Fire Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and Eggplant

I’ve always liked the idea of eggplant, but – you know there had to be a “but” coming – eggplant and I have never really gotten along. For a long time it has officially taken a spot right next to cilantro on the “foods that I find absolutely repulsive” list. And I have found, just as I have with cilantro, that there are eggplant lovers and there are eggplant haters. But I want to like it so much. People who like it completely rave about it. You can use it as a meat substitute in certain dishes, grill it, bake it, fry it, and turn it into baba ghanoush. I feel like I’m missing out on something big but each and every time I’ve attempted to make eggplant for myself I find it to be what I would imagine slimy sponges would feel like in my mouth. 

The most depressing thing is to come across a recipe that sounds like it would be so good except for the fact that eggplant plays a major role. I find this with a lot of Ottolenghi recipes and that has to be my only serious complaint about his books. I usually pass those eggplant recipes by, never to return to them. At least, that is, until now. I was skimming though Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and got excited when I stated reading a recipe for Fire-Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and…ugh. Eggplant. There would have to be eggplant. But the rest sounded so good, a hearty vegetable and grain stew with warming Moroccan flavors; if only it didn’t have that one ingredient. But then I started reading through the recipe and noticed that the eggplant had a special preparation, microwaving it to “remove some of the moisture for a more supple outcome.” I was getting more tempted by the minute, and I am certainly glad that I followed through.

So I did microwave the eggplant, and took an extra step of squashing it between two plates with paper towels between to get out even more moisture, and found that the result reminded me quite a lot of mushrooms. I salted the eggplant beforehand too, having heard that this removes moisture and the bitter flavor. I can’t totally attest to any proven science with these methods here but all I know is that it produced palatable eggplant and that is good enough for me.

The eggplant joins the stewpot with loads of onion, carrots, three types of tomatoes (fire-roasted, sun-dried, and paste), and an interesting addition of cinnamon and raisins to create an intensely flavored, slightly sweet broth. Chickpeas and loads of cooked farro add body and thickness making a completely stick-to-your ribs stew great with a loaf of crusty bread. It just so happens that I got a nasty cold shortly after making a big pot  of this and I have been certainly glad to have a fridge full of stew around this week. So, for all of the eggplant haters out there, I have found the solution though, it’s not totally off the hated-foods list yet but perhaps a little further back in line.

Fire Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and Eggplant
Adapted from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
Serves 6

½ cup uncooked pearled farro
1 eggplant, about 1 pound
¼ pound pancetta or bacon, cubed
1 onion, diced
1 glove of garlic, minced
½ tsp salt
½ pound carrots, quartered and diced in ½ inch pieces
¾ tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can of fire-roasted tomatoes
2½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup chopped oil-packed sundried tomatoes
¼ tsp. cracked black pepper
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 tsp. sugar

To Finish
chopped parsley
olive oil
whole-milk yogurt

Begin by cooking the farro. Bring about 2 cups of water to a boil with a pinch of salt. Add the farro, stir, and reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and let cook for 20-25 minutes until tender but still a little chewy. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare the eggplant. Cut the eggplant into eighths lengthwise and cut each strip into ¼ inch pieces. Arrange half on a place and microwave for 2 minutes. Remove, place 2 paper towels overtop and press another plate firmly down on top of the eggplant. Transfer eggplant to a bowl and repeat the process with the remaining eggplant.

To prepare the stew, add the pancetta to a Dutch oven and cook over medium until crispy. Transfer to a plate and discard all but 2 Tbs. of the fat. If you want to make this vegetarian, skip this step and just start with 2 Tbs. of olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and ¼ tsp. of salt to the pancetta fat and cook over medium for about 8 minutes until the onion is golden. Stir in the carrots, eggplant, cooked pancetta, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, for a minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the canned tomatoes and scrape any burnt bits from the bottom. Add in the broth, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, chickpeas, pepper, and the remaining ¼ tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 25 minutes or until the carrots are tender.

