Posts Tagged ‘vegetarian meal’

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

Ricotta, the Easiest Cheese

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One day when I have loads of leisure and energy, I plan  to get really serious about cheesemaking.   However, if you have a dairy animal or any other source of good milk, there are times when you have milk on hand but no spare time to do anything fancy with it. On those occasions, make ricotta  right away while your milk is fresh. All you need is milk, a large stainless steel pot, a stirring spoon, a strainer, fine cheesecloth, and lemon juice or vinegar. Any child old enough to use the stove at all can make ricotta with a little supervision. Determine approximately how much milk you have and put it in the pot over medium-high heat.  Milk scorches easily, and it should be stirred frequently so that it doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pot.  As soon as the milk foams and is coming to a boil, remove it from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar per quart of milk.  I don’t recommend cider vinegar or other strong flavored vinegars, and although I prefer lemon juice, I sometimes use rice vinegar, which does not give any off flavor to the cheese.  Stir the acid in and let the pot sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, line the strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and set it over a bowl it can drain  into, or in the sink, and when the milk in the pot has definitely separated,  pour gently into the cheesecloth lined strainer. Let drain a few hours. Squeeze it a bit in the cheesecloth to get excess whey out,  salt if desired, chill, and eat.  The only reason for the milk not separating is that it wasn’t heated hot enough. If this should happen, heat again, stirring continually, until it separates. But that should not happen if you brought it to a boil in the first place.

The whey is useful and still contains a lot of nutrients.  It would be a shame to waste it. I feed it to my chickens, and they enjoy it.

When I mention cheesecloth I am talking about the real thing, specifically marketed for cheesemaking, and you can get it at New England Cheesemaking Supply along with a variety of other entrancing supplies and gadgets.

Besides just eating the ricotta itself with herbs stirred in, or sweetened and topped with fruit, it makes a good basis for a lot of other delicious meals.  I especially like it as a fill-in for stuffed vegetables. To make the zucchini above, get some good sized zucchini about 10 inches long. Cut them in half and hollow them out into boats.  Sprinkle very liberally with salt and put them in a bowl to drain for at least half an hour. This step is important. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450.  When ready to cook the zucchini, dry them off thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Rub with a little olive oil on the inside, put on a parchment lined baking sheet, and put them in the oven until they are fairly tender, which is about 25 minutes for me.

Meanwhile make the filling. Blanch about 2 quarts loosely packed of mixed greens; I used amaranth and lambsquarters. Drain and press the greens dry. Chop them thoroughly.  Chop one onion and two cloves of garlic and sauté them in a quarter cup of olive oil until they are thoroughly cooked but not colored very much. Stir in the chopped greens, and cook all together at least 10 minutes.  Turn the greens mixture into a bowl and mix in a heaping cup of goat ricotta (or any well-drained ricotta) and a cup of grated Parmesan cheese  or crumbled feta. Toss in a handful of chopped herbs. I used about 2 tablespoons of sweet marjoram, a scant tablespoon of winter savory, and a heaping teaspoon of fresh thyme.  Now start tasting the mixture and add salt until you feel the seasoning is perfect.  I like to add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice at this point as well. Add more herbs if they seem indicated. Once you have the seasoning the way you want it, mix in two raw egg yolks. Pile the mixture  into the cooked zucchini canoes, top with pinenuts and more grated Parmesan, and bake at 400 until they are thoroughly done and the top is just starting to brown.  I like to serve them cooled off a bit, drizzled with a bit of extremely good olive oil.

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The Eggplant Chronicles IV

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Summer vegetables are at their peak now, and in my home most of our meals are based on them. This one makes a great lunch or light dinner. I used to wrap this mixture into a pita as shown above but now that I am low-carb I just pile it on a little plate, drizzle with the sauce, and eat it. I like it warm, but it is also very tasty served at room temperature. It can be made ahead, and keeps a few days in the refrigerator. Oil-cured black olives are used to add a meaty savor to eggplant and zucchini, and capers add an herbal note. This meal is vegetarian, and can be made vegan if you alter the sauce recipe a little. You can use all eggplant or all zucchini if that’s what you have, although I think that the mixture is best.

