Summer Layers

I have been battling a dreadful summer cold for nearly a week now, and the comedy of errors that was my Monday didn’t help matters at all. Rhode Island still celebrates V-J day, and because of the holiday the buses were running on a holiday schedule. There was another bus line that could get me to my train on time, but I reached the bottom of the very steep hill we live on just in time to see it whizzing by.

A sticky mile and a half later, I was at the train station, too late for my usual train but just in the nick of time to board the next commuter rail train. I arrived in Boston, trudged through the thick air to my building, and was greeted at my desk by stacks and stacks of files, all demanding my attention. I kept my head down, focused, and made a sizable dent in my backlog by the end of the day, then headed back to South Station, dreaming of home.

I’ll spare you details of the chaotic mess that my evening commute turned into, but suffice it to say that by the time I walked into the kitchen, only comfort food would do – comfort food, and the bottle of Domaine Tempier Bandol rose that had been chilling for days, awaiting the day that my sense of smell and my taste buds returned to normal.

Dinner:  August 10, 2009

So despite the heat, I turned on the oven and got to work on this summer vegetable gratin. I built many layers of colorful vegetables – thin coins of zucchini and blue potato, ripe red tomato, shaved fennel and sliced eggplant. I spread a garlicky opal basil pesto between each layer, covered the top of my baking dish (I used a loaf pan) loosely with foil, and slid it onto a baking sheet.

After about 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven, I removed the foil and added a mixture of fresh breadcrumbs, grated parmesan, and provencal herbs to the top. It went back into the oven until the topping was golden brown, then I pulled it out of the oven and let it rest briefly before slicing it up to serve. With a little arugula salad and that stunning rose, this meal was just what the doctor ordered.

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Curry in a Hurry

Dinner: September 22, 2008

Not the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, and definitely a work in progress, but this wasn’t bad for a quick Monday dinner. I usually like to make my own blend of curry spices, but last night I cheated, toasting a blend of store-bought curry powder and garam masala in butter along with some fresh curry leaves, then adding chunks of eggplant, sweet potato and cauliflower from Wishing Stone Farm, a bit of fresh tomato puree from the freezer, and some water. I brought the mixture to a boil then let it cook uncovered until the sauce had thickened and reduced a bit, then threw in a couple of handfuls of frozen peas right at the end for a pop of color and sweetness. I served it over rice, with a dollop of Narragansett Creamery yogurt on top and purchased garlic naan on the side.

Pick a Peck

Dinner:  September 11, 2008

We’ve reached the point in the season where I feel like I’m drowning in vegetables. There are bowls and bowls of tomatoes on the counter, bags of string and shell beans to be prepped for freezing, not to mention the crisper drawer filled nearly to bursting. In the end, I know this is a good problem to have – when I think I can’t look at another winter squash or head of deep green leafies in a few months, I’ll be glad that I stocked up on Summer veggies now and preserved them for later use.

I’ve been all about the peppers lately: tiny bird chiles and fiery serranos, thin-skinned frying peppers and multicolored bells, our kitchen has been full of them, and I’ve spent hours grilling, peeling, marinating and pickling. While I’m preserving them to extend their season, I can’t resist using some right now, like in this pepper and eggplant stew I served with seared striped bass filets.

I suppose the stew is part peperonata, part caponata, with chunks of eggplant, tomato, capers and Sherry vinegar joining my marinated grilled bell peppers, fresh hot peppers and pickled wax peppers. They were all sauteed in a base of olive oil, chopped shallot and garlic, and cooked just until the veggies were soft and juicy. I added a little chopped fresh parsley at the end, spooned it into bowls and served the fish filets on top. It was just the thing to take the chill off a cool late-Summer evening.

Under the Wire

Dinner:  October 15, 2007

Fall has arrived, but there’s still plenty of late-summer produce to be had. In addition to the potatoes, kale and chard I picked up last weekend, I grabbed a few pounds of San Marzano tomatoes, some small eggplant and squash, and a couple of petite bell peppers. I don’t know what I was doing when the great ratatouille craze of 2007 struck, but somehow I missed it and this felt like my last chance to prepare it this season.