To finish, stir in the farro and the tsp. of sugar. Season with salt and pepper for taste and add a little water if its too thick for you. Serve a heaping bowlful with a drizzle of olive oil, the yogurt, and parsley with buttered bread on the side.

End of Winter Salad

Six months ago I wrote this, my farewell to summer, optimistic with the prospects of fall activities: football, winter squash, changing leaves, but so sad to leave the fresh vegetables and fruits of summer. I am truly a summer being, a warm-blooded, July-born Leo, and need the sunshine to function on a normal level. That salad was hard to let go. But we’ve made it through with a surprising and wonderfully mild winter. Not once did I break out the snow shovel, not once did our school cancel classes. It was a winter that required merely an extra blanket and a mug of hot chocolate to get through.

Spring came two days ago with a bang, literally. After aweek of nearly 80 degree weather, Mother Nature brought us the new season by means of an almost rite of passage. By 4:00 the winds picked up. By 5:00 the sky grew dark. At 6:00 flashes flickered in the distance and low rumbles murmured through the heavens. I sat on the floor in the kitchen, face peering out the open window and watched the storm unwind. It’s almost a magical moment when you hear the very first raindrop, a resolute patter on the grass that then, in less than a minute, it accelerates to a full-on shower. The storm progressed and just when I thought is was beginning to pass, it happened. A lightening bolt struck literally feet away from our house accompanied by an earth-shattering boom. Surges of electricity pulsated through me and every hairstood up on the back of my neck. It was absolutely frightening and exhilarating and a jolting burst into spring.

So to accompany my end of summer salad I bring you this end of winter salad I concocted last weekend. It’s refreshing yet still hearty, the sort of dish that I don’t think I would mind eating every day. A simple composition of cooked farro and wild rice, tossed with some lemon and oil, and topped with steamed farmer’s market kale, roasted butternut squash, spiced, honeyed walnuts, and a smattering of manchego cheese. It goes well with a glass of iced tea, open windows, cool breezes, and the sounds of chirping birds. I can find no other word for it that just plain lovely. It would be great for a picnic (just pack the walnuts separately and sprinkle on top before eating) but was nice for a special lunch alone too. Though this celebrated some of the last of the wintery foods, the bright kale and citrusy flavors bring with it signs of more gorgeous, sunny weather to come. Hello spring!

End of Winter Salad
Serves 2-3
adapted significantly from this recipe

I can’t wait to try this with more spring-like variations (asparagus, peas, pancetta, and pine nuts would be delicious) but almost any substitution could work. It is very versatile. Also, if you have any leftover grains, be sure to make this. The proportions of this salad and vinaigrette arenot really exact, absolute recipes. Assemble it according to your tastes and proportional preferences and you’ll be happy no matter what.

4 cups cooked whole grains (I used a combination of wild rice and farro. Look to packaging for cooking instructions. I also added a bay leaf to the cooking water for a bit of flavor)
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
olive oil
a big bunch of kale, washed and removed from thick stems
manchego cheese slices
salt and pepper

for walnuts
½ cup walnut halves
2 Tbs. honey
¼ tsp ground turmeric
pinch of cayenne
pinch of salt
a dash of water

for vinaigrette
½ lemon, juiced
3 Tbs. olive oil
a squeeze of honey
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and start by cooking the butternut squash. Toss it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and place it on a parchment lined baking sheet. Pop it in the oven for around 30 minutes.

While that cooks prepare the vinaigrette in a bowl. Combine all of the ingredients and whisk until smooth. Also begin to prepare the walnuts by mixing the honey turmeric, cayenne, and salt in a bowl. Add enough water to make a runny paste. Set aside. When there are 10 minutes left for the squash, add the walnuts to the honey mixture, stir to coat them completely, and add them to the pan with the butternut squash off to one side, spreading them in an even layer. Return the pan to the oven until the walnuts are bubbling in the honey syrup and turning golden. While the squash and walnuts finish up, steam the kale in apot with a steamer basket.

Remove the sheet pan from the oven and set aside to cool for a moment. This will let the sugars on the walnuts set and turn crispy. To assemble the salad, add the kale and butternut squash to the grains. Pour overthe dressing and gently toss to combine. Taste and add salt or pepper as needed. Top with the walnuts and some shavings of the manchego cheese.

