Thursday, April 25, 2013

a pretty nice time

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This happens to me a lot because I work in a fancy grocery store. I see something in the produce department, while I’m rattling by with a bunch of empty wine boxes on my cart, and it lodges itself into my creative culinary subconscious, because it is simply too adorable not to cook. Such is the case with these Sicilian eggplants. Up until last Tuesday my favorite small thing from Sicily was Sophia Petrillo. She still ranks high without a doubt, but these tender, flavorful, sausage and veggie stuffed little globes of yum are holding a serious spot in my heart right now. I guess because they kind of saved me last week, by pulling me away from the news and into the kitchen, offering a very necessary (accidental Salt n Pepa reference and it stays!) reprieve from the mire of last week’s headlines.

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I had prepared the bulk of this meal on Tuesday morning, where in the silence of my sunny kitchen, chopping and stirring, blanching and roasting and yes, even doing the dishes, made me feel a little bit of peace on a very sad day. And then later in the week on Thursday night, after I had said my piece, had seen the photos and refreshed the news feed for the millionth time, I shut it all off: TV, facebook, All of it (thank god, because I guess I needed to reserve energy for Friday. Holy shit. Friday. I can’t even believe it still). Then I turned on some music, opened some wine and invited a friend over to eat. And this is what we had. This is a fairly simple dish but it does take a considerable amount of time to prepare. It’s not a throw together dish, but something to make when you’ve really got time to devote to your food. Or maybe you just need a few hours to avoid the TV.

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3-4 Sicilian eggplant (or equal amount graffiti or Japanese eggplant)
Olive oil (approx. ¼ cup, divided)
2 links sweet Italian sausage
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 red pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc) (optional) 
¾ cup pureed tomatoes (I like Poma brand)
Pinch crushed red pepper

1 cup cubed day old bread
¾ cup milk
¼ cup parmesan cheese
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf Italian parsley
¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

 Basil for serving (optional)

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Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Heat about two tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Squeeze sausage out of casings and into pan; brown, breaking up into smaller chunks with a wooden spoon. While the sausage browns and your water heats prep your vegetables:

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Use a large knife to cut a “lid” off of your eggplant; then working carefully, edge a paring knife down into the meat of each eggplant. Score slices vertically and then horizontally down and use a large tablespoon to scoop down into the center of each eggplant, removing the flesh in ragged chunks. Reserve the eggplant flesh for use in your stuffing. You’ll want about a ½-¾ inch rim around the edge of each eggplant. Prepare the remainder of your veggies and finely chop the reserved eggplant, checking your sausage periodically for a stir.

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Once the sausage is sufficiently browned, remove from pan, chop through with your knife and set aside. If needed, add a few more tablespoons of oil to your skillet and then add onions and red pepper, sautéing together for a minute or two, until fragrant. Add eggplant and turn heat to high. Pour in wine, if using, and boil until the wine is reduced, scraping the bottom of the pan to free any browned bits of sausage or onion that are stuck (this should take just a few minutes, maybe 4-5). Reduce heat back to medium; add garlic, crushed red pepper, tomato puree, sausage and a generous shake of salt and pepper. Set to simmer, cover and let cook; stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are tender: about 15 minutes.

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While your vegetable mixture simmers, blanch the eggplant shells. Salt boiling water generously, with about a handful of salt, drop the eggplant shells in, using tongs to submerge them (they float!). Blanch for about 2 minutes and then remove and set to drain on towels. At this point you might get sad because they have turned from a beautiful lilac purple to a sad brown/pink color; but console yourself with the knowledge that their color would have turned at some point or another during the cooking process.

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Once your vegetable-sausage mixture is cooked through, remove from heat and set aside to cool. Place the bread crumbs into a small bowl and pour the milk over to absorb. In a large bowl, combine the cooled veggie-sausage mixture with the parsley, parmesan cheese and finally your bread crumbs, squeezing out any excess milk from the crumbs before adding. Salt and pepper and toss together with your hands to combine.

