Does anyone have any really cute stories about eggplant? I’m at a loss. Sure, Mom made eggplant parmesan when we were kids and it was good. I can’t get enough Thai eggplant with Thai basil – in fact I had some last night – but that’s hardly an endearing memory.
Here’s the best I’ve got: Eggplant is from the family Solanaceae which includes tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and other members of the nightshade family. It is susceptible to many of the same pests and diseases including soil borne fungi. For that reason, farmers have to rotate crops and let several years pass between growing more eggplant in the same soil. Fascinating, right?
When I was a young plant nerd selling super-cool plants for Quansett Nurseries, I had the opportunity to meet Victory Garden host, Roger Swain. Trust me kids, this is like sitting next to Justin Bieber on the bus. He told me about a process they had developed in Japan to graft disease-resistant root stock onto eggplant plants to avoid the need for crop rotations, AND they were doing this with robots. Cue the fainting couch – I was over-nerded. (This is like playing video games on your couch with Grant Morrison while talking about his runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol – freakin’ cool, right?)
So, no fond memories behind this dish. It’s adapted from my vegetarian cookbook girlfriend* Deborah Madison, and the combination is inspired.
*To be clear, a “cookbook girlfriend” is an author whose recipes I feel a strong connection with. I have never actually met her.
Sweet And Sour Eggplant
- 2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2” x 2” sticks
- 1 red onion, minced
- 2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 1/4 cup Roasted Red Pepper and Blackberry Vinegar*
- 2 tbs honey
- 1/2 lemon
- 2 tbs. mint, chopped
- 1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
- Olive oil
*From Sapore of course! Buy it online here or substitute a good, complex Sherry vinegar.
- Sprinkle eggplant with 1 tbs salt. After 30 minutes, rinse and pat dry. This takes the bitterness out of the eggplant and makes it easier to brown.
- Heat 2 tbs olive oil over medium heat. Sauté eggplant for 12-15 minutes until browned on all sides. Season with salt and pepper.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté onion in 1 tbs olive oil until softened and starting to brown on edges.
- Turn up heat, add vinegar, honey and tomato. Cook, stirring frequently until vinegar evaporates, about 3-5 minutes.
- Stir in eggplant, mint and cheese.
- Sweet and sour is all about the flavor balance between sugar, salt and acidity. Check the flavor and add vinegar, honey, lemon juice, salt and pepper as needed.
My mission: create a watermelon martini using Sapore’s new Ruby Red Grapefruit White Balsamic Vinegar as bitters. My thought? “I don’t know the first thing about mixing cocktails, and today’s tipplers have a discerning palate.” My first mistake? Publicly throw down the watermelon martini gauntlet on Facebook.
It turns out the same skill set you use to hone a recipe for farm-fresh produce works pretty well for cocktails. I wanted something that showcased bright, clean, sweet watermelon flavor, like the fruit, not the Jolly Rancher. I wanted cool, herbal notes to ground it and lend some depth.
Fresh pressed watermelon juice was the place to start. Gin gave it herbal depth as did basil simple syrup, whose sugar brought out the sweetness in the fruit. The Ruby Red Grapefruit vinegar lent that certain je ne sais quoi – depth, brightness? A squeeze of lime made it pop.
I’m no mixologist, but I’ve got a new favorite cocktail, at least for the next few weeks.
The Mid-Summer Ruby
Ingredients for one cocktail:
- 3 ounces fresh pressed watermelon juice (see below)
- 1 ounce smooth gin – use Bombay and save the Beefeater for a great gin and tonic!
- 1/4 ounce basil simple syrup (see below)
- 1/2 tablespoon Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar*
- lime round to garnish
*You can find Ruby Red Grapefruit Vinegar at Sapore – order it online – or look for grapefruit bitters at your local specialty liquor store.
- In a cocktail shaker with ice, add watermelon juice, gin, simple syrup and vinegar. Shake and strain in to a martini glass or a lowball with ice. Garnish with a lime round. Squeeze over the cocktail before drinking.
Watermelon juice and simple syrup:
- Watermelon juice can be made by pressing cubed watermelon through a food mill and then straining it through cheese cloth. Or, you can purée it in a blender, strain it through a sieve and then strain again through cheese cloth.
- Make the basil simple syrup by stirring together 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water over medium high heat. Let cook until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, and add 1 packed cup whole basil leaves. Let steep for 15-20 minutes and strain to remove solids.
Boredom is an occupational hazard of seasonal cooking. By the end of July you have served summer squash and tomatoes exactly 47 1/2 times and the season is just approaching its peak. This week when I mentioned tomatoes and summer squash to Nancy, a weekly attendee at my Eastern Market demos, she asked pointedly, “how are you going to make it different from the other tomato and zucchini recipes you’ve made over the past 8 weeks?”
She had me. I had combined tomatoes and squash in meatloaf and goulash. Sautéing them and tossing them together with fresh herbs is a treat in early summer, but it doesn’t cut it as we head into August. Somewhere between fried zucchini and a cherry tomato sauce Nancy said, “This sounds like Zucchini Parmesan.” And so it is. Stovetop style.
