Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Vegetable Soup

December is a good month to be unemployed. That’s my opinion, anyway, and the reason why my most recent efforts to find employment have been halfhearted at best. In January, my job search will become more earnest, but for now, I’m not exactly straining myself. That said, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m lazy, because I have had no trouble keeping myself busy. Andrew and I are still settling into our new place, and so I’m working at making it feel more like home. I’ve also been exploring our new neighbourhood, and discovering wonderful restaurants, butchers, and other shops. I joined a food co-op last week that advocates for all things local, organic, and environmentally sustainable, so as you can imagine, I’m very excited. Of course, there has been some Christmas shopping, as well as some Christmas baking, and it’s nice to be able to do these things at my leisure, instead of trying to juggle them with a demanding work or school schedule. I also made this soup.
I know, it doesn’t seem like much to look at, but I had it for lunch every day last week, and I’m still in love with it. The soup is simply composed of cubed vegetables simmered in chicken stock, and flavoured with some dried herbs (that’s right, I said dried herbs, and I’m not ashamed to admit it; they taste wonderful in this soup). I used mainly seasonal root vegetables: onion, garlic, carrot, turnip, and yams. I was hesitant to add the yams at first, because I worried that they may make the soup cloyingly sweet, but that wasn’t the case at all. They add just a hint of sweetness to the broth, and the chunks of smooth, creamy yam contrast pleasantly with the firmer turnips and carrots.
I made the chicken stock myself, and it contributed significantly to how good the soup was, but I’m sure you would have decent results with store bought chicken or vegetable stock that you really like the taste of. I also added some pearl barley to a) make the soup heartier, and b) add more contrast to the texture of the soup. Pearl barley has a firm exterior that, once cooked correctly, bursts in your mouth when you bite down on it to reveal a softer inside. It’s sort of a cross between crunchy and chewy. Pearl barley is also a good soup component because it does not absorb that much liquid, compared to something like rice or pasta, which tend to soak up all the liquid in a soup if it’s left to sit, even in the refrigerator. And it tastes delicious.
Once everything was prepped, I sweated the onion and garlic, and then the remaining ingredients all went into the pot together and simmered for forty-five minutes or so. It needs to simmer for at least long enough to cook the pearl barley. Meanwhile, the stock becomes delicately flavoured with the herbs and vegetables. The resulting soup is simple and unassuming. The flavours aren’t bold or overpowering, but rather, subtle and complex. I want to say that it tastes nourishing, though, of course, nourishing is not a taste, but maybe you know what I mean. You know when you taste something, and you can almost feel how it is not just filling your belly, but also providing you with the nutrients you need, giving you energy and making you stronger? That’s what this soup tastes like, and it’s a taste I can only describe as good.

 Winter Vegetable Soup
Makes approximately 1 gallon/3.75 litres 

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, medium dice
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried savory
9 cups/2 litres (or more) good quality chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade (taste it first and make sure you like the flavour)
1 large white turnip, peeled, medium dice
2 medium yams, peeled, medium dice
2 medium carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1 cm slices
½ cup pearl barley
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it becomes translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic, then the rosemary, thyme, and savory. Stir for about 30 seconds longer, until the garlic and herbs become fragrant. Add the chicken or vegetable stock, and then stir in the turnip, yams, carrots, and barley. Add about half a teaspoon of salt. Increase the heat to high to bring the soup to a boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat to medium and let the soup simmer for about 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the liquid reduces to the point that the vegetables are not swimming in the broth, add more. You can also partially cover the pot to slow the evaporation of the liquid.

The soup is ready once the pearl barley is fully cooked. The grain will have a firm outside, but when you bite into it, it shouldn’t be hard at all. Taste the soup and add salt and black pepper to taste. It is now ready to serve. This soup keeps in the fridge for up to 5 days or so, and it also freezes very well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favourite Eggplant Dish

I know you’ve all been waiting on the edges of your seats to find out how I’ve been managing in my new kitchen. Well, all right, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I do think that my previous post requires some follow-up, so I will happily inform you that I’m faring well in my new workspace. It’s smaller than I’m used to, but I think the limited area is forcing me to be more organized. I’m only pulling out what I need when I need it, and then I put it away when I’m done with it, rather than steadily filling the counter with various jars, bottles, and boxes, along with the detritus of diced vegetables and trimmed meat. Someone suggested that I do away with my drying rack, and while I can’t get rid of it altogether, I’ve been moving it to the other edge of the sink while I’m cooking to give myself a little more space.
I thought that I’d share a favourite recipe of mine today. It’s from Gourmet, but I’ve made a few modifications to it. Inspired by eggplant parmigiana, this "inside-out" version makes for a tasty, healthy, and elegant vegetarian meal.
The main difference between this recipe and a more traditional eggplant parmigiana is that the eggplant is not breaded and fried, as it normally is. Instead, it is baked, and eggs, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, and garlic are combined and pan fried to make patties. These patties are stacked with the eggplant, sliced fresh mozzarella, homemade tomato sauce, and sautéed arugula to create a delicious layered dish.
If you want it to look more impressive, even if you, like me, have no one to impress but yourself and perhaps a husband who will love you whether your food looks impressive or not, but you, like me, enjoy making your food look impressive, coat the bottom of each plate with some of the tomato sauce, centre an eggplant stack on it, and top with a little fresh arugula.
The resulting dish will be colourful and the taste won’t disappoint either. It offers a variety of flavours and textures, with spongy egg patties, creamy mozzarella, bitter arugula, delicate eggplant, and acidic tomato sauce.

The original recipe can be found here.

