Eggplant and chickpea ragout over creamy polenta

Overlooking Seneca Lake
Overlooking Seneca Lake

My husband and I recently returned from an extended weekend getaway to the Finger Lakes region of New York or, as I would like it to be unofficially dubbed, the Napa Valley of the East. We got married there three years ago and we like to return annually for some wine tastings, hikes through the gorges and, of course, a pit stop to Ithaca Bakery. Ithaca Bakery made my wedding cake and it was phenomenal!

So we kinda broke the bank when it came to our wine purchases. We returned home with a few bottles shy of 4 cases. Yes, four. In our defense, one of the cases was purchased at Red Newt Cellars where Paul’s cousin works so we got a significant discount and our supply should last a while. (Ironically, upon our return I vowed to “detox” and limit consumption of alcohol to the weekends and reign in my eating habits.)  It is important to mention that I have a contractual position with the state of MD which translates into: If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. If we were to put this in equation form, we’d get this:

taughannock falls
Taughannock Falls

Trip to NY + unpaid time off + 3.5 cases of wine = Broke

We can make further predictions with this equation, but I’m not really a math person (if you couldn’t tell). So when we returned home, I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to go food shopping for the week. Because, when I do go food shopping, even though I make an itemized list, I always over-buy and leave $100 poorer. Scrounging the pantry it is!

In my last post I had mentioned my inability to let go of summer. Let me tell you, readers, it paid off last night! I had all the ingredients to make a delicious dish: eggplants, tomatoes, bell pepper (that is no longer green, but a beautiful orange color), last cup of polenta and my pantry staple, chickpeas.

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Mmmm, comforting eggplant and chickpea ragout over creamy cheesy polenta. Yes, please! And yeah, I did already break my detox: I served my dish with a glass of red wine….and had a glass when I was cooking….no, it wasn’t one of the recently purchased bottles.

Eggplant and chickpea ragout over creamy polenta

Ragout

1 medium onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 medium eggplants

2 tbsp. tomato paste

1-28 oz. can of whole peeled or diced tomatoes or 8-10 plum tomatoes, chopped (I recognize that the picture above doesn’t show plum tomatoes, but I did add those for good measure)

1-15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 c. parsley

1. Start by peeling and chopping the eggplant. IMG_1747Spread out on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with salt. Place a kitchen towel over the cubes and weigh it down with another cookie sheet and two canned items. After about 30 minutes, rinse, drain and pat dry the eggplant. *This draws the water out of so you’re not left with mushy eggplant in the ragout.

2. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute for 5-10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds.

3. Add eggplant and cook for 10-12 minutes.

4. Squeeze in 2 tbsp. of tomato paste and stir then add tomatoes and chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Bring to a simmer and cook for another 15 minutes or so to meld flavors. If the mixture is too dry, add some water or stock.

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6. Finish with the parsley and season to taste.

 

Creamy polenta

1 cup polenta

4 cups water

3/4 c. Parmesan cheese

I previously wrote about the laboriousness of polenta requiring constant stirring for 30-40 minutes. Good news is that I did some research and found a way to cook it without constant care and attention. Yay!

1. Bring water to a boil and add 1 tsp. salt. Whisk the polenta in gradually.

2. Continue to whisk until the polenta has thickened and isn’t sticking on the bottom of the pot.

3. Reduce the heat to low and cover it.

4. Every so often, stir the polenta to ensure even cooking.

5. After 30 minutes, add your cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Simple as that!

 

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You’ve got a hearty dish that answers the call of fall while still making the best out of summer produce.

Homemade Smoky Enchilada Sauce

So despite the fact that I’ve been complaining about my fruitless (teehee) efforts in the garden, I did plant four roma tomato plants this summer. Well, actually, I only planted three. The fourth sprouted up from unfinished compost that was comprised of last year’s end-of-season withered plants. This lonesome plant also happens to be my most productive. Go figure! What I’m getting at is I have had a steady influx of tomatoes that, truth be told, aren’t tasty enough to eat as is (unlike my sun gold tomatoes which are delicious!) so I’ve had to plan accordingly on how to preserve this harvest, if you will.

Last weekend I attempted to can some, but had a few hiccups during the process and my fear of botulism outweighed my desire to fish out my canned tomatoes from the pantry come January. And so with that I made my baked eggplant parmigiana, but that’s for another post. So I was talking to my husband Paul about it and we decided that it just might be best to make his grandmother’s famed sauce and freeze it. Now I don’t get in the way with a man and his Italian roots so that will be his Sunday chore in between football games. But Paul was out of town and I needed something to do (or cook, rather). Coming home from work and cooking dinner is so ingrained in my schedule that if I don’t have to make anything, I still wind up messing around in the kitchen. Even if it involves eating ice cream out of the carton while standing up. I’m compulsive, what can I say?