The zucchini is breaded with Panko and Herbes de Provence making it crisp and light. The fresh cherry tomato sauce gets depth from anchovy paste and brightness from a nicely acidic Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar. The flavor is rich like a winter braise and light like a summer sauté. It’s anything but boring and everything that summer veggies at their peak are meant to be.
Summer Squash Parmesan
I’m going to beat you to the punch. Yes, you need to fry the summer squash in plenty of olive oil. I tried going light with a tablespoon or two, there wasn’t enough depth to reach in between the Panko crumbs and make the squash really crispy. You want healthy, try this zucchini meatloaf. Otherwise, go right on ahead and indulge yourself. You deserve it!
- 2 eggs
- 2 tbs milk
- 2 tbs Herbes de Provence
- 2 cups Panko bread crumbs
- 1 medium summer squash or zucchini, sliced in 1/3” inch rounds
- 4 -6 tbs olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 tbs Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar**
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
**I don’t know how Renee found a red wine vinegar that has this much acidity while still maintaining balance. It packs a punch without being overbearing. Buy some online at DC’s Sapore or use a good red wine vinegar from your home pantry.
- Whisk together eggs and milk in a shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper.
- Mix Herbes de Provence and bread crumbs in a bowl. Put half in a pie plate.
- Dip squash in the egg wash and then in the bread crumbs. Press the crumbs onto squash. When the Panko in the plate gets wet and clumpy, discard it and add the reserved half of the mix.
- Fry squash over medium heat in 2-3 tbs olive oil until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
- In a separate pan sauté garlic over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add anchovy paste and cook another 30 seconds until fragrant.
- Add tomatoes and cook 5-6 min until softened.
- Add the vinegar to the pan and scrape up all the tasty brown bits in the bottom. Let the vinegar reduce to coat the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve the fried squash topped with the tomato sauce and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Reflect on how good life is.
With the exception of Jesus, no one ever seems to encounter the problem of having too little bread. Just look at the myriad recipes created expressly to use up leftovers: crostini and croutons, bread pudding and bread crumbs. With all due deference to good bread and skilled bakers, are we simply making our loaves of bread too big?
The simple answer, is no. Leftover bread is a gift, and its value is no more apparent than in Panzanella, and Italian salad of stale bread and tomatoes. The salad is dressed with sharp vinegar and olive oil to soften the bread. Paired with garden fresh tomatoes, the large croutons make the salad light, not heavy.
You don’t even have to wait for the bread to get stale. Grab a fresh, toothy, crusty, country loaf, cut it into large 2″ cubes and fry it up in a little olive oil. You may never encounter leftover bread again.
Make sure the bread has toasted through so it holds up to the dressing.
- 6 cups country bread cut in 1” pieces
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 large, perfect tomatoes, cut into 1″ pieces. My favorites are the heirlooms Brandywine and Black Cherokee.
- 1 Candy Sweet red onion
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced basil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/3 cup Late Harvest Zinfandel Vinegar*
- 2/3 cups Tuscan Blend Olive Oil*
*More wonderful products from DC’s Sapore Oil and Vinegar. A good, strongly acidic red wine vinegar and a rich, buttery olive oil will fit the bill nicely here. Or you can order them right from Sapore online.
- Toss bread in 1/4 cup olive oil, salt and pepper. Toast bread in a 375 degree oven or a sauté pan over medium heat until golden brown and crisp.
- Toss together tomatoes, onion and basil.
- Make dressing: pound garlic and a pinch of course sea salt into a paste. Whisk in vinegar and black pepper.
- Whisk in oil in a thin stream.
- Check the dressing with a piece of tomato. Season to taste with additional, salt oil or vinegar.
- Add bread to the tomatoes and toss through with the dressing.
If I were forced to identify only one dish that summed up my Mom’s cooking, one dish that burned bright in my memory and lingered on my palate years later, it would be – no, not apple pie, meatloaf or lasagna – zucchini pancakes. Amidst her Dilly Beans and mac and cheese, the Christmas Eve cheesecake and barbecued spareribs with artichokes, zucchini pancakes are the quintessential summation of Mom’s work in the kitchen.
They were born out of both creativity and desperation. They appeared late each summer when zucchini exhaustion set in and the dark green squashes grew larger and larger. With the din of dinner complaints rising, Mom found an exciting new way to put zucchini on the table. And could a recipe be any cooler? As anyone who has eaten zucchini bread knows, it is equally comfortable being both sweet and savory. We would joyfully sit down to a plateful, dripping in real maple syrup. They were practical, delicious, inventive and comforting. Stepping way out of the late 70’s comfort zone she created a family classic. That’s what you taught me in the kitchen Mom. That’s what I carry with me today.
I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit over the years. Bisquick gave way to potato starch whose flavor sits happily in the background. Fresh basil – and tarragon, when I have it – replace parsley. The ratio of zucchini to batter is much higher. Less like breakfast cakes, the ones I make today are cooked over medium low heat, getting brown and crisp on the outside while remaining wet and gooey inside. These days I usually serve them with a yogurt sauce, bright and fresh with mint and paprika or cayenne. But I have to admit, maple syrup is still my favorite.
