The art of the barter

In late July, my friend Lise gave me a large bag of wild blueberries that she and her boyfriend had picked. Picking wild blueberries, which taste unlike any of the cultivated varieties, is backbreaking and tedious. In exchange for the wild blueberries, I gave Lise a couple of jars of my homemade elderflower jelly.

Also by bartering, this summer I obtained other fresh local produce, including some horseradish I needed for pickling beets, and a load of peppers when my entire crop failed. I received all these bounties in exchange for my homemade jams, jellies and pickles. Continue reading

Squirrel with a chest freezer

At this point I am sick and tired of canning, blanching and freezing, and cleaning the kitchen afterwards. There is still a good amount of crops in the garden: lettuce, arugula, beets, spinach, radishes, kale, collard greens, and carrots, not to forget the jalapeño plant, almost a bush by now that just won’t stop producing. Yet most of the fall harvest will not require lengthy and messy processing.

The sight of the filled freezer and the line-up of jars with jam, jelly, chutney, relish and other preserves is utterly satisfying. Like a squirrel, I have packed away as much as I can for the winter. Thanks to the generator we finally installed, this is the first year I don’t have to worry about spoilage any longer when we are without power for days in a row, like last year after Hurricane Irene in August and again after a foot of snow in late October.

With the gardening season winding down, I have time for another fall project: the revised edition of Spoonfuls of Germany, my German regional cookbook (see my new blog).

It’s funny though, as much as I welcome the upcoming downtime, I already find myself thinking about the elderberries that need to be moved in the spring, about which new crops I want to try next year, and how I can find a rhubarb forcer in the United States. As a gardener, even when you don’t stick your hands in the dirt, your head is somehow always in it.

Cherry Tomato Cobbler

Two new tomato dishes I tried this year are definite keepers: Sarah Leah Chase’s Scalloped Tomatoes (with olive oil, not bacon; a food52 Genius recipe), and this Cherry Tomato Cobbler. There are several recipes for tomato cobbler recipes out there but they all call for all-purpose flour only. That would have tasted too much like a regular sweet cobbler to me, tomatoes need something more rustic so I used a mix of cornmeal and all-purpose flour for the topping.

This is a great way to use all those not-so-pretty cherry and/or grape tomatoes, as well as the end-of-the-season runt right now. To avoid a soupy consistency, I added extra cornmeal to the tomatoes.

In the summer I made the cobbler in a large gratin dish but I thought it would be also nice to give everyone their individual serving dishes. I don’t own ramequins so I used ovenproof French onion soup bowls. They turned out to be perfect – shallow ramequins would have been too small.

Filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

2 large garlic cloves, pushed through garlic press

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 pounds cherry or grape tomatoes

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cobbler topping:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup stoneground cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes

¾ cup heavy cream

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet and cook the onion until soft and starting to brown at the edges, about 10 minutes, stirring often. In the last 2 minutes, add the garlic and oregano. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

3. In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, cooled onions with herbs, cornmeal, kosher salt and pepper.

4. For the cobbler topping mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Work in the butter with a pastry cutter or with your fingertips. Once is has a crumbly consistently, add the cream and fold it in swiftly with a fork; do not overmix.

4.  Divide the tomato filling among 6 ovenproof French onion soup bowls, or put it all in one large gratin dish. Top with the cornmeal crumbles.

5. If using individual serving dishes, place them on a jelly roll pan to catch any drips. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are bubbly and the tops golden brown. Serve hot or lukewarm.

Makes 6 servings

Brining olives, bringing back memories

Pomegranates and olives are the two things that I associate the most with my Tunisian grandmother. Of course I cannot grow either in my Pennsylvania garden so when I saw fresh olives for sale the other day I could not resist buying some to try my hand on brining them.

Those olives brought back vivid memories of my grandmother. Most of them have to do with food, as I did not speak a word of Arabic as a child, and my grandmother did not know French. And, like most women of her generation, she was illiterate. She basically communicated with me through food. I remember her putting things on my plate, and when she realized I liked it, she nodded or chuckled, or both, and put more on my plate.