My plan was to make crepes and fill them with ratatouille and egg, so while I wanted some texture, I didn’t want an overly-chunky stew. I diced all of my vegetables (1/2 a red onion, one Japanese eggplant, one small green squash and two small bell peppers – one red and one orange) into 1/2 inch dice and set them aside. I heated a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and added the onion and some salt, allowing it to soften before adding a smashed garlic clove and the remaining vegetables. I added a bit more salt and let them cook about five minutes, and then I added a tablespoon of tomato paste, about 6 fresh San Marzanos, cored and chopped, a splash of white vermouth and a tablespoon or so of Herbes de Provence. I covered the pan and let it cook over medium-low heat for about an hour, stirring it occasionally.

I had put together my crepe batter (Alton Brown’s recipe, but with a pinch of Kosher salt and olive oil replacing the butter) before getting started on the ratatouille so it would be ready to go when the ratatouille was finished cooking. I ended up with 5 big crepes, which I set aside while I cooked a couple of eggs sunny side up in the same pan I had used for the crepes. When my eggs were cooked I laid a crepe on each of two dinner plates, spread some of the ratatouille over each, laid an egg on top and folded them up, serving them with some simply dressed red oak lettuce on the side and a nice, bright Sauvignon Blanc.

This was a light but satisfying meal, and though it takes a bit over an hour from start to finish, it’s easy enough for a weeknight dinner. It also lends itself well to adaptation – while we loved the richness of the runny egg yolk as it blended with the ratatouille, this would be just as good with a little feta or goat cheese instead.

Spaghettini alla Caponata

Dinner:  August 27, 2007

I realize I’ve been doing a lot of pasta dishes lately, but pasta is such a darn good vehicle for the flavors of summer produce, I can’t help myself. Last night’s pasta dinner was inspired by caponata, the Sicilian eggplant dish. I combined a mixture of eggplant, tomatoes, capers and olives with the heat of red chile flakes and the tang of sherry vinegar to create a bright and tasty sauce. I tossed the sauce with spaghettini, but this would work with chunky pastas as well.

Spaghettini alla Caponata

1 lb. spaghettini
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and diced
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1-2 anchovy filets
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes (or more to taste)
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 large eggplant, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup canned chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons capers
1/2 cup pitted and chopped olives
6 large fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
Kosher salt

Cook the onion in olive oil over medium heat until softened. Season with salt and add garlic, cooking until fragrant. Add the anchovies and cook until they dissolve. Stir in tomato paste, chile flakes and vinegar. Allow to cook for a minute or two, then add the eggplant and cherry tomatoes, stirring well. Cook uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the canned tomatoes, capers and olives. Reduce heat and continue cooking, uncovered, for about 20-25 minutes, tasting and adjusting the salt if necessary.

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions, until just short of al dente.
Stir the basil into the sauce, and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, adding a splash or two of pasta water to thin it out if necessary.

Alone in the kitchen

It seems fitting that I finished reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant (a quick and enjoyable read, by the way) this week. Though Mike has made it home in time for dinner every night despite his extended workdays (and an evening spent as part of a tasting panel), I’ve had to get used to going about dinner prep without him there to keep me company. I’ve been a bit off my mark this week as a result – I’ve tried a few new things and have been less than pleased with the results.

Dinner:  August 16, 2007

While my first solo attempt at grilling on Tuesday evening was fairly successful, last night’s eggplant and tomato gratin was disappointing. The eggplants I ordered from FreshDirect’s Local Farmstand were huge, and as such they were a little difficult to work with. I didn’t have time to grill the slices as I had intended, and I didn’t want to fry them, so I salted them and hoped for the best. I also made a last minute decision to skip making a béchamel and just add cheese and cream directly to the layers of eggplant and tomatoes, and that just made the whole thing soupy. The flavors were there, but this definitely needs work.

I’m much happier with the two batches of salsa I made earlier in the week – they may have been my best yet. I grilled tomatillos, tomatoes and poblano chiles over hardwood until their skins were nice and charred, then took them inside until they were cool enough to handle. I removed the husks from the tomatillos and cut them into chunks, then threw them into the blender with two of the poblanos (which I had peeled, cored, and chopped). I added a bit of salt and the juice of half a lime and pureed it, then stirred in half a finely diced red onion and a minced garlic clove. For the tomato salsa, I cored the tomatoes, chunked them up and placed them in the blender along with the remaining poblano (again, peeled, cored and chopped), the juice of a lime, a teaspoon each of ground cumin and smoked chipotle powder, and a bit of salt. Once the mixture was pureed, I stirred in the onion and garlic (in the same amounts as for the tomatillo salsa). I ended up with a little over a pint of the green stuff, and a full quart of the red – Mike’s going to have a nice snack to share with his coworkers over the weekend.