Mom’s Zucchini Pancakes
- 4 cups grated zucchini, about 2 medium
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 2 tbs fresh basil, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 1/4 tsp Spanish Paprika
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 cup potato starch
- Cream, as needed
- 1/2 cup yogurt
- 2 tbs chopped mint
- Paprika or cayenne
- Place grated zucchini in colander, sprinkle with 1 tsp salt and leave for 15-20 minutes.
- Squeeze water from zucchini with your hands and place in large bowl with egg, basil, garlic, parmesan, paprika, pepper and potato starch. Mix. If the batter is too dry, stir for a minute and then add a tablespoon or two of cream as needed. This is pretty thick batter.
- Mix together the yogurt, mint and paprika or cayenne to taste.
- Cook one small pancake to check seasoning and adjust with additional salt and pepper, fresh basil and cheese, as needed.
- Cook over medium-low heat in 2-3 tbs pancakes, turning once. The low heat allows the outsides to get crispy and brown, while the centers remain creamy.
- Serve pancakes with a dollop of the yogurt sauce.
C’bus is short for Columbus, OH and this week it played host, along with my dear friend Ray, to a wonderful evening of good food and even better company. The experience started with a trip to Columbus’ North Market for groceries. Big shout out to Lan Viet for her generous gift of Thai basil and to Ben and co. at North Market Spices for beautiful ground cardamom – I can’t wait to stop back and stock up before my return to DC!
These ingredients, along with fresh, ripe summer fruit, were the inspiration for our dessert: peaches and blueberries, macerated in sugar and cardamom and topped with Thai basil-infused, hand-whipped cream. The spicy, licorice-y Thai basil was pleasantly herbal, but chopping it finely with sugar covered the grassy flavor. The warm, bright cardamom brought out the rich sweetness of the peaches and acidity of the blueberries achieving perfect balance.
It was a simple finish to a spectacular evening. Thank you C’bus. It is always a pleasure.
Peaches and Blueberries with Thai Basil Whipped Cream
Macerating means letting the fruit soften in its own juices. If your peaches don’t release a little juice on their own, add a squeeze of lemon juice.
- 3 peaches, sliced*
- 2 cups blueberries
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tbs sugar
- 2 tbs roughly chopped Thai Basil
- 1-2 tbs sugar
- 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
*You can peel the peaches if you have a fuzzy texture issue, but that just seemed like a lot of work to me. You can slice as thin or thick as you like. Thin slices give each bite a better balance with the blueberries.
- Toss sliced peaches and blueberries together with cardamom and sugar. Let macerate in fridge for 30-45 minutes. If they don’t release any liquid after the first 15 minutes, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. How liquify this gets depends on how juicy your fruit is. Just go with it.
- Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil with the sugar and chop together until the basil is broken down almost as finely as the sugar.
- Whisk the cream to soft peaks. Then whisk in the basil sugar.
- Serve the fruit topped with a generous dollop of cream. And by “dollop” I mean “giant spoonful.”
Raw kale is a current darling of the food scene, and kale salads have appeared on hip restaurant menus across the country. Why? Well, it’s good for you. It’s also fairly inexpensive and counter-intuitive. Hey, who doesn’t love a counter-intuitive vegetable?
Here’s the problem. It’s still kale. No matter how freshly-picked those leaves are, they are still tough and still a little bitter. One solution the food hipsters have identified is to massage your kale. Now, while I love my veggies, that’s a lot of affection just to get a salad on the table.
Here’s my solution: make a fresh, bright vinaigrette with just a pinch of sugar to offset the bitterness. Chop the kale thin – chiffonade – and let it rest for 5 minutes after you dress it to wilt the greens slightly. That’s a salad you can love.
*As some of my demo audience noted last Saturday, this vinaigrette was closely inspired by a recent tropical cucumber salad. The good news? That bottle of tropical spice vinegar can do double duty!
Kale With Tropical Cucumber Vinaigrette
This vinaigrette would also be great over a piece of grilled fish like tilapia or over mesclun greens.
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/3 cup Tropical Spice Vinegar*
- 1/2 cup seeded, minced cucumber
- 1 tbs cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 tbs mint, finely chopped
- 2/3 cup Lime Oil*
- 1/2 pound kale, ribbed and thinly sliced
*No lime oil tropical spice vinegar? You can order them online from DC’s Sapore or sub a good quality white vinegar and olive oil with 1/4 tsp lime zest and a splash of tabasco for heat.
- Mash garlic into a paste with 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt using the back of your knife or a mortar and pestle.
- Whisk together garlic paste, vinegar, cucumber and herbs. Let dressing rest for at least 5 minutes for cucumbers to soften and flavors to blend.
- Whisk in olive oil. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper. Correct vinegar and oil balance with kale.
- Dress kale and let rest for 5 minutes to soften.