My grandmother’s cooking was as Mediterranean as they come – no dairy whatsoever. Before trips to Tunisia, I remember my mother buying gingersnaps for her at a spice store in downtown Frankfurt, a place where she usually never shopped. In the 1970s, gingersnaps were something very exotic for Germany, and certainly not cheap. I tried one and found it awful (today I love gingersnaps) but my mother told me that these were the only cookies my grandmother liked and was able to eat. It only occurred to me now that she had a milk allergy.

At my grandmother’s house in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian coastal area called the Sahel, the meals were taken in the large courtyard. We sat on straw mats, with the starry night sky as the ceiling. You could faintly hear voices and music from neighboring houses, and cooking smells wafting over, yet it felt ultimately private.

The middle of her courtyard had a small, rosette-shaped elevated garden with an orange tree, a pomegranate tree, and some turtles roaming around. My grandmother knew how much I loved pomegranates, so each time she came to visit us in Germany, usually in the winter, she brought me pomegranates from that tree.Storage roomOlives, especially olive oil, was omnipresent in her cooking. The greenish oil was so thick that a spoon could stand in it. Like all her other provisions, she kept the olive oil in earthenware amphora, neatly lined up in the long narrow storage room. The olive oil came from the family’s olive groves and she used it for everything, from frying thick wedges of potatoes to her delicious hot pepper sauce, which was much milder than harissa, and which I never managed to fully recreate. She did not distinguish between light olive oil for cooking and the thick cold-pressed grade.  I never use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking, I find its flavor too strong, but back then I did not mind. Then, of course, there is the price issue. Good extra-virgin olive oil is expensive. Early this summer I finally found a mail order source for Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil. I bought three liters thinking it would last us a whole year. We were out after a few months and I recently had to reorder.

My grandmother also made her own olive soap. I still have one of those irregularly shaped chunky bars, and I never thought of using it because it is one of the few objects that connect me to her. When I went to her house ten years after she died, I took as many photos as I could. The house was deserted and clearly falling apart. For a short while I hoped I would be able to save that gem, with its beautiful Moorish tiles, its wrought-iron windowpanes, and its sleeping alcoves with elaborate multi-colored woodwork frames. But renovating it was too big of a task for me at a time when I was just starting my career. Then, life took me elsewhere and, eventually, to the United States.

Brining olives takes time. Mine are still at the stage where I need to soak them in water and change it daily to remove the extreme bitterness. I hope it will work out and I will end up with tasty olives in a couple of months so I can post the recipe. (Update, January 2012: The cured olives failed, they were awfully bitter. I will rely on the pros for olives but it was fun to try).

In the meantime, all this thinking and reading about olives put me in such an olive mood that I concocted a quick salad with olives, using leftover chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes from the garden. This is, like most salads in Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines, a compact affair, small and filling, like Tabouleh.Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil)

Finely chopped fresh chili to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Lime juice to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Mix all ingredients. Let sit a few hours before serving. Refrigerate if not serving the same day. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings

Overcoming the green tomato prejudice

Until now I have been heavily prejudiced against green tomatoes. Not that I ever ate a green tomato. When I occasionally had green tomatoes in the garden because a branch broke off, or I ended up with green tomatoes at the end of the season, I would rather throw them on the compost pile than using them for cooking.

Maybe it’s the idea of eating something unripe that put me off. I know fried green tomatoes are a southern specialty but I was never tempted to try them. I am not a health fanatic but when I use artery-clogging ingredients, I prefer do to it when there is no alternative, such as butter in a piecrust. Also, I do not like the idea of buying additional produce in the height of the harvest to make something with green tomatoes.

When I collected a couple of pounds of green tomatoes from the garden this week, I reconsidered. I constantly try new things, so why not give green tomatoes a second chance and make chutney? I browsed recipes online and went through my cookbooks for inspiration. The only condition I set for myself was that I would minimize the purchase of extra ingredients. Since I have jalapeno peppers in the garden right now (also a premiere), and lots of fresh garlic, the only thing I had to buy for this Green Tomato Chutney were apples. All the other ingredients were staples I had in the house.

As the prospective main chutney eater besides me does not like it too spicy, I removed the seeds from the jalapenos. I am glad I did because the chutney is already quite hot as is. For a hotter version, simply include some or all of the seeds.

I don’t think I will ever actually pick green tomatoes but at least I have a simple recipe that I like in case green tomatoes come upon me. I look forward to opening the first jar of chutney and eat it with Indian food this fall or winter.

