Meatless Monday

RECIPE: Fresh Cherry Tomatoes with Pasta

Serves 4 (unless you’re carbo-loading for a bike ride and then all bets are off)
 
WHAT COULD BE SIMPLER than a dish that requires no cooking except boiling pasta? With a raw sauce like this, the key is to choose the best ingredients—tomatoes at their absolute ripest and sweetest, fresh-picked tangy arugula and herbs. Chopping the greens (and other ingredients) helps make sure they’ll be evenly distributed throughout the dish. Small pasta shapes, such as orrechiette and fusilli, seem to work best. 
  
1 pint ripe cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves (or 1 large), minced
4 tbs basil leaves, chopped or slivered
1 packed cup wild arugula, roughly chopped
sea salt
3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
¾ lb pasta (I particularly like orrechiette, which like wild arugula, is typical of Puglia)
¼ cup grated Parmesan (or more)
 
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half (cool time-saving trick here) and put in a beautiful bowl (yes, that's part of the recipe) big enough to hold the vegetables and pasta. Add the minced garlic cloves, basil leaves, wild arugula and olive oil. Mix and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes or more. Taste and adjust seasonings.
 
Cook pasta al dente, drain and toss with the tomato mixture. Sprinkle cheese on top.
 
Variations:
Add 1/4 cup of olives cut in half.
Add 4 scallions chopped thinly.
Use mint instead of basil.
And so on...
 
Adapted from The Very Best of Recipes for Health, by Martha Rose Shulman. 

Cherry Tomato Love

 
When you grow cherry tomatoes in the garden, very few ever seem to make it into the kitchen for a meal, so tempting are they to eat straight from the bush. Somehow, though, when I buy them at the farmers’ market, I have a little better luck, and so I’ve been enjoying some great meals with cherry tomatoes as the star. 
 
One favorite dish is a cherry tomato salad that doubles as an uncooked “sauce” for pasta. I put sauce in quotes because this really is more salad than fluid sauce.  I like adding wild arugula, too, Puglia style. Puglia is the region of Italy in the heel of the boot, where traditionally wild greens have been used extensively in everyday cooking. Wild arugula is peppery, with deep-cut leaves, and it’s now possible to buy cultivated wild arugula (a bit of a strange concept I admit). I especially like a local organic one from Satur Farms, grown on the North Fork of Long Island by Paulette Satur and her husband Eberhard Müller, former chef of Le Bernardin and Lutèce. (I buy it at Whole Foods or FreshDirect.)
 
 
I will be eating a plate of this summer pasta tonight, in preparation for tomorrow’s NYC Century Bike Ride—at least that’s my excuse. Too bad the ride isn’t through Puglia, where we could pick our own arugula and learn to make homemade pasta along the way. (Yes, such a cycling tour exists!)
 

Cookbooks I Like: The Very Best of Recipes for Health

A couple of years ago when I first got interested in the traditional Mediterranean diet, I began experimenting with dinners composed of several smaller vegetable or grain dishes, rather than the meat+sides approach that I was used to. I liked a lot of vegetables just straight up, but was looking for ideas to give these meals some pizzazz.
 
My earliest inspiration for these Mediterranean menu adventures came from Martha Rose Shulman, whose “Recipes for Health” column at NYTimes.com always seemed to have a good answer to “What’s for dinner?”—flavor-packed suggestions for dishes using that week’s farm produce. In fact, I remember the exact menu that made my husband and I look at each other at the end of the meal and say, ‘wow, this really is a delicious way to eat, let’s do more of this.’ And we have.
 
That night, in what now reads like an Ode to Yogurt, I’d made Mediterranean Beets and Yogurt SaladMiddle Eastern Spinach With Spices and Yogurt, and, because I had leeks, and because it’s delicious, Julia Child’s braised leeks, which, I confess, involves a very un-Mediterranean quantity of butter. We ate the dishes one by one (with the leeks in between the two yogurt dishes as I recall), savoring the sweet of the beets paired with the garlicky yogurt, the velvety leeks, the spinach and its Middle Eastern spices. It was a culinary trip to faraway places, all at our own dinner table.
 
