Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Day after The Holiday: Toast and Tradition

Its here! Its here! Its here!
It’s the trifecta holiday season!!(Read: Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas season!) This is my absolute favorite time of the year (yes, I’m a devoted fan of pumpkin; no, I’m not as basic as a pumpkin spice latte unless its homemade), and I won’t turn down any chance to spend time with family and friends, decorate, celebrate, cook, and bake. That said, this recipe is perfect for all of the above and has become one of my favorite ways to (a) use up the often cast-aside leftover breads, cakes, and rolls remaining after a holiday feast, (b) make French toast, and (c) gather the family around the kitchen table to keep the holiday warmth and cheer going strong.

Leftover breads (leave out if possible to allow the bread/cake to dry out a bit), inclusive of soft rolls, croissants, muffins, pound/bundt cakes, etc.
2 large eggs
1.5 cups milk, cream, or eggnog
1 tablespoon almond or vanilla extract
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt

Make it happen:
·      Slice the bread(s). For moist cakes or quick breads, you may opt to dry them out slightly in the oven at around 150 degrees fora couple of minutes, or pop them into the toaster briefly. Make the cake slices about an inch thick to keep them from breaking apart (a wide spatula helps immensely for transport to and from the wet ingredients); for biscuits, croissants or soft rolls, slice in half. Muffins do decently sliced length-wise and also benefit from a quick oven-dry out .
·      In a large, shallow pie pan, whisk the milk/cream, eggs, extracts, and spices until well combined. Begin to soak the bread, allowing each piece to soak up enough of the cream-egg mixture to be moistened thoroughly, but use your judgement - too much of the mixture will make some cake slices or breads break down too much!
·      Heat a large frying pan or griddle over medium-high heat, and when the slices have soaked up a good amount of the wet ingredients, add the butter to the frying pan and coat the inside of the frying pan well.
·      When the butter begins the sizzle slightly, add your slices and fry on each side until golden brown and crisp. Remove each slice to a plate and sprinkle with additional cinnamon if desired.

·      Make the syrup: Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pot over medium flame, whisking to combine. Serve hot with the toast

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Eggplant Fries (ala the late Basil T's)

While staying with family for a while in New Jersey, I can now say that I had the pleasure and honor of several meals at Red Bank's now-shuttered Basil T's, a small, atmospherically-lit (read:dark) Italian restaurant with homemade pasta and several cult favorite dishes amongst the locals, one of which being the inspiration for the recipe below. 

Basil T's was a go-to for parties large and small, and was family-owned and family-friendly. While I can't say I tried many dishes on the menu (because one of their most popular dishes became my go-to order, despite weak promises in the car on the way that I'd finally try something else! Yeah right.), I have to imagine that everything was wonderful and hearty in the way that a good, family-owned Italian restaurant should be. 

My favorite dish, introduced to me by my equally-addicted cousin, was the baked ziti melanzane, which translates as a piping hot, massive white ramekin filled with house-made ziti, a rich tomato sauce, and more ricotta and fabulously stringy mozzarella than is probably legal. Each forkful, when drawn from the ramekin, would come away with strings of cheese a-plenty, but this was only half of the treasure of the dish. The real gold (literally and figuratively) was piled on top - crunchy, perfectly-coated bits of eggplant that held an unexpected creaminess within, fried to perfection but never greasy. The best way to enjoy the dish? Eat 1/2 of the eggplant first to expose the pasta, finish the pasta, and enjoy the reward of the remaining eggplant. If you weren't busting at the seams by that point, of course. 

After a plethora of failed attempts, we finally pulled the secret from an unnamed party related to the restaurant (identity protected!) that resulted in the perfect balance of crisp exterior and custardy interior: Lemon juice. 

While its impossible to believe, that's the secret. Something so easy and that which can be done ahead of time, resulting in a dish worth returning to time and time again. And it makes sense - the acidic nature of the lemon forces water from the eggplant, resulting in the breakdown of its interior fibers, which, when fried, get reduced to creamy happiness. Simple, satisfying, and splurge-worthy. 

