two of kosher salt to the pan. (They barely fit in my pan at first but shrunk down to about a cup.) Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their juices, about 3 minutes. Continuing sautéing until most of the juices evaporate and the mushrooms are cooked through, about 5 more minutes.
  5. Add the minced garlic and continuing cooking just until the garlic is fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute more.
  6. Scrape the mushrooms into a bowl and set aside.
  7. Set the same pan back over medium-high heat and add the last Tbsp. of olive oil.
  8. Remove the eggplant from the soaking water and squeeze it dry in a kitchen towel.
  9. Add the eggplant and a pinch or two of kosher salt to the pan and cook until nicely browned and completely cooked through, about 12 minutes. Think of it like making hashbrowns but with eggplant. Turn the heat down to medium if the eggplant is browning too quickly.

Layering it together:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350º.
  2. Lightly oil an 8×8″ baking dish.
  3. Build it up like this and make your layers as even as possible:
    • eggplant
    • half of the pasta
    • mushrooms
    • goat cheese
    • the rest of the pasta
    • tomato sauce (dollop on top and smooth it out with the back of a spoon)
    • fontina
  4. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until it’s warmed through and the cheese on top is melty.
  5. Chiffonade the basil leaves and sprinkle over the top before serving.

Peanut Butter Pudding Pops

Sometimes I think about the “If you were stranded on a desert island…” question, but with food. Instead of “What three things would you take with you?,” I ask myself, “If you could only eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be?”

Mine would be ice cream, hands down. Cupcakes and cake aren’t even contenders. Pie, meh. I would have a hard time giving up cookies. But I don’t have to choose just one flavor of ice cream, right? So I can still get cookies ‘n cream ice cream every once in a while to get a fix of both? Also, by “ice cream,” I assume that includes gelato, frozen custard, and dairy-based popsicles. Sounds perfect.

In the category of Foods I Could Eat All The Time And Not Get Sick Of, peanut butter is right up there with ice cream. This could be genetic—my dad’s breakfast is not complete until he has had a Triscuit (or two) with crunchy peanut butter. Me, I’m a creamy girl myself, and I like to get my breakfast PB fix on a toasted English muffin with sliced banana. I’ve also been known to mix a spoonful of that peanutty goodness into a bowlful of granola. (It’s like a peanut butter granola bar in cold cereal form. You just have to smoosh the peanut butter into the cereal real good before you add the milk. Try it.)

I have tried the powdered peanut butter thing. While I firmly believe that it makes a crappy substitute for regular peanut butter when you reconstitute it and use it as a spread, it’s pretty dynamite for making banana-peanut butter smoothies. (Which are also in the PB-for-breakfast rotation.)

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So, imagine how much my mind exploded when I made some spectacular fudge pops from Smitten Kitchen and realized I might be able to tweak the recipe a bit and get the same pudding-y mouthfeel but with peanut butter instead of chocolate. It could just be the perfect trifecta: Peanut butter? Check. Pudding pop that’s basically a single serving of ice cream? Check. Icy cold dessert on a swelteringly hot summer day? Check.

The recipe from is pretty simple: you cook milk, sugar, cornstarch, and some flavorings until the mixture thickens, then pour it into some popsicle molds; the texture turns out pretty amazing, really smooth and rich. I subbed creamy peanut butter and powdered peanut butter for the chopped chocolate and cocoa powder, reduced the sugar a bit, and took out the butter. It turned out exactly as I had hoped: fudge pop texture, peanut butter flavor.

Note: This recipe is adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s fudge popsicles, which itself was adapted from On A Stick! by Matt Armendariz.

I use plastic popsicle molds. Sometimes it can be a pain to get the pops out of the mold. The method that works most consistently for me is to remove the frozen popsicles from the freezer, let them rest at room temperature for 3-4 minutes, and then run the mold under warm water before gently removing.

Peanut Butter Pudding Pops

makes 4 pops, plus a little leftover (my molds are about 2 1/2 oz.)