Since then, I’ve cooked dozens of Shulman’s recipes, for family dinners or to impress guests. They’re low-fuss and high-impact. Along the way I’ve built up quite a collection of spattered printouts from the column, which I stuff in a binder and have never gotten around to organizing. Now I’m delighted that the organizing has been done for me: Shulman has collected 250 of her favorites in a book, The Very Best of Recipes for Health, just out from Rodale Books, with beautiful photos by Andrew Scrivani, who also photographs the Times column.
 
I like the way the book is organized around themes such as breakfast, vegetarian main courses, salads, and pasta and risotto. A dietary index conveniently cross-references recipes under topics like gluten-free, low-calorie, or high in omega-3s, while a general index makes it easy to find recipes by ingredient. Shulman includes a useful section on the well-stocked pantry—I’ve found that putting together a Mediterranean pantry of my own (more on that later) is part of what makes it easy and pleasurable for me to keep exploring this new way of eating. 
 
To celebrate this Meatless Monday, here’s one of my favorite recipes from Shulman’s new book:
 
 
Corn and Vegetable Gratin with Cumin
By Martha Rose Shulman
 
Serves 6
 
1 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
Salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 lb zucchini, thinly sliced or diced
Freshly ground pepper
Kernels from 2 ears sweet corn (about 2 cups)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup 1% milk
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely ground in a spice mill, or slightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup (2 oz) grated Gruyère cheese
 
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 2-quart gratin or baking dish. Set aside the kernels from one of the ears of corn. Heat the olive oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions and peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and zucchini, stir together, and add another generous pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is just beginning to look bright green and some of the slices are translucent. Stir in half of the corn kernels. Stir together for 1 or 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Scrape into a large bowl.
 
2. Place the eggs, milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining corn kernels in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into the bowl with the vegetables. Add the cumin and the cheese, and stir everything together. Scrape into the gratin dish.
 
3. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is browned and the gratin is firm to the touch. Serve hot or warm.

Advance preparation: The vegetable filling can be prepared a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator.
 
From The Very Best of Recipes for Health: 250 Recipes and More from the Popular Feature on NYTimes.com © 2010 by Martha Rose Shulman, published by Rodale Books.

RECIPE: Watermelon and Tomato Salad

I WAS SORRY TO HAVE MISSED NEW AMSTERDAM MARKET in NYC this Sunday. The only consolation was that I was actually in farm country enjoying the harvest firsthand. 
 
 
A visit to Millbrook Market in Dutchess County is always a great way to while away a Saturday morning, tasting and chatting and filling your bags. This week, we found lots of heirloom tomatoes and had a great talk about them (and Italy) with grower Gino Ianucci. Breezy Hill Orchard (coincidentally, also a vendor at New Amsterdam Market) had perfect white and yellow peaches, and there were lovely small round watermelons (and more tomatoes) from Sol Flower Farm.
 
We also managed to nab the last peach tart from Art of the Tart—made with fabulously buttery puff pastry in true French rustic style. I’d made the mistake once before of circling the market before buying one of these confections. This time I knew to take immediate decisive action the minute I set eyes on it. 
 
Most of what we bought was devoured in recipe-free eating—tomato slices on prosciutto sandwiches, peaches any time we wanted. But I’d been hearing about watermelon and tomato salad for a while, and now I had the ideal fresh-picked ingredients. So I decided to make one.
 
 
When I first heard about the pairing I thought it sounded unlikely. All summer when I was growing up, we ate watermelon just chopped off in lovely half rounds, which would get you soaked up to the ears. (Preferably, it was eaten outdoors so you could shoot the seeds off  “to plant another watermelon” or bop your brother.)
 
But the more I thought about the textures and tastes of tomatoes and watermelons, the more I liked the sound of it. The taste didn’t disappoint—sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, all combined to make a delicious salad. Here’s how I made it. I didn’t have any feta around, but next time I’d crumble it over the salad for a nice salty zest.
 
Watermelon and Tomato Salad
 
1 cup watermelon chunks
3 medium tomatoes, cut into similar size chunks
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar
salt to taste
 
Combine the watermelon and tomato chunks.
 
Whisk together 2 tbs olive oil and 1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar. Pour dressing over watermelon and tomatoes. Toss lightly. Salt to taste. Crumble feta cheese over salad.
 
Happy Meatless Monday!

Ratatouille By Any Other Name...