For now it’s back to fresh red tomatoes.

Green Tomato Chutney

2 to 2¼ pounds green tomatoes

10 garlic cloves

1 large onion

1 large or 2 small tart apples (I used green summer apples)

3 jalapeno peppers

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole allspice

6 cardamom pods

1 pound 6 ounces Turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 cup white wine vinegar

3 bay leaves

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

6 whole cloves

1 teaspoon dried orange peel

1 teaspoon finely grated zest from an organic lemon

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

5 half-pint canning jars

5 bands

5 new (unused) lids

1. Remove the core from the tomatoes and cut them into 1-inch dice. Slice the garlic cloves thinly. Chop the onion. Peel the apples and remove the core. Cut the apples into 1-inch dice. Cut the jalapenos in half and remove the seeds. Chop the jalapenos very finely. Wear disposable gloves to do this, or wash hands thoroughly afterwards to avoid skin and eye irritation. Peel and finely chop the ginger.

2. Crush the peppercorns, allspice and cardamom in a mortar.

3. Mix all ingredients in a non-corrosive pot (no aluminum) and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.

4. Slowly bring the mix to a boil. Cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Fill into sterilized canning jars using a slotted spoon, as you don’t want to fill the jars with too much liquid but make sure the chutney is fully immersed. You will have about 1 to 2 cups of cooking liquid left over; discard. Close jars with brand new lids and bands immediately and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

5. Remove from the water onto damp kitchen towels. Let rest 24 hours before storing the jars in a cool place away from the light.

Makes 5 half-pint jars

A Minestrone full of memories

For the longest time I found Minestrone rather bland. That is, until almost  ten years ago I tasted Marge’s, my late and beloved sister-in-law’s. Hers was wonderfully tasty. Of course I came home with the recipe. I have made it often ever since, always the whole recipe, although it yields a huge amount.  The soup is great when you have people trickling in, as it is very good reheated. It also freezes well.

I wish I could ask my sister-in-law for the origin of the recipe. She used to mail me a large Manila envelope once in a while with copies of recipes. A post-it said something like “I have been cooking lately”, and many recipes carried her handwritten comments such as “outstanding”, “superb” or “try this”. Sometimes she added her substitutes and the date when she made it. All very neat, always citing the source, always the librarian, even after she retired. The Minestrone recipe is the only one that I jotted down myself. Shortly after she died in the summer of 2006, I started the Master Gardener program at Penn State University. It was a welcome new focus and distraction in those days, and it put together my haphazard knowledge about gardening.

This week it was time for Marge’s Minestrone again. For the tomatoes, spinach, string beans, garlic and basil I used last year’s from my garden. When it comes to chickpeas, I am a purist – I cannot get myself to use canned ones. Since I forgot to soak them last night, I quick-soaked them this morning, boiling them in plenty of water for 1 minute and then letting them sit for 1 hour – exactly the time it took me to line up all the ingredients, which is most of the work. Cooking the soup is a cinch.

Marge’s Minestrone

¾ cup dried chickpeas (or 1½ cups canned)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground beef

1 very large onion (¾ pound,), chopped

8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1½ tablespoons salt

¾ cup finely chopped boiled ham

3 stalks celery including leaves, finely chopped

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

1 small can (16 ounces) canned tomatoes, cut up with their juice

1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste

2 large carrots, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh or frozen basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

½ cup dry red wine

10 ounces chopped fresh spinach

2 medium potatoes (¾ pound), peeled and cubed

1 cup fresh or frozen string or filet beans

1½ cups elbow macaroni

1. If using dried chickpeas, soak them in cold water to cover for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot (stockpot). Add the ground beef and brown, stirring.

3. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

4. Add the garlic and all the ingredients up to the wine plus 4 quarts water.

5. If using fresh chickpeas, add the drained soaked chickpeas now.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour, covered.

6. Add the potatoes, the spinach and the beans. If using canned chickpeas, add them now. Cook over low-medium heat for 20 minutes.

7. Add the pasta and cook until just tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add salt to taste.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and fresh country bread or baguette.

Makes 16 servings


Similar but not the same

The diversity of Indian cuisines and the variety of spices, legumes, and grains is a bit overwhelming and I cannot claim that I know much about it. That does not prevent me from tinkering with Indian recipes every now and then because I love Indian food, and there is no place to eat anything remotely authentic around here.