  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 Tbsp. powdered peanut butter
  • 2 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  1. Put all of the ingredients except the vanilla into a medium saucepan. Set aside the liquid measurer that the milk was in—you’ll need it again.
  2. Turn the heat to medium and start whisking.
  3. Continue whisking frequently until the mixture thickens, about 5 or 6 minutes. For me, it started bubbling after 2 or 3 minutes and thickened up another 2 minutes or so after that.
  4. Remove from heat and pour back into the liquid measuring cup. This will make it easier to fill your molds.
  5. Add the vanilla extract and let the mixture cool a little—10 minutes or so.
  6. Fill your molds and let freeze until solid. I let them freeze overnight.

Napa Cabbage Salad with Chicken, Edamame, and Creamy Sesame Dressing

After the last post, here’s a more seasonal lunch I made with ingredients I already had. We had some Napa cabbage and bell pepper that needed to get used up, and this is the salad that they turned into. Napa cabbage is my favorite cabbage—it’s crunchy and mild, and it lacks the toughness and pungency that some other cabbages have.

IMG_4826I wanted to use the Napa cabbage raw and make some sort of salad with it, but most of the recipes I found with it were meant to be used as side dishes, and I wanted something that would be more filling so I could take it as a one-dish meal for lunch. I went with carrot, bell pepper, and red onion for the other vegetables, partly because that’s just what I had, and —you guessed it—I didn’t feel like going to the grocery store. I imagine that cucumber, sugar snap peas, and/or snow peas would also be good in it.

IMG_4827For the dressing, honestly, I was hoping to re-create something similar to the sesame coleslaw at Café Asia, which is dynamite. Usually, trying to imitate something I had in a restaurant is a recipe for disaster. (Pun intended.) My version inevitably ends up significantly inferior to whatever I was trying to mimic, and it just leaves me with an even worse craving for the restaurant dish. This dressing, though—this dressing turned out pretty darn well. Just be sure to read the note about the consistency.

Note: If you’re going to use the dressing right away, you might want to thin it down with extra vinegar or some water. If you’re going to keep it on hand for a while, just let it rest. Mine got much, much thinner after a night in the fridge, and I don’t have an Alton Brown-y scientific explanation for why.

Also, for the chicken, I used the spicy asian marinade from Epicurious.

Napa Cabbage Salad with Chicken, Edamame, and Creamy Sesame Dressing

serves 2

For the dressing—you might not use all of it:

  • 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise (I used light)
  • 1 Tbsp. tahini
  • 1 Tbsp. white miso paste
  • 4 tsp. unseasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp. mirin
  • 2 tsp. sesame oil
  1. Whisk together all of the ingredients until smooth. Taste for seasoning. I didn’t add any salt because the miso paste was salty enough.

For the rest of the salad and assembly:

  • about 4 cups chopped Napa cabbage
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup shelled edamame, cooked according to package directions
  • 1 grilled chicken breast (or rotisserie chicken breast, or leftover chicken from whatever), sliced
  • optional garnish: toasted sesame seeds
  1. Divide the vegetables evenly onto two plates.
  2. Top with the chicken, and the sesame seeds if using.
  3. Add dressing to taste and toss. You might not use all of the dressing.

Shrimp and Kale Over Kabocha Squash Purée

IMG_4733This post is long overdue. I made dish, took the photos, and polished it off for lunch, ohhhh, about month and a half ago. I wasn’t planning on procrastinating about posting it, but spring happened. You know, those glorious few weeks in between nasty late-winter bleakness and disgusting East Coast summer humidity, when it’s actually nice to do things outdoors? When that sort of weather finally rolls around, everything else takes a back seat to being outside and working in the garden. TV doesn’t get watched. Papers don’t get graded. Blogs don’t get updated. Also, it got so warm that I almost didn’t post this dish because it seemed too unseasonal, but the relentless chilly drizzle this week has taken care of that.

So, this was a creation thrown together out of laziness. It was a Sunday night, and I didn’t have anything to take for lunch on Monday. Being a teacher, this meant that I needed to pack my lunch. Because no, I just can’t bring myself to go purchase a school cafeteria meal. I kind of like having to bring a lunch to work every day since it does make it easier to be healthy, but it kind of blows when you really just wish you could go out somewhere and buy something if you don’t feel like cooking.

So, back to that Sunday night. I needed to make my lunch and I really didn’t feel like going to the grocery store. I found some raw shrimp in the freezer, had a whole kabocha squash hanging out in the pantry, and lucky me, there was a bunch of kale in the garden that I had accidentally over-wintered, and it was just waiting to be picked because it was going to seed. It was actually the same stuff I made the frittata with back in December; I never got around to pulling it out of the ground, and it just starting growing again earlier this spring.

