recipe

Celebrating World Pasta Day

 
NOT THAT I NEED AN EXCUSE to enjoy pasta, but next Monday, October 25, is World Pasta Day (did you know?), and I thought I’d get a head start with tonight’s dinner. Which, of course, was an excuse for another visit to Eataly, the Batali/Bastianich Italian food hall that opened this summer at 5th and 23rd. There, I found everything I needed to make a wonderful wild mushroom ragù with bucatini. (More on that in a minute.)
 
Pasta took some knocks when low-carb diets were popular. But eaten in reasonable portions (1 to 1½ cups cooked, say), pasta is part of a healthy Mediterranean diet—and a much beloved food. The complex carbs provide energy, of course, as any cyclist will tell you. Whole-wheat pasta is the most nutrient-rich, with at least three times the fiber of refined pasta. It’s also pretty tasty, which wasn’t always the case. Pasta made from refined durum wheat flour or durum semolina often gets a nutritional boost from being enriched with iron, folic acid and other B-vitamins. We eat some of both in our household.
 
Then there’s the sauce: Pasta is often referred to as an “efficient delivery system” for other healthy foods. I hate to think of any food on my plate being merely a delivery system—sounds so clinical. If you buy high-quality pasta (dried or fresh) it’s delicious in and of itself. But I know what they mean. Sauces full of vegetables and legumes are an easy and delicious way to incorporate those hard-to-get daily recommended servings of vegetables into your meals. But drown your pasta in sauce?! How gauche. Well, here’s cookbook author Mark Bittman’s take on the sauce-to-pasta ratio question. 
 
One of my favorite companions to pasta is fresh tomato sauce with cannellini beans and herbs. But today, I’m going for something different. With mushrooms popping up in the woods and in markets everywhere, it’s the perfect season to make this dish.
 

 

 

 

 

RECIPE: Eggplant Slices, Pomegranate, Yogurt and Tahini

THESE BAKED EGGPLANT SLICES are excellent on their own, but add the pomegranate vinaigrette and the cool yogurt sauce, with its tastes of garlic and tahini, and the dish has some of those big-flavor contrasts that make Mediterranean cooking so interesting. Pomegranate molasses is made by boiling down the juice into a syrup; it’s used in quite a few Eastern Mediterranean dishes to add depth and a tart-sweet flavor. This is the first recipe I’ve used it for—I look forward to trying others. I found it (and the tahini) quite easily by heading straight for Kalustyans on Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Street in Manhattan. You should be able to find it at any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocer. 

Serves 4-6, as appetizer or side dish
 
4 medium eggplants, cut into ½" rounds
1 tbs pomegranate molasses
1
 tbs red or white wine vinegar

2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing eggplant 
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt

(I use half Greek strained yogurt, half regular yogurt; either works fine)
1 clove garlic, minced

2 tbs tahini
¼ cup pomegranate seeds

 
Preheat oven to 475°F.
 
Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with olive oil and lightly salt them. Place on an oiled baking sheet and bake, turning once, until they're tender and a little brown, about 30 minutes. Arrange on a large plate.
 
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate molasses, vinegar and 2 tbs olive oil.
 
In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, minced garlic and tahini. 
 
Brush the top of the cooked eggplant slices with the pomegranate vinaigrette, then spoon yogurt sauce over them and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
 
Adapted from Claudia Roden, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon 

 

Meatless Monday: Eggplant Emergency

 
A FRIEND CALLED TO SAY that house guests had come laden with farmstand fare this weekend, and the whole crowd had eaten lovely meals from it. Trouble is, not enough lovely meals, because now Monday was here and she still had a small boatload of eggplants sitting on her kitchen counter. What to do?
 
Well, in case any of you have had a similar culinary challenge (haven’t we all?), here are some ideas:
 
Think Turkish. Turks love eggplant and have dozens of different ways to cook it, many involving olive oil and tomatoes. One of the most famous dishes is imam bayildi, or the imam fainted, which is eggplant stuffed with tomatoes and onions. Clifford Wright, author of The Mediterranean Feast, gives the scoop on the name—and a recipe—here. Perfect for Meatless Monday. Or any other day for that matter.
 
Another famous Turkish eggplant dish is karniyarik, also a stuffed eggplant. I’ve made it quite a few times recently but I’ll go into that more another day because there’s too much to talk about already and besides, one of its ingredients is lamb.
 
So, back to Meatless Monday. As the eggplant rush gathered force at the end of the summer, I began making a dish with pomegranate, yogurt and tahini. I found the recipe one day when I was in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, browsing through some of the many cookbooks I don’t own. They have quite a collection, and what a splendid setting it is for transporting yourself to other places. The Lebanese eggplant recipe is from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, by Claudia Roden, an Egyptian-born cookbook writer who is credited with having revolutionized Western attitudes to Middle Eastern cooking with her classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published in 1968. She’s a lively passionate writer, so I look forward to delving more deeply into all her books.
 