Eggplant and Zucchini with Olives and Capers

2 small or one large eggplant, fresh and firm
2 small zucchini
12-20 oil-cured black olives depending on your taste for them (no other kind of olive will do here)
3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and then soaked in cold water for an hour and squeezed dry
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
chopped parsley to taste, probably a couple of tablespoons
Cut the eggplant in cubes 1/2 inch or a little larger on a side. Whether you peel it first is up to you. The finished dish has a more tender texture if the eggplant is peeled, but has less fiber and fewer antioxidants, so take your pick. Personally, I leave the peel on for this dish as long as the eggplants are young and tender. Cut the zucchini in quarters and slice each quarter into segments on the small side of 1/2 inch. Toss the vegetable cubes together in a bowl with 2 teaspoons of salt and let sit at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. This step is important for this dish and shouldn’t be shortened. Don’t worry about the quantity of salt; if you do the squeezing step well, most of it will be removed with the liquid. You can soak the capers at the same time. Pit the olives and chop them coarsely, and chop the garlic finely. At the end of an hour, drain off exuded liquid and squeeze the veggie chunks in a clean kitchen towel, a few handfuls at a time, until as much liquid as possible has been squeezed out. Squeeze the capers dry and chop them coarsely. In a clay cazuela or 10″ skillet, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until opaque and cooked but do not allow it to start to brown even a little. Now add the olives, capers, and veggie chunks, toss to coat with the oil, and cook over low heat for about an hour, tossing occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Add a little water if needed to prevent burning.
Texture is very important. Start tasting a little after 45 minutes or even 30 if it looks like it’s cooking quickly. When the zucchini is just tender but not mushy, and the eggplant is melting in texture, it’s done. Also check for salt, but the seasonings are salty and you are unlikely to need any. Stir in the parsley just before serving. Serve with the sauce below.

Lemon-garlic sauce
This sauce is like an aioli but looser and less rich. The egg yolk just binds it and thickens it a little. If you leave out the egg yolk the whole dish is vegan, and the flavor is less rich but still very good. The texture of the vegan version will be liquid, not thick, and it will need to be stirred up by each diner before taking any.
1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
1 Jalapeno pepper, seeds and veins removed unless you are a heat freak
olive oil as needed, usually about 1/4 cup.
salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
In a small food processor, chop the garlic clove and the chile pepper. I always mince fresh chiles before putting them in the processor to make sure that big chunks don’t startle diners. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, process briefly, and slowly drip in the olive oil until it’s as thick as you want. I like it to be liquid and spoonable, but velvety. Taste and salt as needed. Add the thyme leaves and stir in. For the vegan version, proceed the same way except leave out the egg yolk, and be aware that it won’t thicken in the same way but will be more like a vinaigrette.
This dish is suitable for a low carb diet. All veggies have some carbs but not enough to worry about.
As far as portions, I think this quantity only serves two, maybe even just one on a hungry day. Daintier eaters might get three or four portions.

Our Local Mushrooms


Recently I was asked to do a blog for our local newspaper weekly for a month (you can see the first post here) which has left limited time for my own usual blogging. But I did want to throw out a quick reminder of some of our best local delicacies. Among my favorites are the lovely pearly oyster mushrooms from Exotic Edibles of Edgewood, available at the downtown growers’ market and at both Albuquerque branches of La Montanita Co-op.They are delicious roasted and served over polenta.

First make polenta by your favorite method.I like to put one cup of good organic polenta (not any other type of cornmeal) in an unglazed clay cookpot with 3.5 cups of water ad a teaspoon or so of salt. I set the clay pot over medium-low heat, covered, and after ten minutes or so I increase the heat a little, to medium. At some point 15-20 minutes later when the pot is simmering, I stir well and turn the heat to very low; you may need a flame-tamer device if your stove runs hot. It now simmers slowly, covered, for a couple of hours while I do other things. I don’t stir. It’s very like the well-known oven method but relies on the kindly heat of clay. When ready, either stir in some grated Parmesan or pour it into a pan to solidify. You can then cut thick slices to grill and use as “landings” for all kinds of food.