A Bowl of Rice

Things are getting cold out there. It’s only mid-November but I woke up this morning feeling as if it could have been the dead of winter. Five blankets deep within my bed, I huddled in a little ball, burrowing myself under. Only my nose poked out to the world beyond, numb and pink like a little mouse. I left my house, plump with multiple coats yet despite the layers, the cold settled deep. I was in a cold mood, had cold thoughts. It’s been a cold sort of day.

A cold day calls for foods of comfort. Rich starches, warm flavors, long and slow cooking so that the heat of the stove permeates the house.  I made a simple bowl of white rice for dinner, that wholesome grain that I relied on so much for comfort as a child. The only thing I could stomach when sick and the cure-all for a bad day. Rice, butter, salt, pepper.

At the end of this long week, on the first day in a long time where I simply had nothing to do, on a Friday night when everyone else was busy and my thoughts a little bleak, I bundled up at home and made and basic yet elegant spiced Indian rice. It started with toasting an array of spices; cinnamon, cardamom, black peppercorns, whole cloves, a bay leaf, cumin seeds. The spices were tossed with white basmati rice and left to cook for several minutes in which time the air became perfumed with exotic aromas. Rich and sweet cardamom mingled with the bright and spicy cumin. All the while cinnamon filled my lungs with festive warmth and the toasting rice released deep floral nuttiness. Its smell almost visibly swirled seductively through the air, a belly-dancing courtesan of a smell. The rice, once finished, was topped with a sprinkling of pistachios, crispy fried shallots, and a fresh poached egg, The egg yolk coated the granules of rice for a rich and creamy sauce and each bite brought back a little warmth to the my body as the aromas first passed under my nose and into the mouth.

I know, I know, a little non-traditional for Friday night. Shouldn’t I be out having beer and greasiness and other college Friday night things? Well besides my general lack of “traditional”, I just know that it was alone-time sort of night. A night where I needed to sit down with a bowl of rice. The bowl now sits empty and all is good.

Spiced Indian Rice
Adapted from Journey Kitchen
serves 2-3 as a main dish

1½ cups white basmati rice
2¼ cups water
1½ Tbs. vegetable oil
1½ tsp. cumin seeds
2 whole cloves
2 black peppercorns
½ cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cardamom pods
1 shallot, cut into rings plus oil for frying
a handful of shelled pistachios
1 egg per person
salt and pepper

Wash the rice until the water runs clear and soak in water for an hour. After an hour, drain the excess water. In a deep and thick-bottomed saucepan with a lid or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, and cardamom. Stir to coat with oil. Add the cumin seeds. When the seeds begin to pop, add the rice. Stir to coat and toast for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the rice has toasted, add the water and some salt, stir, turn the heat to high, and cook uncovered for 7-8 minutes until the water is almost absorbed. Cover with the lid, turn the heat to medium-low, and continue to cook for 5-7 minutes or until the water is absorbed completely.  Fluff the rice with a fork.

Meanwhile, put a pot on water or the stove and bring to a simmer. This will be for poaching the egg. Also, heat enough vegetable oil in a small frying pan to cover the bottom. Once hot, add the shallots and cook, stirring frequently until crisp and deep golden colored. Transfer to a paper towel to drain. When the water in the pot is simmering, crack the egg/s into the water and cook for about 4 minutes each. Remove from the water and let drain on a paper towel.

To assemble, place a good portion of the rice in a bowl. Top with salt and pepper and a little butter if you’d like. Scatter on the pistachios, onions, and the egg. Season with salt and pepper.

P.S. Be careful that you don’t confuse any of the cardamom pods with the pistachios. They look quite alike and that could lead to an interesting little surprise.

The Return of the College Diet

I must admit, that there was a plus side to not finding a job this summer. I had a lot of time to think about food, experiment with food, and cook some pretty sweet meals and treats for my family. Every night we sat down at the dinner table my dad would always exclaim, “Man! What are we gonna eat when Katie’s gone.”