Today’s Meatless Monday treat at our house is this Algerian Eggplant Jam, from Joanne Weir’s From Tapas to Meze: Small Plates from the MediterraneanIt makes a delicious snack or appetizer on crostini (toasted baguette) or crusty bread.
 
Of course, one of Mediterraneanista’s enduring favorites when it comes to eggplant is ratatouille. I usually make a big pot, because there’s nothing tastier or easier for quick lunches or dinners, and you can always mix it up, so to speak, by serving it with grilled Italian sausage one day and couscous the next. Or you can try one of ratatouille’s many cousins, each with its own distinctive style.
 
Finally, you can never go wrong with Martha Rose Shulman’s suggestions in her Recipes for Health column at NYTimes.com. The recipes are conveniently organized by ingredient, and she often spends a week on different ways to prepare a single vegetable or grain. Here’s some of her eggplant repertoire to the rescue. 

Tomato Sauce, Batch 2

LAST WEEK READER JOHN FROM TORONTO passed on his great you-can-do-this method for making tomato sauce, which he learned from a Sicilian friend in London. He made another batch this week and sent some photos. The tomatoes he’s using look so beautiful and not at all like the giant hard waxed Romas you often come across in grocery stores. (I learned this week that Italian families in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, source their Romas in central New Jersey. Need to tap into that pipeline!)
 

Now doesn’t this make you want to stop everything and make tomato sauce? 

RECIPE: Baked Mediterranean Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes

 
Serves 4 to 6
 
2-3 skinless boneless chicken breasts (depending on weight; see note below) 
zest of one lemon 
1/3 cup pitted Niçoise olives 
1 tbs capers, rinsed
½ pint of cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
 
Preheat oven to 425°.
 
Combine lemon zest, olives, capers, tomatoes and olive oil in roasting pan large enough to fit chicken pieces.
 
Pound chicken to tenderize. Cut into single-serving-size pieces—i.e. each as big as a pack of cards, or about 3-4 oz. (Depending on the size of the chicken breasts, this could mean dividing them into halves or thirds.) Season with salt and pepper.
 
Put chicken pieces in pan, covering with a little of the tomato-olive-caper mixture.
 
Cook in oven for 10 minutes. Turn over chicken pieces. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until juices run clear. (Don’t overcook or the chicken will be dry.)
 
Serve with roasted root vegetables, or quinoa and sautéed greens or a green salad.

 

Sunday Dinner: Baked Mediterranean Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes

 
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I never get tired of meals that involve cherry tomatoes. And I’m still finding boxes of them at the greenmarket—sweet, irresistible, without the thick skins that so many store-bought ones now seem to have. (On and off, after the local season has finished, I’m able to get really tasty hothouse champagne cherry tomatoes from Canada, sold loose in a box at Fairway. Champagne prices, too—$5/lb—but worth it.)
 
Tonight I’m using cherry tomatoes in a chicken dish that is full of Mediterranean flavors and a cinch to make. That’s another reason it’s a Lazy Mediterraneanista favorite. The key is to have the basic ingredients in your pantry or fridge, ready to go. Extra-virgin olive oil, yes, but lemons, olives and capers, too, are staples of so many Mediterranean dishes. I always keep a supply of pitted (!) Niçoise olives, which I find at Zabar’s, and capers (often from Fairway). That way, I can have this meal ready pretty quickly. I timed myself the last time I made it: 30 minutes flat, from prep start to table.
 
A note about portions: The recipe calls for 2 chicken breasts, which—if you’re taking the Mediterranean approach—will serve 4 to 6 people, depending on the weight of the chicken parts. Do I sense raised eyebrows? Well, I weighed the chicken I’m using today—believe it or not, each piece was anywhere from 8 oz. to 12 oz. (God knows what they’re feeding those chickens.) A half- or three-quarter pound chicken breast is definitely not a single serving of meat—more like 2 or 3 servings each, when you use the 3 oz. food pyramid portion size, or the well-known deck-of-cards measure. But in a Mediterranean meal, you will fill most of your plate with something other than meat. Or have a couple of other non-meat courses as well. So no chance of starving!
 
I often serve this dish with a heap of roasted root vegetables. Tonight we’re having quinoa and sautéed greens. I also like it with small steamed new potatoes and a green salad. I sometimes double the recipe because it’s good reheated, too—for a 10-minute dinner the next day.
 

Tomato Sauce—Yes!

 
Reader John writes:
At this time of year all over Toronto, a huge harvest of Roma tomatoes hits the streets. In all the Mediterranean neighbourhoods, every corner store has bushels and bushels (and bushels) of ripe, beautiful Roma tomatoes, filling the sidewalks and ready for processing. Having done a bit of this myself I can only marvel that people drive away with 2 or 3 bushels at a time. That’s factory work! My modest efforts, however, still provide me with a winter’s worth of great tasting tomato sauce for pasta. I learned how to make the sauce from a Sicilian friend while on holiday in London, not the likeliest place to discover these things. It’s more a method than a recipe and has served me well over the years.
 
