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

Time for tomato sauce

Yesterday I went on a tour of the Rodale Institute and came home fully charged with new ideas. But today is a dreary, rainy Sunday – a perfect day to take care of what’s already there: the first big batch of tomatoes for sauce.

Unlike the grape and cherry tomatoes from my garden, the big tomatoes often look rugged. But in organic produce looks don’t matter. I use the prettiest tomatoes for eating raw and the majority goes into sauce for freezing.

My recipe for tomato sauce is based on 16 pounds of tomatoes (making approx. 12 pounds skinned and seeded) so even if you are a mathematical dummy like me, it’s easy to adapt the recipe for a smaller amount, especially because the amount of herbs and brown sugar is up to taste.

The crucial thing is to start with good, ripe tomatoes, and simmer the sauce uncovered for several hours.

I freeze the sauce in 1-quart freezer bags that I place flat on a baking sheet or tray until frozen (this way they can be stacked and take minimum space in the freezer). A way of getting the sauce even thicker later is to place the frozen bag in a bowl to thaw it slowly, pouring off the clear liquid that drains from the frozen sauce.

Thick Tomato Sauce

16 pounds ripe tomatoes

6 medium onions, chopped

1 cup olive oil

2½ teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons dried oregano or basil (or 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar, more to taste

Freshly milled black pepper

You also need:

A large pot

A food mill

1. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. With a sharp knife cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. Place the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water. When the skins start to curl after a few minutes, remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and cut out the core. Do this over a bowl in order to catch all the juices.

2. Coarsely cut the tomatoes (again over the bowl) and pass them through a food mill. This is a bit of a messy job but please resist the temptation to use a blender or a food processor to puree everything because the seeds have a slightly bitter taste and will affect the taste of the sauce.

3. Heat the oil the pot and cook the onions for 10 to 15 minutes until translucent yet not browned, stirring often. Add the skinned and seeded tomatoes and the salt and cook uncovered for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. If using dried oregano or basil, add it during the last hour. The sauce is ready when it is visibly reduced and thick and the olive oil separates on the top. Add brown sugar and pepper to taste.

4. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Puree the sauce with an immersion blender or in batches in a food processor. If you use fresh basil, add it now. Let cool completely before freezing.

Makes 18 cups

Whipping up dinner

A frantic Monday at work. Honestly, if I did not have veggies in the garden that need to be picked and that took so much time getting to this stage, I would have fetched takeout (don’t get me wrong, we do have takeout pizza every now and then), or I would have made something else, definitely something with much less veggies.

While the dough was rising, I picked and prepared the vegetables for the filling. It took me a while to switch gears, but then I thoroughly enjoyed being in the kitchen and improvising this vegetable torta. I also found use for an almost full container of ricotta that was nearing expiration. The recipe for the yeast dough is from my favorite cookbook, or I should better say: my cooking bible, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Tonight was another proof, cooking can be great relaxation. And what I like about this blog is that before, I rarely wrote things down when improvising, so that very often I could not remember how much I used. Now I can because I am taking notes!

Summer Vegetable Torta with Zucchini, Eggplant and Tomatoes

Dough:

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

½ teaspoon sugar

½ cup warm water

1 egg

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of salt

1¾ cups flour

Filling:

1 medium zucchini

1 medium eggplant

20 cherry tomatoes

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 eggs

12 ounces ricotta

½ packed cup fresh basil leaves

Salt

Pepper

1. Mix yeast with sugar and water and let stand for 5-10 minutes until it foams. Lightly beat the egg and mix with the olive oil in a bowl (I use the KitchenAid for this). Add the yeast mixture and the flour and knead on low until the dough is smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a ball.

2. Spray the bowl with olive oil and turn the dough over so the upper side is coated. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise 45 minutes.

3. Halve the zucchini and remove the seeds with a small spoon. Cut into thin slices. Peel the eggplant and quarter. Cut into thin slices (I use a mandoline for slicing). Quarter the tomatoes. Chop the garlic.

4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

5. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and cook the garlic until translucent but not browned. Add the zucchini and the eggplant and cook for 15 minutes until soft and browned in a few spots, stirring often. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove from the stove and let cool for a few minutes.

6. Lightly beat the eggs and whisk in the ricotta until smooth. Chop the basil leaves and add to the cheese.

7. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to fit a 9-inch springform pan plus a good 2 inches coming up the sides. Line the pan with the dough and smoothen out the sides so the crust is evenly high all around.

8. Mix the veggies with the cheese and season with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Spread the filling evenly onto the dough.

9. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until the torta is lightly browned on top and the crust is golden brown. Remove the springform rim and let the torta cool off completely.