I buy oyster mushrooms by the pound, and a pound is the minimum amount that you need to serve 4 people. Personally, if four hearty eaters were expected at my table, I would get two pounds of mushrooms and double the seasoning ingredients. Pick them over and cut off the tough stem end. I don’t wash them, since I have seen the operation and have no concerns that anything unwholesome is on the mushrooms, but suit yourself. Toss in a large bowl with 3 large or 5 small chopped cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a little chopped celery leaf if you have it. The soy does not add an Asian taste, it just gives a rich meaty savor. Spread the mushrooms on a baking sheet in one layer and roast in a 425 degree oven until they are cooked, somewhat browned, and have exuded juices. Put the mushrooms in a bowl, and if there’s half a cup or less of pan juices, pour it over the mushrooms and serve over hot polenta with shavings of good Parmesan. If you washed your mushrooms, there may be a lot of juice, in which case boil it down in a little saucepan until reduced to half a cup, then proceed as above. A thick pat of very good butter on top of each serving adds a wonderful touch of richness and flavor. If you want to add herbal notes, you can garnish with some finely chopped celery, or you can add a couple of teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves to the raw mushrooms with the other seasonings. Any way you choose to proceed, it’s a wonderful dish for fall, and the main ingredient comes form one of our most interesting and waterwise farm operations. Scott and Gael, the mushroom people, have to truck in all their water, and they don’t waste a drop. For more about their operation, see my website.

Vegetable dinners: things to wrap in a pita


My new category, Vegetable Dinners, will be a collection of meals based on vegetables. Some are vegetarian and some aren’t, but where meat is used, it’s a small amount and is used more as a seasoning than as the bulk of the meal. Where relevant, notes on how to make them vegetarian or vegan are included, but many of them taste best with a little meat or fish included, and my recipes note this. My kitchen mantra is “Eat less meat, eat better meat,” and the same goes for eggs and dairy products. Since you aren’t using much, you can afford the best and most sustainable.
Summer vegetables are at their peak now, and in my home most of our meals are based on them. Mixtures that can be wrapped in a pita make a light easy meal on hot days. The filling can be made ahead, and keeps a few days in the refrigerator. OIl-cured black olives are used to add a meaty savor to eggplant and zucchini, and capers add an herbal note. This meal is vegetarian, and can be made vegan if you alter the sauce recipe a little.

Eggplant and Zucchini with olive paste

2 small or one large eggplant, fresh and firm
2 small zucchini
12-20 oil-cured black olives depending on your taste for them (no other kind of olive will do here)
3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and then soaked in cold water for an hour and squeezed dry
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
chopped parsley to taste, probably a couple of tablespoons

Cut the eggplant in cubes 1/2 inch or a little larger on a side. Whether you peel it first is up to you. The finished dish has a more tender texture if the eggplant is peeled, but less fiber and fewer antioxidants, so take your pick. Personally, I leave the peel on for this dish as long as the eggplants are young and tender. Cut the zucchini in quarters and slice each quarter into segments on the small side of 1/2 inch. Toss the vegetable cubes together in a bowl with 2 teaspoons of salt and let sit at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. This step is important for this dish and shouldn’t be shortened. Don’t worry about the quantity of salt; if you do the squeezing step well, most of it will be removed with the liquid. You can soak the capers at the same time. Pit the olives and chop them coarsely, and chop the garlic finely. At the end of an hour, drain off exuded liquid and squeeze the veggie chunks in a clean kitchen towel, a few handfuls at a time, until as much liquid as possible has been squeezed out. Squeeze the capers dry and chop them coarsely. In a clay cazuela or 10″ skillet, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until opaque and cooked but do not allow it to start to brown even a little. Now add the olives, capers, and veggie chunks, toss to coat with the oil, and cook over low heat for about an hour, tossing occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Add a little water if needed to prevent burning.
Texture is very important. Start tasting a little after 45 minutes or even 30 if it looks like it’s cooking quickly. When the zucchini is just tender but not mushy, and the eggplant is melting in texture, it’s done. Also check for salt, but the seasonings are salty and you are unlikely to need any. Stir in the parsley just before serving. Serve with good pita bread, lightly warmed, and the sauce below.