When you talk about a Mediterranean diet, it’s hard to imagine that 20-plus countries bordering one sea could have anything identifiable as a single diet. Yet because of history and climate and customs, dishes that are really variations on a theme do show up quite often. The Provençal stew of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil is a good example.
 
 
Ratatouille has cousins all over the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive personality and special taste. The core ingredients—eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini—are not even native to the Mediterranean (although the essential olive oil certainly is). They came to the region long ago by different routes. Eggplant was introduced throughout the Mediterranean basin by Arabs who brought it from its native India in the Middle Ages. Bell peppers, zucchini and tomatoes came from the New World, introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his pals. (Strangely enough, all but the zucchini are members of the nightshade family. As in deadly nightshade. Which apparently is why Europeans were originally suspicious of the tomato, although the Mediterranean countries certainly came around, adopting it with passion and creativity as a quintessential Med ingredient.)
 
 
So about all those cousins…this is what I’ve come across so far. (Additions and corrections welcome! Add a comment below.)
 
Catalan samfaina, or xamfaina, is virtually identical to ratatouille. Colman Andrews speculates in his book Catalan Cuisine that perhaps, in fact, samfaina came first “considering the early popularity of eggplant [among] Catalans and the fact that [they] were using tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini widely before their French neighbors were.” It also sometimes takes the form of a sauce, when it’s cooked longer into an almost jammy consistency.
 
Then there’s the caponata side of the family:
 
Sicilian caponata adds celery to the basic four, plus sweetened vinegar and capers for a sweet-and-sour dish.
 
Maltese kapunata eliminates the zucchini and adds capers.
 
Moroccan kamfounata is spiced with cumin and fresh coriander (cilantro).
 
Tunisians call their stew of peppers and tomatoes shakhshūkha—to which they add eggs and cayenne, and maybe chickpeas. Tunisian Jews probably brought the dish to Israel, where it is very popular. (Try it right here in NYC at Hummus Place, where it includes eggplant and onions.) In fact, it’s become a common dish throughout North Africa, where it’s sometimes served with spicy Merguez sausage. 
 
Turks love their eggplant any way they can get it. Imam bayildi (“the priest swooned”) leaves behind ratatouille’s zucchini and pepper and gives center stage to braised eggplant, which is stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Karniyak keeps the eggplant, pepper, tomatoes trio and adds minced meat and rice.
 
Musakka was originally an Ottoman dish, but is widely known today in its Greek incarnation moussaka: stewed eggplant and tomatoes with meat, topped with a béchamel sauce. Various Turkish versions have zucchini or green peppers or chickpeas or no béchamel.
 
Then there’s the don’t-forget-that-other-nightshade-veggie crowd. We’re talking potatoes.
 
Mallorcan tumbet, or tombet, is made from eggplants, peppers, tomatoes—and potatoes—although sometimes zucchini pops in there, too.
 
Greek briami is a casserole of zucchini, potatoes, onions and tomatoes (sometimes peppers, too). It makes a great dish for Meatless Monday, as do many of these. I haven’t tried this briami recipe yet myself but the test kitchen of one hungry student named Stefan in Montreal vouches for it as a tasty and satisfying meal (good enough to eat two nights in a row).
 
 
And then, of course, there’s the fabulously high-style ratatouille of movie fame, actually a dish called confit byaldi, invented by chef Michel Guerard (of cuisine minceur fame) and created for the movie—with the vegetables fanned out accordion style—by French Laundry (Yountville, CA) chef Thomas Keller, who worked as a culinary consultant for the film. 
 
Here’s a simpler but equally stylish rendition of that dish from Smitten Kitchen.
 
The creativity just goes on and on. What’s your riff on ratatouille? Or your family’s tradition?  Write to us!

RECIPE: Briami, or Greek Vegetable Casserole

BRIAMI IS ONE OF MANY ratatouille-like dishes found around the Mediterranean, each with its own distinctive taste and slight variations of ingredients. Served with a green salad, this makes a great main dish. Meatless Monday anyone?
 
Serves 3-4 as a main dish, 4-6 as a side
 
1 large red pepper, roughly chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 medium zucchini (about ¾ lb), thickly sliced
¾ lb small potatoes, unpeeled, cut into ½ inch slices
2 lbs ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
(when tomatoes are out of season, use drained, canned Italian tomatoes—Marzano if possible)
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 tbs chopped fresh dill
½ tsp ground cinnamon
 
Preheat oven to 350°F.
 