I hope you enjoy the recipe as much as I do, and have the chance to serve it family-style, because truly, being in the company of loved ones, enjoying a good meal and a good story around the dinner table, is what makes this recipe, and any other, a true gem. 

Eggplant Fries, in memoriam of Basil T’s

1 large eggplant
Lemon Juice
2 cups flour
~2 cups breadcrumbs (homemade is always preferred but not necessary, but seasoning is non-negotiable*)
3 jumbo eggs, or 3-4 large eggs
1 cup grated locatelli cheese, split into one ½ cup portion, and two ¼ cup portions (thereabouts. Eyeball it)

·      Skin the eggplant and cut in half lengthwise. Place each half cut-side down on the cutting board, and cut slices, approximately ½’’ thick, from top to bottom. Lay out each slice and cut into rectangular fries, embracing the irregular ones, because an imperfect “rectangular” end has more surface area, and that means more golden brown- breadcrumby goodness in the end.
·      Fill a large bowl approximately half-way with cool water and add about 1/3 cup lemon juice. The idea is to create an acidulated water bath to soak the eggplant fries, which will force the water out of the eggplant fries when they are removed, breaking down the fibers on the inside, making them custardy and creamy on the inside, and extra crunchy on the outside when fried.
·      Add the eggplant and let soak for at least 2-3 hours – the longer the better, but no longer than overnight. If soaking overnight, keep covered in the refrigerator.
·      When you are ready to move forward with fried eggplant glory, prepare your breading mise en place. I prefer a super large bowl for the flour, a shallow pan for the egg-wash, and a large, high-sided pan for the breadcrumbs.
·      *A note on breadcrumbs: If you are not using homemade, I prefer using Progresso breadcrumbs for applications where finer breadcrumb coatings lend better to the final product, as they won’t overwhelm the texture, which is the true gem of the recipe. In any event, the breadcrumbs used should be well-seasoned, and a combo of salt-pepper-garlic-onion powders is always a safe bet.
·      Crack the eggs into the shallow pan and whisk with a fork until yolk and white are combined. Season with salt and pepper.
·      Add the ½ cup portion of cheese to the breadcrumbs, and begin heating about an inch of neutral oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. As you bread the eggplant, the oil will heat. Lastly, before gunking up your hands, prepare a large sheet pan with paper towel for the fries once they have been cooked. Sprinkle the reserved ¼ cup of grated cheese on the paper toweling – it will melt and dissolve into the hot, oily fries as they drain, making for another layer of seasoning.
·      Toss a handful of the eggplant fries from the water bath in the flour and coat roughly on all sides. Batter them in the egg next, and then lastly, bread them with the seasoned breadcrumbs. Place breaded fries on a platter to dry, and repeat the process until all fries are floured, egg-battered, and coated completely in breadcrumbs.
·      When all fries have been breaded, test the oil with any leftover breadcrumbs. They should begin to fry and cook up as soon as they hit the oil, but they shouldn’t sizzle out of control – if they do, the oil is far too hot. Fry the eggplant until golden brown on all sides and soft to the touch. Allow to drain on the paper towel-lined pan, and as they cool slightly, sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
·      Serve alone, with lemon, with a sauce of your choice (if you must), or ala Basil T, piled high on top of a thick, cheesy, piping hot dish of baked ziti, and rejoice in the custardy, crispy complex that is the wonder of fried eggplant.

Spinach-Snap Pea Pesto

I love a good sauce to keep on hand in the fridge for last-minute dishes. Dinner in a hurry? Roasted veggies, in a bowl, chickpeas, and a good sauce. Dinner is served!
Lunch quandary? (something I’m always in) Salad, good sauce thinned to a dressing, a cracker or two for fiber, good to go.
A good sauce, or several, is a quintessential part of a well-prepped fridge, in my opinion. I happen to love this sauce, and put it on everything. Its fast, versatile, and takes well to thinning or leaving it chunky to even use with yogurt as a dip! Oh, the possibilities!