I don’t know about your household, but Mexican is an easy go-to for us. Plus, with my push to eat pasture-raised and grass-fed local meat products which gets expensive and ultimately leads to fewer and fewer meat dishes a week, I can use a meat analog (Boca crumbles or Beyond Meat’s Beef-Free Crumbles which is comprised of pea protein instead of soy) that even my husband and step-kids seem to enjoy. And so I’ve been expanding my Mexican repertoire beyond burritos and taco salads to include a Mexican lasagna with corn tortillas and enchilada sauce. Have you checked out the ingredient list on some popular brands of enchilada sauce?! 1.) water 2.) pureed tomatoes 3.) modified corn starch. 98% of that can is comprised of those ingredients. Certainly I can make a better one! And so I did!

When I research recipes I tend to search for the ones that are in line with what I have in mind or what I have on hand. So I didn’t have any fresh chili peppers like ancho or guajillo which are traditionally used in enchilada sauce and I wasn’t using tomato sauce because I had my fresh romas. So here is what I came up with. And look, readers! Actual measurements!

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Smoky Enchilada Sauce

1 1/2 pound of tomatoes (or 1-28 oz. crushed tomatoes)
1 small onion
2-3 garlic cloves

3 tbsp. vegetable oilIMG_1685
3 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. chili powder*
1 tbsp. smoked paprika*
1 tbsp. ancho chili powder*
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. sugar**
1 tsp. salt (or more to taste)
1/4 tsp. black pepper

 

1.) If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you’ll need to peel and seed them. Start by slicing an “x” on the bottom of the tomatoes and dropping them in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute and then submerging them in ice water. The skins should come right off. Slice the top off and squeeze out some of the seeds.

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2.) Throw your fresh tomatoes (or pureed) into the blender with a small chopped onion and 2-3 garlic cloves (depending on their size) and buzz it up until smooth.

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3.) Heat your oil over medium heat and then whisk in your flour. This is called a roux (used as a thickening agent and/or flavor enhancer) which is the basis for many wonderful dishes (béchamel sauce, macaroni and cheese, gumbo, velouté sauce). Just remember: equal parts of flour and fat (butter, oil or bacon fat). No need to brown it as it’s just meant to bind the enchilada sauce. It should be done after a few minutes of whisking on low heat.

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Ok, I did brown it a little…

4.) Add your pureed mixture and the rest of the ingredients. I also added a little of the water that I boiled the tomatoes in to thin it out a tad. Simmer for 20-25 minutes to meld flavors.

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*Feel free to use a combination of different chili powders depending on preference. Smoked paprika is another of my can’t-IMG_1679live-without ingredients, but if you buy it at the grocery store, you’ll be spending between $6 and $8. Instead, check out your local home goods store. I paid $5.99 for this tin and it is lasting me a long time.

**The sugar helps to mellow out the bitter taste of the spices.

And you are ready for anything enchilada! Margaritas, anyone?

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Grumbling in the Garden

It’s amazing how hopeful and exciting it is in the spring to plan your garden. There’s so much potential and you tell yourself: this is the year! You decide to grow a new vegetable or you’ve learned a new tip/trick from last summer that you can’t wait to implement or both! You envision a beautiful, lush garden with ripened fruit. So pastoral. Your yield is so impressive, in fact, that you’re practically giving away your harvest.

A girl can dream, right….?

I’ve recently concluded, at least in my case, that planting multiples of a crop is not with the intent to increase yield. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? (I wanted to get on this sustainability bandwagon, really I did. Canning, preserving, the whole nine.) Well, not so in my case. I have to plant multiples of one crop merely to ensure the ability to harvest an acceptable supply (okay, it’s not even acceptable) to feed my family. Why? Because I stink at gardening! (Bear with me while I have a pity-party for myself.) You see, YouTube, garden blogs and Pinterest provide us with a wealth of information on how to deter pests, increase yield, produce sweeter, larger _____. And all of those tips are filed in the Rolodex of my mind (or I pin it for reference later). But how I take all those tips and tricks, synthesize them and utilize them in the garden is where I fall short.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again: maybe I’m being too cerebral about gardening. As I glance over to my neighbor’s plot, I am green-with-garden envy. Everything seems so…productive. And I can see a lonely red tomato itching to be picked amidst abundant leafy plants. So here are my current headaches and the interventions (and preventions) I’ve taken:

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Romas trying to hold on as the plant suffers from early blight

This is the third year in a row (haha-pun!) that my tomatoes have developed early blight. As they grew, I continued to snap off the lower branches so they wouldn’t touch the ground. Now, with each passing day, I’m snipping another branch off that is consumed with dark brown spots and dried dead leaves. This weekend, I impulsively bought some organic fungicide to hopefully halt any further progression of this spotted, wilted pandemic.

Next year’s plan? Rotate my crops. I should have known! My tomatoes will be on the opposite end of my raised beds come next year and hopefully far away from any fungal potential….On the bright side, look at these beautiful clusters dying (probably) to ripen!IMG_1519

My continued lack of success with growing peppers is putting a damper on my confidence to become a gardener. I’m lucky to harvest a couple before the season ends. I learned for this season though that peppers flourish when grown closely together and that you can plant them within 1 sq. ft. of each other. Of course, I wound up planting my green bean plants too close to the peppers which has stunted the pepper growth. Additionally, I side-dressed the pepper plants with some compost not too long ago and spurred the growth of more leaves and not flowers. Peppers don’t require a lot of nitrogen in the soil, but it is recommended to spray the flowers with a solution of water and Epsom salt. It provides the peppers with a boost of magnesium that is needed to produce fruit.