Buy a small amount of tomatoes (20 to 30, depending on size). The idea is to avoid scaring yourself into inaction. Wash them and with a very sharp knife, dice them finely (1/4" or so). This makes it unnecessary to peel the tomatoes. Place them in a large pot and heat as slowly as possible, stirring until enough juice is released. Add finely chopped garlic, fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste. Add a finely chopped carrot or two (1/8" cubes) for taste and colour. Add a very generous dollop of your best extra-virgin olive oil. Stir gently and enjoy the aroma while cooking for a couple of hours at an extremely low temperature. Adjust the seasoning, perhaps adding a pinch of sugar if it tastes too sour.
 
After cooling I put them in small containers (like a single serve yogourt container) and freeze them. Perfect Friday night dinner! Thaw the sauce in a microwave, serve over pasta and enjoy with spinach or a salad. Fresh, pure and simple.
 
Each year I make 2 or 3 small batches within several weeks, partly not to get intimidated by the work and partly to vary the taste slightly. It’s easy and very rewarding, both during the cooking and during the eating.         
I’m inspired!  John’s sauce sounds delicious and I like his anti-intimidation tactics. Get me some tomatoes! I haven’t found reasonably priced Romas in bushel basket quantities in NYC, but I’m sure I must just be looking in the wrong places. Anyone know where to buy? 
 
My (English) mom and (Polish) dad used to bottle Roma tomatoes, especially after we kids left home, when they had more time for such things. They usually broke up the work over a few days, my mom was telling me recently, working in a two-person assembly line, peeling the tomatoes and bottling them whole, ready to use in all sorts of recipes. The supply lasted through the winter, and I was the beneficiary of a few jars whenever I went home or they came to visit. I still remember the summer-ripe taste.
 
I was reminded of this recently when my son Chris, who spent the summer doing moving jobs in Toronto, told us how he was feelin’ the pain because so many of the Italian households he was moving had cold storage rooms in the basement (as in, the level reached by a long, steep, narrow staircase)—filled with the vital supplies of a Mediterranean kitchen: preserved tomatoes (how about 10 boxes, each filled with 12 Mason jars?), massive tins of imported olive oil, big glass containers of wine at various stages of production. Even a curing ham hanging from the rafters in one place (more interesting than heavy, especially since the owner offered the movers samples before they left). Ah, Italia.

RECIPE: Spicy Turkish-Style Yogurt Sauce (Açili Esme)

 
THIS SPICY YOGURT SAUCE is great over lentils, sautéed greens, beans, grains, fish or grilled meat. And it makes a delicious dip, too.
 
1 tsp sea salt
2-4 fresh garlic cloves, peeled
¾ cup high quality full-fat yogurt
6 tbs strained yogurt (Labna or Greek-style)
½ tsp cayenne pepper (I use a scant ½ tsp)
1 tsp chopped dill weed
extra-virgin olive oil
 
Pound the salt and garlic together in a mortar until mushy, or mince the garlic cloves in a press and then mix thoroughly with the salt.
 
Blend with the yogurt, labna, cayenne and dill. Turn it into a bowl and swirl olive oil over the surface.
 
Adapted from The Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford A. Wright. 

Running Late? This Sauce Could Save the Day

WHEN I SEE THE TWO NAMES Deborah Madison and Clifford Wright mentioned together, I sit up and pay attention. I still remember being swept off my feet by the first real gourmet vegetarian meal I’d ever eaten—it was at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, where Madison was founding chef. In the years since then, I’ve cooked some unforgettable dishes and meals from her cookbooks. (It will soon be the season for roasted squash, pear and ginger soup again!) Clifford Wright is a scholar of Mediterranean food and culinary history—and a wonderful writer (see his column at Zester Daily) and book author.
 
This afternoon, thanks to an article that caught my eye at food website Culinate, my plan for the day has been tossed aside and here I am suddenly making “Cliff Wright’s Yogurt Sauce”—at Deborah Madison’s suggestion.
 
 
I ate the yogurt sauce over lentils, because Madison’s description was irresistible:
I had gone to visit my friend, the cook and historian Clifford Wright, and I was ravenous when I got to his place. I knew I had to eat a little something, even though the hour was not an eating hour; it was 4 o’clock, and a wonderful dinner would be coming soon.
 
But Cliff, who is a world traveler, understood that travel takes its toll on appetites and their timing, so with no fuss at all, he served up a dish of lentils and set it down before me, along with a bowl of yogurt sauce.
 
I spooned the yogurt into the lentils, inhaled, then dove in. At that moment, those lentils and that yogurt were the most delicious foods I had ever eaten.
They were delicious in the middle of my workday, too, when all of a sudden it was afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet.
 
I’ll be making sure I have some of this sauce around (or at least the ingredients for making it) because I believe it when Madison says it works with everything: drizzle it on pita sandwiches, add it to a plate of beans or grains or sautéed greens or vegetables or grilled fish. Sounds perfect for when hungry Mediterraneanista is feeling lazy or has suddenly noticed it’s time for dinner. Oops, just saw the time—might be eating yogurt sauce twice today.

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. 
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