Monday, March 6, 2017

Again with the eggplants and the stuffing

Looking back at my last few posts, it seems clear that I am momentarily obsessed with 1. eggplant and 2. stuffing things into vegetables. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; I figure the heart (or stomach) wants what it wants, and sometimes it's good to roll with that.

The good thing is that these stuffed eggplants are one of the most delicious things I've had the pleasure of eating for a long while, and I hope you enjoy them too. They're nearly-vegan (omit the feta and you're golden, though upping the salt factor would be needed - perhaps in the form of nutritional yeast?) and packed with protein from the quinoa, nuts, and cheese. They're pretty. They're nearly infinitely adaptable: I riffed on this recipe from The Kitchn to make these, switching out the grain, the herbs, the fruit, and the nuts, and adding the cheese, and the results were super. I would absolutely like to try this with pomegranate seeds another time, since my grocery stores were fresh out this week. Fortunately the dregs of a box of dried cranberries in my pantry rescued me.

Still enjoying my newly-discovered like of quinoa, but couscous or the suggested bulgur would both be terrific here, though their lower protein content would make this more of a side dish than a main, as we ate it. Chris loved it too: "This is f**king good," he shouted up at me just now, noshing on the leftovers. Best compliment ever.

Quinoa-stuffed eggplants with feta, walnuts, and mint
Serves 3 as a main or 6 as a side

3 medium purple eggplants
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 tbsp za'atar
1 tsp salt
3 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup toasted walnuts or other nut of choice
1/2 cup dried cranberries (or raisins, pomegranate seeds, dried cherries, etc.)
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves, washed and chopped
2 scallions, green parts only, sliced into thin rings
juice of one lemon
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese (or cotija, ricotta salata, or queso fresco)

Preheat your oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with foil. Slice your eggplants lengthwise and lay them down cut sides up. Score them in a diamond pattern with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut through skin at any point. Brush each half with 1/2 tbsp olive oil and sprinkle with salt and za'atar. Bake for 45 min to 1 hour or until eggplants are completely soft. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, nuts, cranberries, mint, scallions, and feta. Toss to combine, then drizzle with lemon juice and remaining 2 tbsp olive oil. Toss again and taste for seasoning (I salted my quinoa generously and found that the feta took care of the rest).

Mound quinoa on top of each eggplant half (about 3/4 cup per eggplant piece) and serve hot or at room temperature. Leftovers reheat well in microwave and the flavours get even better with a bit of time.

Note that you can eat the eggplant skin; it softens with baking but retains a nice chewiness that adds flavour and texture to the dish. If you prefer not to, you can scoop out the flesh as you would with a baked potato.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Get stuffed

Lately I've been eating a lot of bell peppers. Well, I always have done so, in the warmer months when they don't cost a million dollars each at the grocery store, but this past year I've been buying the 4-pack of multicoloured ones at Food Basics regardless of the cost, every week. (Some weeks I buy two packages. Luxury!) The bottom line is that I love them. They're by far my favourite vegetable, and as luxuries go, it's a small one.

This week in lieu of putting them in my scrambled eggs each morning, or into a stir-fry or a soup, I elected to stuff them. This is a dish I used to make a lot back when we first moved into the house, ten years ago now. But it fell off my radar for a few years, for whatever reason, and this week it occurred to me that it deserved resurrection. Chris had mentioned wanting to cook himself some quinoa sometime soon, and despite my former dislike and subsequent banishment of it from my kitchen, I relented and bought a package at the store. I did some reading and discovered that in all likelihood I had not been rinsing it thoroughly enough years ago, and that's why it tasted bitter and soapy to me. I rinsed it for a full two minutes tonight, swishing it around with my hands, and then cooked it in chicken stock.

Then I mixed it with some ground pork that I'd browned quickly with some corn kernels, green onions, and spices, added grated cheese and some fresh cilantro, stuffed it into pepper halves and baked them until slightly browned and crispy on top. Both of us took one bite and then basically alternated bites with compliments to the food we were eating. It was totally delicious - healthful and rich all at the same time. A great balance. This one's a keeper.

Quinoa and pork-stuffed peppers
Serves 4

4 large bell peppers, any colour
3/4 cup dry quinoa, rinsed very well, cooked according to package directions in salted water or chicken stock (recommended)
300 grams ground pork
1 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper
cumin and smoked paprika
3 scallions, sliced, white parts discarded
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, washed, dried, and chopped
1 cup grated cheddar (I used old)
1 can corn kernels, drained, or 1 cup frozen corn, thawed

Preheat your oven to 375 F and start the quinoa cooking. Wash and dry the peppers. Cut them in half carefully, cutting closely around the stems. Remove seeds and white pith. Place pepper halves in a microwavable container, add an inch or two of water, cover and cook on high for five minutes to soften. Drain and arrange in a single layer in a baking dish, ready to be stuffed.

Heat the oil on high in a large skillet. Brown the pork until no pink shows. Season with salt, pepper, cumin, and smoked paprika to taste. Add the corn and green onions, and cook three minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro.

Once quinoa is cooked, stir in about 2/3 of it with the pork mixture. Add half the cheese and stir well to combine. Stuff the mixture into the pepper halves, pressing in tightly and mounding in the centre. Sprinkle each pepper half with remaining cheese. Bake for 20-30 minutes until cheese is melted and tops are lightly browned, or to taste. Serve two pepper halves to each person. Sigh with delight.

This can easily be made vegetarian by substituting veggie ground round or lentils cooked in vegetable stock until soft  for the pork.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Alone in the kitchen with some eggplants

Laurie Colwin was a beloved American food writer and novelist who produced two delightful essay collections devoted to her kitchen thoughts and adventures: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. My wonderful friend Kate sent them both to me years ago and they remain favourite comfort reads.  One of the essays is amusingly titled "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," something I frequently am, and was last night.

Two eggplants, in fact, which I chose to transform into a sort of kitchen-sink vegetable ragu - a riff on ratatouille, eggplant parmesan, and caponata, incorporating the things I like most about all three. Soft, rich vegetables; hits of salt, spice, and sweetness; a velvety mouthfeel; and a warm, deep, comforting flavour that is perfect for the dark, sad, letdown of a month that January can be. But take heart, friends: at 5:15 p.m. today, the sky still held some light. There is hope, and until the long bright evenings are back, there is always eggplant. (With carbs. Don't forget the carbs.)

Eggplant ragu (Homage to Laurie Colwin)

1/4 cup olive oil
Two medium eggplants, peeled and diced into 1/2" chunks
Three bell peppers (any colour except green)
sea salt
One fat clove garlic, minced
One can diced tomatoes (28 oz)
One large handful black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
6-8 pickled cherry peppers, drained and roughly chopped
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2-3 tbsp sugar or to taste

Heat oil in a dutch oven and saute eggplant and peppers ten minutes, salting liberally, until softened and beginning to cook down. Add garlic and toss 2 min. Add tomatoes, olives, cherry peppers, balsamic, basil, and sugar. Bring to a low boil and them simmer, covered, 30 min or until eggplant are soft. Peppers should retain a little bite.  Simmer uncovered an additional ten minutes. Adjust seasonings and serve liberally over pasta or (my preference) creamy polenta with butter and Parmesan cheese. We had some herb-roasted chicken alongside, which was just perfect, but it would be great next to braised short ribs or pork too.