Place peppers, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and cinnamon in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper.
 
Heat 2 tbs of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the onion mixture to the other vegetables in the bowl and toss together. Transfer to a large baking dish and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
 
Cover and bake 1 to 1½ hours, stirring every 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
 
Eat as a main dish, with a salad, or as a side dish with chicken or fish. It can be served hot or at room temperature.
 
Adapted from The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook (Bay Books, an imprint of Murdoch Books). 

Another Salvo in the Ratatouille Skirmishes

Salon is reigniting the Great Ratatouille Debate. Is it a simple “what-the-hell-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-this-stuff kind of [stew],” as writer Francis Lam puts it (and was at first inclined toward), or is there much more to it? As readers of this blog know by now, Mediterraneanista tends to lean toward the lazy, er, easy approach to cooking.

But there’s nothing like a good writer (Lam was a contributing editor at Gourmet) to spark a little open-mindedness. As he recounts the story of spending four hours (!) in the kitchen to create a ratatouille that is “the BOMB,” I find myself getting curious and beginning to think maybe, one day, I’ll have to try the more complicated recipe. I mean, who can resist tasting a “weapons grade ratatouille—with flavor so deep it’ll drop your voice an octave”? At least once. Stay posted.

Plus Ça Change...

Eat local. Try beans. Home-grown is best. Serve just enough. The Meatless Monday campaign (see yesterday’s post) isn’t the first time Americans have been encouraged to eat differently.
 
This poster for a meatless menu is from World War I. Bean soup, olives, lettuce salad for dinner—sounds pretty Mediterranean to me.
 
When Beans Were Bulletsan exhibit at the National Agricultural Library in DC (closing August 30), documents public poster campaigns aimed at changing people’s eating habits during the war eras.
 
You’ll find an interview with designer and public historian Cory Bernat, who created the exhibit, on Smithsonian Magazine’s Food & Think blog.

Meatless Monday—How About Vegetable Couscous?

INTERESTING PIECE ON NPR THIS MORNING about how meat played an important evolutionary role in making our brains bigger—and us smarter. (Cooking did, too, by breaking down nutrients so the body could absorb them more effectively.)
 
Of course, what was good for evolution isn’t necessarily good for us now, given that we have a vastly different lifestyle from early Homo sapiens. (Not much chasing down of wildebeest.) This far down the evolutionary road, we’ve gone a little overboard with the meat, eating on average half a pound a day, a quantity that’s not so healthy, studies show (especially if it’s red or processed meats)—and that well exceeds any protein needs we might have.
 
Eating less meat is part of what makes a traditional Mediterranean diet more healthy, of course. If it seems hard to get there from here, Meatless Monday is one way to take a step in the right direction. The public awareness campaign was created in 2003 by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a goal of reducing people’s meat consumption by 15% “in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.” Monday was chosen as a good day for setting a pattern for the whole week.
 
Food editors and bloggers jumped on board, providing recipes for meatless dishes in their various publications. Chefs have, too. Mario Batali, who’s been called “Meat’s Best Friend”—two of his restaurants are Bar Jamon and Carnevino—announced that all 14 of his restaurants would feature two meatless dishes every Monday. Wolfgang Puck launched Meatless Mondays at his Pizzeria & Cucina in Las Vegas. And less surprisingly, given the proven health benefits, hospitals and schools have signed on.
 
You can, too. The Meatless Monday website publishes new recipes every Monday. Or you can choose your own favorite meatless main dish.
 
Mediterraneanista’s Meatless Monday pick for today is a North African vegetable stew that’s a favorite in our family:
 
Couscous with Vegetables

Adapted from The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman
 
Serves 4

Takes 1 hour (with precooked or canned chickpeas)


 
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 or 2 large onions, roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped

salt and black pepper to taste

1 tbs peeled and minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/8 tsp cayenne, or to taste

1 tsp ground coriander

3 cloves

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

4 medium carrots, roughly chopped

1 lb winter squash, like butternut or pumpkin, trimmed and cut into chunks

2 medium zucchini, cut into chunks

vegetable stock or water

2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
1/2 cup raisins
couscous, prepared according to directions


 
1. Prepare the ginger, turmeric, cayenne, coriander, cloves and cinnamon in a small prep bowl. Set aside. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan or flameproof casserole with a lid over medium heat. A minute or two later, add the onions and bell pepper, along with a couple of pinches of salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper (you should really taste the pepper in this dish). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are quite tender, about 10 minutes. Add the spices and stir.