Lemon-garlic sauce
This sauce is like an aioli but looser and less rich. The egg yolk just binds it and thickens it a little. If you leave out the egg yolk the whole dish is vegan, and the flavor doesn’t suffer at all but the texture will be liquid, not thick, and it will need to be stirred up by each diner before taking any.

1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
1 Jalapeno pepper
olive oil as needed, usually about 1/4 cup.
salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

In a small food processor, chop the garlic clove and the chile pepper. I always mince fresh chiles before putting them in the processor to make sure that big chunks don’t startle diners. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, process briefly, and slowly drip in the olive oil until it’s as thick as you want. I like it to be liquid and spoonable, but velvety. Taste and salt as needed. Add the thyme leaves and stir in. For the vegan version, proceed the same way except leave out the egg yolk, and be aware that it won’t thicken in the same way but will be more like a vinaigrette.
Don’t save leftover sauce more than a day in the refrigerator, because of the egg yolk, but I like to spread leftover sauce on a warmed pita for lunch the next day.

More vegetable-centered meals

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This time of year, vegetables are abundant and make up the bulk of our diet. Recently I wanted to put together a meal cooked on the grill using only vegetables that can easily be found at the farmers’ market. The kitchen stays cool, and people who don’t have a garden aren’t left out. If you need to accomodate vegetarians and vegans at your table, this meal can have everyone at your table happily eating the same thing, with no need for special plates.

The only remotely exotic seasonings that you’ll need are Spanish smoked paprika, readily available as Pimenton de Vera at The Spanish Table and other specialty grocers, and some capers, preferably the kind preserved in salt.
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The Joys of Summer: more grilled vegetables

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Here in New Mexico the hot weather has continued for a few weeks with no relief, and we’re doing more and more grilling to avoid heating up the kitchen. This has led to more and more experimenting with grilled vegetables, and so far we’ve loved them all. I also love having plates full of color, not just brown meat. If you want to reduce your meat consumption, eating more vegetables is a delicious way to approach that goal. To improve kitchen efficiency, I plan how to season each vegetable so that I can make the seasoning pastes in a sequence yet not have all the seasoning the same; this is explained in the recipe section. If you want more details on how to grill, I recommend the superb grilling cookbook by Francis Mallmann, Seven Fires. Grilling is an art, and can’t be taught in a blogpost. But it’s an art well worth aquiring.

The quality of your ingredients is paramount. I do not recommend any use of battery-raised commercial chicken, which is a disaster from the gastronomic as well as the environmental and humane standpoint. Commercially raised “free-range” chicken is only slightly better. Get some real chicken. I strongly recommend Pollo Real pasture-raised chicken; see the Delahantes’ website to see how they raise their birds. They sell at the Santa Fe farmers’ market, and it’s possible to arrange a pick-up in Albuquerque if you contact them ahead of time. Back when I had a farm and raised my own chickens, they tasted like Pollo Real chicken, by which I mean that they tasted like chicken, while American commercial chicken tastes strikingly like nothing at all. Battery farming of chickens pollutes the envoronment and spreads disease, as well as being a horrible life for the birds, so I avoid it. We need to support humane and sustainable farming, and the best way to support it is to seek out your local sustainable farmers like the Delehantes.

If you have a grill with a griddle section, you’re all set. Otherwise, a heavy cast-iron skillet could be used where a griddle is specified.
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