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A lonely, beautiful red marconi pepper
All leaves, no buds
All leaves, no buds after side-dressing with compost- lesson learned

Don’t get me started about my eggplants either! Flea beetles have ravaged the leaves on my plants like bullet holes at a shooting range and all I have is one sad developing fruit. Any flower that grew has fallen off. My neighbor utilized diatomacious earth for her garden this year because she was having ant problems. Diatomacious earth is a powder made from fossilized prehistoric crustaceans. It’s favored in the organic garden because it is non-toxic and safe for humans. The particles have sharp edges that cut into the bodies of the insects causing them to die of dehydration. Cruel, I know, but what am I to do? Originally, I read something about it not harming the beneficial insects in the garden (ladybugs, bees), but I recently learned this isn’t true.

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No wonder my flowers are falling off: lack of pollination. I swear I cannot strike this nature balance!

The steps you take to make eggplant parmigiana (well, reader, you know I won’t be posting that recipe anytime soon)…

 

So is it all worth the frustration and the mounting fear of failure?

IMG_1527It sure is. Even if all I harvest is just a few things at a time. I can say, “I grew that and I plan to make something delicious with it!”

A Taste of Italy: Grilled Polenta and Caprese Stacks

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The perfect trinity of summer, I would have to say, is the basil, mozzarella and tomato combination which comprise insalata caprese or the salad of Capri. So delicious and yet so simple which is why using fresh, quality ingredients is essential. Summer is really the only time I eat tomatoes other than what comes canned. You can’t fake a good tomato in December. You just can’t. They’re mealy and tasteless. Bleh!

But tomatoes in summer? With that perfect balance of sweetness and acid? HEAVEN! And basil is the perfect accompaniment especially when you make pesto with it. I’ve grown basil for a while now and chronically had problems with the plants going to seed early in the season. The basil is always ready before the tomatoes are! Conundrum! But I’ve finally got my system down. I harvest the basil early, make a boat-load of pesto and freeze it individually in ice cube trays. It typically lasts me the cold weather months.

I’ll admit it; making pesto is an expensive endeavor. Olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano and pignoli nuts (aka pine nuts) don’t come cheap. You could always cut costs by using Parmesan cheese (only cheese made in certain regions of Italy can lay claim to the title of Parmigiano Reggiano) and walnuts. Different, but just as good. Unless you use that stuff in the green canister found in the pasta aisle. Never ever ever ever ever use that for pesto. Here’s a good go-to recipe to get the proportion of ingredients right:

 

Photo courtesy of motherearthliving.com
Photo courtesy of motherearthliving.com

Pesto Alla Genovese:
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

(Recipe adapted from Marie Simmons’ 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, 1996)

I was trying to think of a meatless main dish with the summer trinity that didn’t involve pasta. Quite the challenge. But then I had the thought: what about grilled polenta? I’ve been trying to incorporate polenta into my diet more (it is a whole grain, after all) and have found grilling it to be the best especially when it comes to texture. I’ve used polenta under vegetable and meat ragus, as a crust for a savory custard pie, as a substitute for noodles in lasagna, cut into fries and served with marinara sauce and as a side dish similar to how they serve their grits in the South (lots of butter, y’all). Not gonna lie. Polenta is excessively labor-intensive. I mean, I love to cook and all, but standing in front of the stove and stirring the polenta with a wooden spoon constantly for at least 40 minutes while it spatters up and burns my arms isn’t my idea of a good time. (I’m really selling you on this recipe, aren’t I?). It’s a time commitment just like risotto, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make! So I boil water (ratio is 3:1), add salt, slowly whisk in the polenta and have my work cut out for me for the next 30-40 minutes or so. Following that, I add a handful of a hard aged Italian cheese and salt and pepper to taste before I spread it into an 8×8 greased casserole dish, cover it with plastic wrap and let it set in the refrigerator. As a time saver, I prepared this the night before I planned on serving it so all I had to do was grill, slice and assemble come mealtime. Of course, you can certainly save yourself all this trouble and pick up this at your local grocery store.

My husband Paul is the grill master at our house. He’s like my dear brother in that regards- he’d grill 365 days a year, if he could. Me? I don’t have much experience with it. My father once asked me to grill some burgers and I experienced anxiety over the responsibility of that task. Miraculously, they were cooked medium and I didn’t even have a thermometer. I think that was beginner’s luck. Paul offered to grill my polenta triangles, but I figured it was a good time to spread my culinary wings!

I brushed both sides liberally with olive oil so they wouldn’t stick and put them on the grill on medium for several minutes on one side until I had, eh, fairly good grill marks (Paul would have done better). Once I flipped them, I spread my pesto and then layered a slice of mozzarella on top, closed the grill and melted the cheese. After that, I sliced some tomato and then it was time to assemble and eat!

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I wish I could claim these tomatoes as my own, but unfortunately, I cannot. I’ve got some really large and impressive clusters of Park’s Whopper tomatoes on my two plants, but they are nowhere near ready to harvest. I’ll keep you posted!