This one has my modifications:

Inside-Out Eggplant Parmigiana
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, January 2009

For tomato sauce:
1 (28 oz) can whole tomatoes in their juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
½ tsp sugar
Salt, to taste
3 tbsp. finely chopped basil

For eggplant stacks:
2 (1 lb/450 g) eggplants
6 tbsp olive oil, divided, plus additional for drizzling
Salt and pepper
½ cup plain dry breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves minced, divided
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup water
¼ tsp red-pepper flakes
10 oz/300 g baby arugula
1 cup packed basil leaves, coarsely chopped
½ lb/250 g cold fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch-thick slices

Make the tomato sauce: If you want a smooth tomato sauce, blend the tomatoes with their juices either in their can using an immersion blender, or in a blender. If you prefer a chunkier sauce, simply break up the tomatoes using a wooden spoon. Heat oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until it shimmers, then cook shallot, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional minute. Add the blended or crushed tomatoes to the saucepan with the shallot and garlic, along with the sugar, and about a ¼ teaspoon of salt. Simmer, partially covered, over medium to medium-low heat until it thickens slightly, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the basil, taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Meanwhile, bake the eggplant: Preheat the oven to 450 F with the rack in the lowest position.

Wash the eggplant, but do not peel it. Cut the eggplant into 1/3-inch-thick rounds (don’t worry that the rounds have different diameters). Brush both sides of the slices with about 2 tbsp oil and season with salt. Bake on an oiled baking sheet, turning once, until golden and tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely with foil. Leave the oven on.

Make the egg patties and sauté the arugula: Stir together breadcrumbs parmesan, parsley, half the garlic, and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, then stir in the eggs and water.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet (I like using cast-iron) over medium heat until it shimmers. Drop four 1/3 cups of egg mixture into the skillet and cook, turning once, until patties are golden brown and puffed, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to paper towels to drain. If necessary, repeat with remaining batter.

Add remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet and cook remaining garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add all but about one fifth (2 oz/55 g) of the arugula and all the basil to the pan, and stir until just wilted, 30 seconds or less. Stir in 1/8 teaspoon of salt.

Assemble stacks: Arrange egg patties about 3 inches apart on a baking sheet. Top each with 2 tablespoons tomato sauce, 1 slice mozzarella, 1 eggplant slice (use the ones with larger diameters for this layer), 2 more tablespoons tomato sauce, another eggplant slice (use the ones with smaller diameters), arugula mixture, remaining eggplant, and a final slice of mozzarella. Bake until cheese melts, 5 to 10 minutes.

Plate your dish: While the stacks bake, combine the remaining arugula with a little olive oil (a teaspoon or so), a pinch (1/4 teaspoon) of salt, and a little (1/8 teaspoon) freshly ground black pepper.

When the stacks are out of the oven, place approximately 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce in the centre of each plate. Pick up the plate and tilt it so that the sauce spreads out and covers the plate to the rim (try not to get sauce on the rim of the plate). Place one stack in the centre of each plate. Top each stack with a small handful of arugula, trying to keep all of it on top of the eggplant stacks. Serve right away.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My New Kitchen

Well, I haven’t done much cooking in the past few weeks, but I think I have a pretty good excuse for that. After the craziness of packing and leaving Washington, Andrew and I spent a week with my parents, during which we enjoyed my Mom’s wonderful cooking, and now we’re in our new apartment at last. This, of course, means that we are currently dealing with the craziness of unpacking, an at times seemingly insurmountable task (there’s nothing like moving to make you sit back and wonder, How did I ever get so much stuff?), so cooking still has not occurred. My kitchen is basically set up, though, and I think it’s worth talking a little about that.
First of all, we love this new apartment. It’s in an old building with lots of character—beautiful, dark wood doors, ornate moulding around the light fixtures, a clawfoot bathtub—, and it’s all in excellent condition. It’s a little bigger than our last place, and it’s divided in such a way that makes it seem much bigger. I love the kitchen as well, but it is significantly smaller than the kitchen in our last apartment. Now, you might ask, wouldn’t someone who cooks as much as I do have a hard time with a small kitchen? Well, we’ll see what I say once I actually start attempting to produce meals out of this room, but for the moment, I’m feeling pretty good about the situation.
While this kitchen is small, it is not short on storage space. You can see in the pictures that cupboards line the walls, both above and below the counters. These manage to contain plenty, but the real jewel of this little kitchen lies behind that door that you can see at the end of the room in the above picture. Now, behold what’s inside.
I have a pantry! This means that non-refrigerated food items do not have to take up space in the cupboards, because I have a whole closet for them. It’s a little colder in there as well, which is excellent for keeping foods fresher. I’m also using the upper shelves to store some extra items that didn’t fit in the cupboards, and the floor to store my kitchen electrics (food processor, blender, etc.).

The kitchen has been recently renovated, so it looks fresh and clean. Check out the frosted glass cabinets we have on one side of the room.
I like the effect of the lights reflecting off of the dishes in the cupboard. And look inside:
Looks kind of cool, doesn’t it? The appliances are also fairly new and in excellent condition. The oven has a ceramic top, which will be a change. The big advantage of these is that they’re very easy to clean—no digging around under electric elements, or scrubbing around the claws of a gas stove. It also looks pretty sleek.
Now, for the main disadvantage of this kitchen: workspace. There is very little of it. See the little square of counter in this picture?
That’s basically the only area I have to work in. In my last kitchen, I had a huge island to work on, so this will be a change, but one I feel confident I can adjust to. After all, think of all the great food blogs that come out of small city kitchens. The bloggers of Smitten Kitchen, TheJulie/Julia Project, and The Amateur Gourmet, have all spoken at one time or another about their less-than-ideal kitchens, but they all make it work, and they’re some of the best. So if these bloggers can do what they do out of their kitchens, I certainly can too!