I decided to make a one-dish meal and start with a purée from the kabocha, keep the kale pretty simple with onion and garlic, and go spicy with the shrimp to balance out sweetness from the squash. For a weekday lunch, this is ideal for me. I’m pretty happy if I can make something that will last for a few days, can hang out in the fridge without getting soggy or wilty, and won’t require any more prep / chopping / assembly in the morning or during my precious 30 minutes of lunch. And I maybe get a little OCD about putting individual servings in tupperwares. And using matching tupperwares.

Shrimp and Kale Over Kabocha Squash Purée

makes 3 servings

For the kabocha purée:

  • 1/2 medium kabocha squash (about 1 1/2 lb.)
  • 1 Tbsp. melted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. half-and-half
  • 2 Tbsp. chicken broth
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • kosher salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 350º.
  2. Scoop the seeds out of the kabocha, cut into pieces, brush with the melted butter, and sprinkle with kosher salt.
  3. Bake until tender, 25-30 minutes. It’s done when you can pierce it easily with a fork.
  4. Let it rest until it’s cool enough to handle, and then scoop the flesh from the shell and purée it in a food processor with the half-and-half, broth, and smoked paprika until smooth. Season to taste.

For the kale:

  • 8 cups (about 8 oz.) kale—I used Red Russian
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced crosswise
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan over medium-high heat,
  2. Add the onion and sauté 6-7 minutes, or until starting to brown.
  3. Turn the heat down to medium and sauté for another 6-7 minutes, until completely soft.
  4. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute or so.
  5. Add the kale in handfuls, stirring between each one. Keep adding kale and stirring until it’s all wilted. Season to taste.

For the shrimp:

  • 12 oz. medium shrimp, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. ancho chili powder
  • 1/8 tsp. chipotle chili powder
  • 1/8 tsp. oregano
  • 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
  1. Pat the shrimp dry. Combine the salt and all of the spices, and rub it evenly over the shrimp.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the shrimp and sauté until just barely cooked through.
  3. Serve the shrimp over top of the kale and the squash purée. It tastes best all mixed together.

Mango Eton Mess

Before we even get in to this concoction, I should just go ahead and tell you that I’m not sure it qualifies as “Eton Mess.” So I hope there aren’t any British readers out there who have gotten their pants (that’s what they’re called in Britain, right?) all in a wad if I have overextended the definition of an Eton Mess.

My understanding of Eton Mess is that it’s a dessert consisting essentially of meringue cookies, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries all mixed together. I wish I could tell you some cute story about trying my first Eton Mess on a lovely holiday in the English countryside, but the truth is that the only time I’ve ever been to Britain was for a few days in 2003 during a post-studying-abroad backpacking trip around Europe, and wow! the pound made things budget-blowingly expensive for a college student. I was traveling with an equally-poor friend, and our M.O. to save money while in London was to gorge ourselves at the free breakfast offered at our hostel so that it would see us through past lunch, and then buy a pre-made sandwich at a petrol station for dinner. And those sandwiches were pretty darn good! You might argue that we were hungry enough from skipping lunch that anything would have tasted decent, but this Google books result from An American Guide to Britishness by Alana Muir backs me up. In fact, eating pre-packaged sandwiches from England was how I discovered what arugula is. It was on every sandwich we bought, and I couldn’t figure out what that delicious new flavor was until I finally found a sandwich with the ingredients listed, realized “rocket” was the one thing I wasn’t familiar with, and made it to an internet café to look up what the heck “rocket” was. This was pre-smart-phone era, obviously.

So, this Mango Eton Mess was my first time both making and eating Eton Mess. I had only even heard about Eton Mess because my mom made it once last year for a dinner party and told me about it. I checked out some recipes for it online, and since most of them called for macerating the strawberries to increase their juiciness, I pureed one of the mangoes and added some lime juice to it to create that liquid factor.