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Coat the bottom of a small baking dish with a bit of olive oil and then use a barbecue brush or your fingers to paint each eggplant shell with a nice slick of oil, both inside and out. Nestle the shells close together in your pan and fill each with a generous pile of stuffing. Top the stuffed ‘plants with shredded mozzarella. At this point in time, you have two options to choose from. The first option, which is what I did, is to essentially twice bake the stuffed eggplant. I’m not sure if this is entirely necessary but sweet mother, it is delicious, so I’m suggesting it here. If you think that baking a simple dish not once but twice is straight crazy and you’re like “Jess, ain’t nobody got time for that”, please proceed to option 2.

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Option 1: Cover pan tightly with foil and set to bake in a 400 degree oven for 40 minutes. Remove pan, let cool and store in the fridge until you’re ready to serve, later that day, the next day; or, in my case, two days later. I would not advise waiting over three days, but speaking from experience can tell you that two days in the fridge didn’t hurt them a bit. When ready to serve: bake in a 375 degree oven for one hour, tightly wrapped in foil. Remove foil, and set pan under broiler to brown and melt cheese on top, for about 2-3 minutes. Scatter fresh chopped basil on top, if using. Serve immediately with a mixed green salad, or a side of pasta in tomato sauce.

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Option 2: Cover pan tightly with foil and bake in a 400 degree oven for one hour. Remove foil and broil, 2-3 minutes until cheese on top is browned and bubbling. Scatter fresh chopped basil on top, if using. Serve immediately, perhaps with one or both of the sides suggested above.

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Extra filling and what to do with it: I ended up with quite a bit of extra filling and my guess is you will too. In the interest of not wasting this goodness I rolled them into very loose, squishy meatballs and set them on a parchment lined baking sheet and popped them into my already heated 400 degree oven. They only took about 10 minutes before they were deeply browned. They were a little loose and a little rustic looking, but I tossed a few of them on some lightly dressed arugula for a really nice salad. The next day for lunch I heated a couple of these little hockey pucks and had them on toasted bread with crumbled goat cheese, a few leaves of basil and some arugula and that was a pretty nice time as well.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

take away

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The finish line of the Boston Marathon is about two blocks from my favorite yoga studio, which is about as close as I get to going to church. I head in two mornings a week, roll out my mat and reset. My practice is tremendously important to me; it is the one way I know to recalibrate every part of myself: physical, emotional, mental. This morning was no different and I needed to be there a lot. The city itself was alive with people, headed to work, grabbing coffee and, as always, jaywalking in front of my car as I edged around the corner from Berkeley Street on to Boylston.

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I have struggled a bit over the past few days on what to say about what happened on Monday here. After all, this is just a simple spot where I share photos of my lunch and maybe a couple self deprecating jokes or funny stories; hardly the place you would look to seek words of comfort or wisdom at a time when the world stops making sense. Besides, everyone that knows me knows that I am the world’s biggest cry baby and nobody ever looks to be soothed by the person crying the hardest. After all, they might get boogies on them during the hug.

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But as my most favorite instructor said this morning, echoing my sentiments more eloquently than I ever could, it would feel fairly negligent to ignore what happened on Monday. So I won’t. But I’m not going to try to offer advice on how to make sense of the senseless or prove how much I love my town (I don’t have any, anyways (do you?); and believe me: I do very much). I’m not going to even attempt to pretend that I could possibly say anything as immensely good hearted and necessary as this, or even try and be as perfectly appropriately funny as this.