 
2. Add the carrots, winter squash and zucchini, along with a cup of stock. Turn the heat to low, cover and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook until the carrots are tender, 20 to 30 minutes, checking and adding a bit more liquid if the mixture is drying out. Add the chickpeas and raisins and cook for another 10 minutes, adding liquid if the mixture is dry, raising the heat and boiling some of it off if the mixture seems too soupy (it should be like a stew).


 
3. Taste and adjust the seasoning; the flavors of black pepper and cayenne should be pronounced. Serve immediately over the couscous. 

Dinner Tonight: Ratatouille Niçoise

Summer vegetables are just beginning to appear at the farmers’ market—red peppers, zucchini, onions—and so my thoughts turn to ratatouille niçoise. I brought back a recipe for the Provençal vegetable stew when I lived in France for a year right after high school—and I have been making it ever since. I’d faithfully copied down the recipe while a classmate prepared it for a gang of us one evening. We’d all met in the student pension where we lived, kitchen-less, but then our friend had moved out to a small apartment—the height of sophistication I thought at the time because she could have dinner parties and serve wine (cheap, Moroccan).
 
Ratatouille is a classic garden-to-table dish so typical of Mediterranean cooking: a few ingredients, big flavors and simplicity. In cooking circles over the years, I discover there’s been quite a bit of debate—and exchange of recipes—about the best method and perfect ingredients. Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance, advocates cooking the vegetables separately before layering them in a casserole “to partake of a brief communal simmer.” What a beautiful way to put it—and I gladly follow a lot of Julia’s advice—but in the case of this rustic dish, I tend more toward the philosophy of one online commenter: “I do find it amusing that people are using recipes for ratatouille.”
 
Imagine stepping out into your kitchen garden in the middle of summer when vegetables are ripening faster than you can pick them: Gather an eggplant, a few zucchini, some onions, a couple of peppers, 4 or 5 tomatoes and a handful of herbs—whatever looks good. Stew them all up with garlic and olive oil—et voilà. Few of us have vegetable gardens in New York City, but as I selected peppers and zucchini and herbs at the farmers’ market (no local eggplant yet), I felt as close to the spirit of cooking from a Provençal potager as I could.
 
Over the years, I’ve made ratatouille hundreds of time for family and friends. I’ve made it on a Coleman stove camping on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in massive triple quantities for potluck dinners. At first, I usually made it as a side dish, but more and more now we like it as a main course, eaten alone or with couscous or high-protein quinoa. It’s great with grilled fish. And if I’m in the mood for meat, I fill my plate with ratatouille and grill a really fabulous tasty sausage as a side. (This week it was Bilinski’s Apple Chardonnay.) These are the proportions I like best now—meat as an accent rather than the main deal.
 
Here’s the translated recipe, which I more or less follow:
 
Ratatouille Niçoise
Yield: about 8 cups
 
1 large eggplant
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, (less, if you prefer)
4 zucchini
2 cloves of garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes
3 medium onions
2 green or red bell peppers
Salt, pepper
Fresh herbs, up to ¼ cup—basil, thyme, Italian parsley, depending on the flavors you like (I add French tarragon—a teaspoon dried or the leaves from a couple of fresh sprigs) and what’s available
 
1. Peel the eggplant and onion and coarsely chop all the vegetables (Keep onions separate.) Mince or finely chop the garlic. Chop the herbs.
 
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan (I use a 5½-quart Le Creuset French oven) over medium-high heat. Add onions first, then other vegetables, stirring to combine them (and so they don’t stick on the bottom).
 
3. Add garlic and herbs, plus the salt and pepper to taste.
 
 
4. Lower to medium heat, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time, especially at the beginning. Remove lid and cook for another 45 minutes so the liquid evaporates.
 
Ratatouille keeps well and tastes even better reheated. You can also eat it cold. 
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