Mangoes are kind of a pain to peel, but they are delicious, so it is totally worth it. I like to first hold the mango stem-end down and then slice off the fleshy cheeks around the pit. I just aim for where I think the pit will end and slice gently. If your knife hits the pit, you’ll be able to tell, and you can just jiggle your knife a little away from it. After that, if I’m making small dice, I slice each cheek in half crossways, and then just run a knife around the contours of the skin to remove as much fruit as possible. If you want bigger chunks, you can also just score the mango half after removing the pit, and then remove the skin the same way. I also run my knife along the sides of what is left attached to the pit, and get as much mango off of that as I can. And then—I’m not ashamed to admit it—I treat the pit like it’s corn on the cob and gnaw off everything that I couldn’t get with the knife. Because I. Love. Mangoes. That much.

I didn’t want plain or vanilla flavor for the whipped cream; I was looking to complement the mango flavor but not overwhelm it, but I didn’t think that vanilla was the addition I was looking for. I flavored the whipped cream with another squeeze of lime and a hint of ginger for a little spice. I used ginger juice, which might sound fancy and complicated, but it’s not. If you microplane fresh ginger, you wind up with a little pile of ginger pulp, which you can easily squeeze juice from. I bet you could also use the smallest holes of a box grater if you don’t have a microplane.

For the cookies, all of the recipes I looked up called for plain meringues, I suppose because they are more for texture than anything else. That sounded a little bland though, so I added chopped, toasted macadamia nuts to my meringues. It was a nice contrast to the tartness of the mango and lime, and it was still light-tasting. I imagine this dessert would be easy to do with other fruits and flavorings. And I think we could still call it Eton Mess.

Note: The meringue cookies are adapted from Claire Robinson’s Nutty Meringue Cookies from the Food Network.

Also, as I mentioned in my last post, the type of mango is key: use the Ataulfo / Champagne variety. I would not recommend making the mango purée with a Tommy Atkins mango because it would be way too fibrous.

Mango Eton Mess

serves 4

For the meringues:

  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature (I leave them on the counter overnight in a small cup sealed tightly with Saran wrap. If you’re worried about salmonella maybe don’t do that.)
  • 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup chopped and toasted macadamia nuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 225º and line a large baking pan with parchment paper.
  2. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt on medium speed until foamy.
  3. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form.
  4. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating on high until stiff peaks form. This will take about 3 minutes.
  5. Fold in the nuts with a rubber spatula.
  6. Form 16 cookies by dropping heaping tablespoons onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Leave about 2 inches between each cookie.
  7. Bake until the meringues are dried through, about 1 1/2 hours. They will peel easily from the parchment when they’re done.
  8. Let cool completely. Can be stored in an air-tight container for up to a week after being cooled.

For the mango part:

  • 2 Champagne mangoes (also called Ataulfo mangoes), divided
  • 1-2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  1. Peel and coarsely chop one of the mangoes. (See the post above for more detailed instructions on peeling the mango.) Purée it in a small food processor with the 1 Tbsp. of the lime juice until completely smooth. Taste. Add more lime juice if you want. It will depend on the sweetness and size of your mango. No need to strain if your mango was good-quality.
  2. Peel the other mango and chop it into 1/3″ dice.  Stir it into the purée and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the whipped cream:

  • 1″ section of fresh ginger, peeled
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 cup well-chilled whipping cream
  • 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar
  1. Finely grate the ginger on a microplane. Take the clump of grated ginger and squeeze its juice into a small bowl.
  2. Measure out a scant 1/4 teaspoon of the ginger juice. Add it and the lime juice to the whipping cream.
  3. Beat the whipping cream until soft peaks form. Add the powdered sugar and beat until nice and thick.

For the assembly:

  1. If you want it to be pretty, use 4 nice glasses and, in each, layer a couple of tablespoons of the mango mixture, a dollop of the whipped cream, and 2 crumbled meringue cookies, then repeat each layer.
  2. If you want to embrace the Mess of Eton Mess: For each serving, stir together about 1/4 cup of the mango mixture, 1/4 of the whipped cream, and 4 crumbled meringue cookies.
  3. Eat it right away so the meringue cookies don’t lose their crunchiness.