The other day I pulled out a jar of yellow split peas and a jar of Toor dal from our pantry, wondering whether I had accidentally stored the same thing under different names.  But when I looked closer and did a little research, I found that the two are indeed different.

Yellow split peas are peas, as their name says. They usually do not need to be soaked and cook quicker than Toor dal, which are yellow lentils. Sometimes Toor dal is referred to as pigeon peas, which is confusing. The Cook’s Thesaurus tells me that the Indian name for yellow peas is Matar dal. Toor dal come plain or oiled and need soaking because they have a hard shell.

After identifying what I had, it was too late to make a dish with Toor dal that night, so I postponed it until the next day. I soaked the lentils for 3 hours and made up my own version of Indian Khichri using the spices I had on hand, and peeled frozen tomatoes from the garden (of course canned tomatoes will work as well). If I had had some, I would have topped it with chopped fresh cilantro. Next time…

Khichri with Toor Dal (Yellow Split Lentils)

1 cup Toor dal

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ cup vegetable oil

5 whole cloves

1 small cinnamon stick

Seeds from 5 cardamom pods

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 onions, halved and thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 thumbnail-size piece of fresh ginger, finely grated

1 small piece of dried chili pepper

3-4 curry leaves

6-8 peeled tomatoes, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the lentils under cold water to discard any impurities. Put in a bowl and cover with cold water. Soak for 3 hours.

2. Put the lentils in a small pot with the soaking liquid and add the turmeric. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft. Set aside.

3. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy medium-size pot.  Add the spices and fry them for 1-2 minutes, stirring. You should smell their scents but take care not to burn them.

4. Add the onion and fry over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes, stirring often.

5. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute, stirring.

6. Add the curry leaves and the tomatoes. Mix well and cook covered over low heat for 15 minutes. Add a little bit of water if the tomatoes don’t have a lot of juice.

7. Add the lentils with their cooking liquid. Add salt and cook covered for another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking for water. Season with salt and pepper.

8. Remove the cinnamon stick, curry leaves, and cloves. Serve with basmati rice.

Makes 6 servings

Stock clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable stock I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable stock from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable stock more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable stock in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the stock remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the stock (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Stock

4 pounds (1.8 kg) mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts (7 liters)

Tomato resort

“You know,“ I said to my husband when he helped me fill tomato soup into freezer bags at 11 o’clock at night, and my eyes fell on a basket of cherry tomatoes, “I am getting a little sick of all this processing.” “You say this every year,” he responded, “and I give you the same answer every year.”

When I started planning a garden, the first book I bought was The Food Lover’s Garden by Angelo M. Pellegrini. M.F.K. Fisher called it a classic when it was published 40 years ago so I thought it had to be good. Indeed, the book is packed with excellent, no-nonsense garden advice about growing organic vegetables.

I remember that when I first read The Food Lover’s Garden, I smiled about sentences like the one that wraps up the chapter on tomatoes: “When your first tomato is ripe (…) pop it, a quarter at a time, into your mouth. I shall be listening for your sighs of sweet contentment!”

I also remember sighing over the fact that the author, located in the Pacific Northwest, could grow vegetables year round and I couldn’t. Six years later, I admit that I am grateful for the break that the Pennsylvania winter forces me to take between November and March. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t get antsy by mid-January, making planting lists and crop-rotation blueprints when the first seed catalogs arrive in the mail.

So back to tomatoes… Cherry tomatoes are plentiful this year and I needed to find a way of turning them into something that a) did not require buying additional ingredients, b) was quick and easy to make, and c) keeps for several days or longer. So I cooked up this tomato spread. It tastes good with crackers or wholesome fresh bread, or as part of a sandwich.

This recipe was a selected as a Food52 Community Pick.

Cherry Tomato Spread

1¾ pounds ripe cherry tomatoes

6 garlic cloves

¼ cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 pinch cayenne pepper

You also need:

A small cast-iron Dutch oven

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Coarsely chop tomatoes in half, saving all of the the juice. Chop garlic. In a bowl mix tomatoes and juice, garlic, olive oil, pepper and cayenne pepper.

3. Put mixture in a small cast-iron pot and cook covered in the preheated oven for 1 hour.

4. Remove the lid and cook for 1 more hour, or until the juice has thickened. Stir occasionally and scrape down the tomatoes from the edges to prevent burning.

