vegetarian

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). 

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. 

Lazy Mediterraneanista

I THINK ONE REASON I LIKE THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET is how simple many of the dishes are. Just a few ingredients and a few simple steps and you have dinner.

LInguini with Roasted Tomatoes from Cucina Italiana

Linguine with Roasted Tomatoes is a perfect example. Add a salad, fruit for dessert and you’re done. So simple, so pretty—and delicious, too. (I usually substitute Niçoise olives, which I buy pitted at Zabar’s, but I’m curious about the Taggiasca olives and will keep looking for them.) 

Farro, Farro, Where Art Thou?

I’m hunting for farro—once I find out what it is. It’s the first item in a recipe for Panzanella di Farro, or Tuscan tomato salad with farro, in Olives and Oranges, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox.
 
 
All I know is that it’s a grain—and not one found on my local grocers’ shelves. When I Google it, I find lots of contradictory information. It’s spelt, it’s not spelt. It takes an hour to cook, it takes 20 minutes. I go on with my research and when I’m deep in the weeds of scientific discussions about tetraploid wheats and taxonomy disputes I decide I’ve learned enough.
 
Farro scholars (I’m sure they’re out there) may split hairs but here’s what I, er, boil it down to: Farro (triticum dicoccum or emmer wheat) is an ancient grain, an unhybridized wheat with an intact husk that is the ancestor of modern durum wheat. (Spelt is triticum spelt, a close relative, but not exactly the same in taste and texture. Still, confusion reigns, because Triticum dicoccum, farro, is often translated into English by its Italian producers as “spelt.”)
 
I learn that farro was one of the earliest domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent, known to archaeologists who explore ancient tombs and excavations. It was eaten by the Roman legions (it seems they were sometimes paid with a daily ration of farro). Farro’s backstory begins to read like a novel. In 1906 agronomist and botanist Aaron Aaronsohn found wild emmer growing in Rosh Pinah (Israel), and his discovery of the “mother” of wheat was said to have caused a sensation in the botanical world. Something about all this thrills me—call me a romantic, but part of the pleasure of Mediterranean eating, I am discovering, is this connection to peoples long gone and life in places far away.
 
Emmer survives in mountainous regions as what’s called a relict crop, one left over from the days when it was widely cultivated. Today it is mostly cultivated in Italy, in Umbria, and Tuscany, most famously in the region of Garfagnana, where it has the equivalent of an appellation controlée.
 
The farro I’ve located in New York is from Umbria and it’s semipearled, meaning the husk has been cracked and it takes only 20 minutes to cook. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and is full of nutrients, too—high in protein, vitamins B and E, and fiber. 
• Bartolini Emilio brand (500 g/$8) at Zabar’s, back behind the coffee to the left of the jams
• Roland brand (500 g/$5) at Fairway, on the shelf with rices. (The words Triticum dicoccum don’t appear on the Roland package but farro does and I’m going with it for now.)
• Rusticella d’Abruzzo brand at Market Hall Foods online (the bricks-and-mortar store is in Oakland, CA)
 
Zabar’s
2245 Broadway (at 80th Street)
New York, NY 10024
212-787-2000
 
Fairway
2312 12th Avenue (at 130th Street)
Manhattan
212-234-3883
 
2127 Broadway (at 74th Street)
Manhattan 
212-595-1888
 
480-500 Van Brunt Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn
718-694-6868
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