Spinach-Snap Pea Pesto

2 cups spinach
1 cup Snap peas, roughly chopped
¼ medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp minced garlic, or 1 clove roughly chopped
½ of a ripe, medium avocado
1 ½ cups lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Make it happen:
Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth, adding water to thin if necessary to achieve a smooth sauce.
Serve over spaghetti squash or save for use with pasta of your choice. This sauce is well-suited to longer noodle shapes or ridged shorter shapes, which catch the freshness of the sauce and coat well. It also complements orzo well!
When I serve the sauce tossed with spaghetti squash, I love to throw in roasted peppers and tomatoes, lightly charred and ready to burn from a good oven roasting, or I’ll top it with a big pile of steamed broccoli or cauliflower and some raisins that I’ve plumped for a short while in citrus juice. For even more texture, add pistachios to the raisins after draining them and you’ve got a real Sicilian party!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lemon-Turmeric Chickpea Broccoli Salad, and a Wrap Obsession

I struggle with lunch. I never really used to eat breakfast or lunch, in fact, subsisting on fruit and maybe the occasional Laughing Cow when I was younger (and my metabolism made random munchies, bites, licks, tastes, etc disappear faster than I could reach for something else to idly munch on), and not having any issue. However, even in my ripe young adulthood, I've become more nutrition-minded and have found that I look for something to chomp on for breakfast, snacking, and lunch. The curse of a desk job and student hood, sitting and reading and writing and even working at a lab bench instead of being constantly on the go and not having time to even think about food, I've come to the conclusion that 'tis time to face the lunch monster (the lunch lady? Cafeteria meat?). 

I've lately become OBSESSED with legume salads and the like, dips and other lovely textural things to wrap in a handheld package of lettuce, cabbage, collards, what have you. So this marks post #1 of my wrap adventures and all of the crazy things I endeavor to pile into a convenient cruciferous cocoon. 

Lemon-Turmeric Chickpea Broccoli Salad
1 ½ cups Lemon juice
3 tsp Turmeric
2 tsp salt
1 tsp Pepper
1 tsp Nutmeg

Quinoa Crunch:
1 cup cooked quinoa
2 tsp Cumin

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
~ 13/4 cups Broccoli florets, roughly chopped
⅓ medium Red onion, minced

Make it happen:

Make the quinoa crunch:
Toss the cooked quinoa with the cumin and sprinkle on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Much like making a granola, the degree of spread of the quinoa is up to your preference for clumps or grains. I prefer chunkier clumps, and do not spread the quinoa out as finely to get them. Bake in the oven at 350 for approximately 10 minutes, or until dry and crunchy. Let cool and if necessary, break up slightly.

Make the salad:
Lightly steam or blanch the broccoli so that it is al dente, and still has a bite to it. 

Drain and rinse the chickpeas and combine in a bowl with the minced red onion and broccoli florets. Combine the ingredients for the dressing well and pour half into the salad. If you're like me and waited far too long to make lunch, and now you're ravenous, make sure the bowl is microwave-safe, and heat the salad for 2:00 minutes. My microwave works only on high-power, so you can adjust accordingly given the power of yours. The salad should be warm throughout.

If you're an organized human and have time to appropriately heat the salad in a small sauce pot, add a little more than half of the dressing, and heat over medium flame until warm throughout.

With a potato masher or the back of a fork, gently smash the chickpeas, leaving some whole. The texture should be chunky. Every few smashes, toss the salad to keep it well-mixed.

Add the remaining dressing, and toss the salad with some of the quinoa crunch, leaving some to garnish with. Or cram in your mouth as your stomach rumbles angrily, waiting for food.

I served my salad with cabbage leaf wraps that I gently steamed to make pliable, and a variety of colorful veggies to add to the salad in the wrap for some texture and freshness. This would be great on its own, or over wilted greens with a poached egg, perhaps. Actually...Excuse me while I go get some water and white vinegar simmering……