Curried Chicken Thighs with Okra and Potatoes

When my parents came to visit last weekend, I took them to H-Mart. Yes, the huge Asian supermarket. Yes, for fun! My parents don’t have any grocery stores like that where they live, and they wanted to check it out. Besides, over the years of my parents visiting, we’ve exhausted pretty much everything on the typical DC-area must-do list, so we’ve got to get a little creative with our adventures now. And the Saturday samples at H-Mart!—they put Costco to shame. As we walked in through the doors, my eyes lit up, and I’m pretty sure I exclaimed “Mangoes!” Imagine the delight of a little kid being offered an ice cream cone he wasn’t expecting, and you’ll get the picture. I didn’t realize mangoes were coming into season, and it was like a surprise present seeing them piled high in the produce aisle. I have a thing for mangoes, but specifically the small yellow kind, which are sometimes hard to find and usually more expensive. I’ve seen them labeled as champagne mangoes or ataulfo mangoes (which are apparently two names for the same thing), but comparing them to the more widely-available Tommy Atkins mango is like comparing Haribo Gold Bears to CVS brand gummy bears. It’s just laughable. The champagne mango is sweet and tart and delicious, but the real draw for me is its texture, which is just to die for: it’s unbelievably smooth and creamy, unlike the Tommy Atkins mango, which is so fibrous that sometimes you think it’s been crossbred with celery. I don’t want to have to go floss my teeth after I eat a piece of fruit. Obviously, a box of those mangoes came home with me. I reluctantly shared some with my mom, and hoarded the rest for myself. Mostly, I just like to eat them plain, or mix them into some yogurt with a sprinkle of nuts or granola for breakfast. I have a hard time finding recipes that I like that use mangoes because they rarely seem to do the mango justice. The main dishes are often too one-note sweet for my taste, and the desserts I’ve tried seem to detract from the mango flavor instead of complement it. These curried chicken thighs, however, are spot-on. I have to admit, when I read the ingredient list, it sounded pretty impossible that everything could come together and actually taste good. It’s got a lot going on. First, you blend up a spice mixture that includes fennel and curry powder—not a combination I’ve seen before—and use it like a dry rub on your chicken.

Next, after browning the chicken, you sear potato pieces in the same pan you cooked the chicken in, then dump the chicken back in the pan along with some water, cinnamon sticks, tomato paste and sugar. Sounds odd, right? Just go with it. After a few minutes, you add some okra pods and let them stew a little while. Once the veggies are tender, lemon juice brightens everything up, and it’s cooked a little more until it thickens.

IMG_4341Mango, peanut, and fresh cilantro top everything off, and the dish wouldn’t be the same without them. Seriously, they play a small but essential part; we’ve got some Best Supporting Actor nominees here.

Peanuts, mango, and cilantro for the final touch.

Heat from the cayenne and curry powder, sweetness from the brown sugar and mangoes, richness from the chicken and potatoes, and crunch from the peanuts and okra—it sounds like it would be a mess, but somehow it all works. IMG_4375

Note: This is adapted, barely, from the Curried Chicken Legs with Okra and Potatoes from Epicurious.

Curried Chicken Thighs with Okra and Potatoes serves 4

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1 lb.), patted dry
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp. curry powder; I used hot madras
  • 1 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cayenne
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. peeled minced fresh ginger
  • 1 1/3 lb. new potatoes (red-skinned)
  • 1/2 lb. fresh okra
  • 1 c. water
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • kosher salt, to taste

For topping:

  • 1 champagne mango, diced
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped roasted salted peanuts
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Grind the the coriander, curry powder, fennel, and cayenne in a spice grinder or coffee grinder, then place the mixture in a medium bowl. Add the chopped garlic and ginger to the dry spices, and stir to combine. Add the chicken thighs and rub all over. Season to taste with kosher salt. Let them sit while you prep the veggies.
  2. Cut the potatoes into 1″ chunks and trim the okra stems, but don’t cut the pods. Combine the water, brown sugar, and tomato paste.
  3. Heat the oil in a large 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. (I have also made this in a stock pot, and it works fine but you might have to brown the chicken in 2 batches.) Add the chicken and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and tent with foil.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium and add the potatoes to the same skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes start to brown.
  5. Add the chicken plus any accumulated juices back into the skillet, and also add the water mixture and cinnamon sticks. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the okra and simmer, covered, for another 5 minutes. At this point, the potatoes should be almost done, and the okra should be getting tender but still fairly bright green.
  7. Add the lemon juice and cook uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and season to taste with kosher salt. Divide among 4 plates and top evenly with mango, peanuts, and cilantro.