Sadly, being gone doesn’t mean they’ll be the only ones missing out on gourmet meals every night. I know as a fact that once the classes and the internship start up, the college diet will return and I plan to stick to quick-fix meals, during the weekdays at least. There will be sandwiches (thought now I have my experiences with Pret for inspiration), there will be LOTs of omelets, enough carrots and hummus to turn my skin orange, and above all, there will be yogurt and granola.

I think I eat this wonderful combo about 4 times a week for lunch and usually have some seasonal fruit to mix in. But up until just 3 weeks ago I never knew how good it could be. I used to stick to the simple store-bought granola, something like Bear Naked or Udi’s. Then one day, when there was absolutely nothing in the house but a lonely yogurt and no topping options, I realized that although our premade granola was gone, the comprising ingredients were all together in our house. So I made a teeny tiny batch, out of about ¼ cup of oats. I tossed in the few strands of coconut from the cupboard, a few mutilated almond slivers, a couple Craisins. I mixed it with a little oil and brown sugar and toasted it up. After taking it out of the oven and letting it cool to crispness, I took a bite and was blown away.

This granola was just so…fresh. It was crispy, fragrant, and chewy. It had none of that staleness and cardboard-like flavor I always kind of hated about the store-bought varieties. It first gave this awesome crunch, coated with caramelized sweetness, before turning chewy and releasing the intense nutty flavors from the roasted oats. I used to think granola must always be this bland, whole-mealy sort of snack that you only get because it seems like the “in” and trendy thing to do. Most times it was a sea of these semi-toasted oats and every now and then, if I was lucky, I’d be the recipient of half an almond. Yippee!! Now I know the truth.

And then I suddenly felt so stupid that I had never made my own before. It was so easy, one of those wing-it recipes that you can’t really ever screw up. And it can be made from just about anything lying around. And so the granola continued. I experimented and tested with different ingredients and ratios and finally found one I really love. It’s an even balance of fruit and nuts and oats that makes it so great. It makes for a granola that is really chunky and full of texture. For nuts, I like a combination of walnuts and pecans because they’re so soft and chewy. The fruits I chose were coconut, dried cherries, and banana chips for a little tropical flair. I’d imagine that dried papaya or pineapple would be an even more exciting replacement for the cherries. And finally, I used a combination of brown sugar and brown rice syrup for the nutty flavor that the syrup imparts. Just yesterday, I made a huge batch of it and took bagfuls to school with me to toss in my backpack, lunchbox, whatever. A filling snack and SO EASY snack with a flavor that can’t ever be matched by the grocery store stuff.

My Granola

The trick to the best granola is to toast is at a low temperature for a really long time. This really lets the flavors deepen and makes the toasting nice and even. The second secret is to let it cool in the pan completely before breaking it up. This will ensure that you get those big oat chunks. Feel free to experiment and replace the ingredients with any that you have around or like better. Just try and make sure to keep the nut-fruit-oat ration the same.

3 cups of rolled oats (I used a 5-grain blend of oatmeal that included oats, rye, barley, tricticale, and golden flax but plain oats are fine)
¾ cup chopped pecans
¾ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup unsalted sunflower seeds
¾ cup shredded sweetened coconut
¾ cup chopped banana chips
¼ cup brown sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs. brown rice syrup
¼ cup plus 2 Tbs. sunflower or other vegetable oil
¾ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¾ cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the oats, pecans, walnuts, seeds, coconut, banana chips, brown sugar, and cinnamon until well combined. In another bowl mix together the brown rice syrup, oil, salt, and vanilla. Microwave for 15 seconds, give it a stir to mix the syrup and oil, a pour into the granola mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon until the syrup coats everything evenly.

Spread the mixture evenly onto a sheet pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Evey 15 minutes, stir the granola so it cooks evenly. Add in the cherries for the last 15 minute cooking interval. When time is up, remove from the oven and let sit until cool. Once cool, use your wooden spoon to break the granola into chunks. Store in an airtight container.