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Instead I will just say that among the horrendous images that I’ve seen this week I’ve noticed a lot of one thing in particular: people hugging, clinging to each other, offering everything they possibly could to comfort someone else. Because when the shit hits the fan, we turn to each other, we don’t turn our backs. Not just people from Boston, but human BEINGS. We’re so much better than we even think we can be, so much stronger and nicer and more honest. And this has been thematic in most of the things that I’ve read this week. Horrible things happen all over the world, every day to people who don’t deserve it. FACT. But in the face of this we have to choose to be good to one another, not just in the aftershock of unspeakable violence, but in line at the grocery store. So while it goes without saying that I am sad about Marathon Monday and I am grieving for all the lives traumatized, gravely injured or cut way too short, I really want to take away from this a renewed sense of faith in people’s innate goodness. And next week I promise, I’ll get right back to baked stuffed eggplant and fart jokes.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

rocky mountain high

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If you’ve been hanging around here much it should not surprise you to know that I still think about a burrito from 1997. The burrito in question was from Big City Burrito in Fort Collins, Colorado and I don’t know if it was the expertise of the establishment or the crisp, Rocky Mountain Air that made it so memorable. The shocking thing is that it wasn’t even MY burrito. It was my sister’s and I only got one bite; but that bite lodged itself into my subconscious only to be unearthed 16 years later in a small kitchen in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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At the time, my sister was a vegetarian so in lieu of carnitas or pulled chicken her burrito was loaded with garlicky wilted spinach and crispy roasted potatoes. At the young age of 17, even though I only ate a very limited number of (mostly) animal-based food groups, with that one bite I knew the combo was something special. I mean, potatoes in a burrito!? Why I NEVER! My mind was BLOWN.

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So it’s no wonder the memory of that burrito came back into my brain, on a Wednesday evening in late winter when I found myself without much in the fridge beside tortillas, a big bunch of Swiss chard and some leftover roasted potatoes. Since we always have black beans and avocados in the house this Veggie Taco spread is what came together. The resulting meal was so tasty that it has assumed a permanent position in our weeknight dinner repertoire. Everybody can dig on taco night, here’s a tasty, healthier way to hit that Mexican food craving right where it counts.

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a/k/a TACOS del BENSON

Everything for these tasty tacos comes together in the time it takes to roast the potatoes. You can slice the potatoes any way you choose, I prefer to cut them into thin disks, so they end up like fat potato chips. These are fairly messy, but not impossible to eat. Have napkins handy and for best results, layer ingredients as follows:

Whole wheat tortillas
Shredded cheese (Jack or Cheddar works)
Quick Simmered Black Beans
Crispy Roasted Potatoes
Garlicky Swiss Chard (easily sub spinach or kale here)
1 avocado, thinly sliced
Hot Sauce

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While the potatoes roast and the black beans simmer: prep the chard, slice and set out the avocado, grate the cheese and set the table. Wilt the chard, or whatever greens you’re using just before serving. To heat your tortillas, you have two options: you can wrap them in aluminum foil and set them in the oven for a few minutes; or, you can toast them abuelita style like I like to do: on an open flame, for just a few moments on either side, almost burning my fingerprints off every time (I think it adds a little something special—an element of danger!). Serve with chips and salsa, a green salad or seasoned rice.

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1 can black beans
½ small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. cumin
Hot sauce
Salt, pepper

Bring all ingredients to a simmer in a small sauce pan. Season to taste with hot sauce, more cumin, salt and pepper, as needed. I think depending on the brand of canned black beans some need a little extra help. Just adjust the seasonings to your liking. These quick simmered black beans are one of my favorite things to toss into a tortilla with some cheese and hot sauce for a supremely messy, five minute burrito.

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2 russet potatoes, washed and thinly sliced
Oil, canola or olive
Salt, pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss potato slices in olive oil on two baking sheets and sprinkle with salt, pepper and a few small pinches of cayenne. Set to roast for 30 minutes, turning over once about halfway through. Do your best to only open the oven once or twice, this will ensure the taters crisp up real nice.

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1 bunch Swiss chard, trimmed and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil

Heat oil in a pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about one minute. Add chard and cook until wilted, about five minutes.

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Serve everything taco bar style, with condiments on the side. Pile the fillings high on blistered tortillas and thank me later. Do not wait 17 years for your first potato-burrito/ potato-taco experience. Double starch is on point.

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