5. Cool and transfer to a tall bowl if using a stick blender for pureeing, or a food processor bowl. Puree finely. Fill in an airtight container, pour a little bit of olive oil on top to seal, and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 cups

No more shortcuts

Although I’ve been cooking for many years, I have only recently learned one important lesson – don’t take any shortcuts, at least not with recipes from a highly knowledgeable source. When I made Julia Child’s Boeuf bourguignon for the first time a few months ago I put too much meat in the pot at once, with the result that it did not brown but foamed and bubbled like baking soda. The next time I made the dish, I stuck to the recipe and the meat was perfectly browned. If there was a shortcut, wouldn’t someone like Julia Child go for it? Only then did it dawn on me that it’s not a good idea trying to outsmart cooks who obviously know better than you.

Another example for the no-shortcut rule is eggplant, which is growing abundantly in the garden right now. I have always wondered why the eggplant dishes I made had a bitter aftertaste, even when the eggplant was freshly picked. I am usually too rushed or too lazy to salt it and let it sit for 30 minutes or even 1 hour. It is surprising how much brownish liquid the eggplant releases, no wonder it’s bitter. And, the taste is indefinitely better, no matter what the eggplants are used for afterwards.

Getting 3 pounds of eggplant ready for lasagna was quite a bit of work but I have promised myself that from now on if I don’t have the time to prepare the eggplant comme il faut, I rather cook something else.

I started off with Deborah Madison’s eggplant lasagna with garlic béchamel from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I had made it before and found it somehow lacked something. But instead of serving it with a tomato sauce as she suggests, I incorporated cherry tomatoes right into the lasagna, which I pre-cooked in olive oil and garlic. I also used a good amount of basil and increased the amount of béchamel because I find lasagna often too dry, especially if you prepare it in advance and reheat it.

I was very happy with the result. My son, who would usually not eat eggplant, pointed to his empty plate saying that it “tasted and looked like meat, not like eggplant at all.” Amazing what salting and a little patience can do.

Eggplant Lasagna

3 pounds eggplant

Olive oil

Salt

12 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved

3 garlic cloves, chopped

Béchamel:

2½ cups milk

3 garlic cloves

4 tablespoons butter

¼ cup flour

1 bay leaf

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup milk

Freshly milled white pepper

12 sheets no-boil lasagna

¼ cup packed chopped fresh basil

8 ounces mozzarella, diced

2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan

1. Peel the eggplant and cut into 1/3-inch slices. Spread the slices on two large baking sheets in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a small heavy pot. Add the garlic and cook until translucent. Add the tomatoes and stir. Cook uncovered over medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes are shriveled up a bit. Set aside to cool.

3. For the béchamel, smash the peeled garlic cloves. Put in a saucepan with the milk. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes.

4. When the garlic milk is ready, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook stirring for 2 minutes. Pour the garlic milk through a sieve into the saucepan. Stir well with a metal whisk until the sauce thickens. Add the bay leaf and the nutmeg and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes, stirring often and scraping over the bottom of the pan.

5. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

6. Blot the eggplant slices dry with paper towels. Rinse and dry the baking sheets to remove any excess salt.

7. Brush each slice with olive oil from both sides and place slices in a single layer on the baking sheets. The eggplant should be baked one sheet at a time so if you have two ovens use them, or bake one batch after another in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Turn the slices over and cook for 15 minutes from the other side.

8. Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees F.

9. Spray a lasagna dish (one that fits three sheets snugly without overlapping) with olive oil.

10. Remove the bay leaf from the béchamel sauce and whisk in the cream and the milk. Season with salt and pepper. If the béchamel seems lumpy, strain it through a sieve.

11. Spread ½ cup béchamel sauce over the bottom of the dish. Add 3 lasagna sheets. Cover with one-third of eggplant, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, parmesan, and one-quarter of the remaining béchamel sauce. Repeat this with two more layers but omit the Parmesan in the last layer. Place the last lasagna sheets on top and add the remaining béchamel sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. Press down a bit to immerse the lasagna sheets as much as possible but try not to break them.

12. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and press down a bit to immerse top layer, especially if it’s a bit dry and curled up.

13. Bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 4-6 servings