Eggplant and Arugula Sandwiches

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Hello and happy August. It feels strange to come back without acknowledging why I was gone. Life, essentially.  Two weddings (one in Texas, one in Illinois) meant there was quite a bit of travel. We drove to Chicago  so that I could scream the lyrics to my desert island album with 70,000 other people. (Seeing U2 was everything I had hoped it would be. After the show I told a friend it was like being baptized.) We spent a week with Aaron’s parents when they came up to Minneapolis for the 4th of July where we took them to a few of our favorite restaurants and went for a lot of walks. We spent the next week with my family in the North Woods of Wisconsin where we had a bonfire every night and drank about a case of wine. When we weren’t traveling places and hanging with people I was working my new second job leaving me with only Mondays off. And all my creative juices had been funneled into writing. Three weeks ago I wrote the last sentence of the first draft of a novel. It’s been full in the way that life gets full- messy and good and hard and ugly, all at the same time. So here’s some things I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks, and a killer new recipe.

Writing a first draft of a novel is a heady thing. Revising it will be harder. I’ve been steadily working my way through the podcast Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert, and every episode is like a balm for my uncertainty. Gilbert is equal parts guru and fairy godmother in addition to being a brave and lovely writer herself, and I find that whenever I’m feeling blah or uninspired or struggling that listening to her (or reading a passage from the accompanying book) helps get me sorted out.

There’s so much darkness going on in our country. The events in Charlottesville have left me shook, and probably you as well. I have never seen, in my lifetime, so many people empowered to say and do such hateful and destructive things. White supremacy is a disease that’s been festering in the soul of America for too long. There is no room for such things here. I have no hot takes about Charlottesville, and it will be a long time before my thoughts are coherent enough to write them down here, but this essay was floating around Facebook after Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of Philando Castille. I think it’s still deeply relevant, and it’s heartbreaking. Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller.

Someone who always has words about the darkness and light of our country is my good friend A. If you are a fan of getting the thoughts of supremely intelligent and highly empathetic people in your emails, I’d recommend checking out her tinyletter. She signed her most recent update as “Stay Angry. Stay Safe. Take Care of Each Other.”, and that might be some of the best advice I’ve heard recently. She also includes pictures of her good dog in almost every letter, so that’s also worth checking out.

Can we acknowledge how weird our language around food has become? We talk about “clean eating” rather than dieting and “getting healthy” rather than losing weight. We get preached to about body acceptance as if it was that simple to ignore all the complicated, contradictory messages about our bodies and ourselves. It’s good that we’re not talking so much about numbers on a scale anymore but instead now we’re cloaking our language about food and weight in terms of virtue and vice in a way that’s sneaky and dangerous. I found this article from the New York Times to be illuminating and resisting easy answers. I don’t think we have easy answers. Anyone who says anything else is lying to you.

On the topic of food, I’ve been mostly riffing on leftovers and following other people’s directions. There are seasons when I feel super inspired in the kitchen, but summer isn’t one of them. I know, I know, everything’s fresh and beautiful and so simple, but cooking at its core is about transformation. And when it’s too hot to turn on the stove you end up doing a lot less transformation and a lot more grocery shopping. When following other people’s leads I made this farro with tomatoes, which was tasty and as simple as promised. I finally made Northern Spy’s kale salad (with apples instead of squash) which is, indeed, genius. I made these tacos multiple times, and declined to post them for fear of this becoming an Anna Jones fan blog. (Let’s ignore the fact that it kind of already is.) (See also: her California miso and avocado salad, this warm tomato and kale salad,  and the pasta that convinced to put avocados in spaghetti.) I’ve riffed multiple times on my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. And I made these killer eggplant sandwiches, brought them to trivia one night, and proceeded to make everyone jealous.

It’s a simple conceit. Roast eggplant, brushed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, sliced thinly and piled onto bread. A couple big handfuls of arugula, and a smear of butter. It almost sounds unremarkable, but while reading Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year, lazily looking for inspiration, I stopped. Something about these sandwiches seemed elegant and delicious and simple and unexpected. And I’m so glad I did- these sandwiches are all those things, as well as phenomenal. I’d highly recommend you make them for your next opportunity to bring your dinner with you.

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Eggplant and Arugula Sandwiches

I call for smoked salt here, as I like the way it accentuates the meaty, savory flavors of eggplant. If you can’t find smoked salt (I’ve had luck at co-ops, Whole Foods, and gourmet stores at a wide variety of prices) regular salt will still be perfectly lovely. Ruth suggests using ficelles to make these sandwiches, which I had never heard of before this recipe and Google informs me is like a very thin baguette. While it does sound particular, having made these sandwiches I can attest that you want a higher filling to bread ratio than you generally think. My game plan moving forward is to shave out the center half inch or so of my baguette.

adapted from My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl

Makes 2 sandwiches

2 medium sized eggplants, compact and shinny
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for cookie sheets
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus extra for drizzling
smoked salt
ground black pepper
a couple big handfuls of arugula
one baguette
a few tablespoons softened unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 425. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on two cookie sheets, and then set aside.

Trim the edges off of the eggplants. Using a mandolin or very sharp knife slice the eggplant longways into thin, crisp strips about 1/4 inch in thickness. Lay those slices out onto an oiled cookie sheet. In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Using a pastry brush, brush the olive oil-balsamic blend onto the upwards facing side of the eggplant, then sprinkle with the smoked salt and black pepper. Place both trays into the oven, and roast for 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the trays, and using tongs, flip the eggplant over. Brush the new side of the eggplant with the remainder of the olive oil-balsamic mixture, sprinkle with more smoked salt and black pepper, and roast for another 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

To assemble your sandwiches, slice the baguette into two pieces, and slice through the middle of each piece. Smear each side of the baguette with butter. Layer the now-cooled eggplant as you would lunchmeat, folding and draping as you go. On the other side heap on a generous handful or two of arugula. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Eat, and make everyone around you jealous.

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Ricotta Leek Tart with Tomatoes

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If there’s one thing I hate it’s living up to stereotypes. In college I never told people (read: a specific breed of men) that I liked to cook. It was the best way to avoid the inevitable women in kitchen “jokes”, not that it stopped them. As someone who now makes her living in the kitchen I have fantasies about telling such ignorant louts. (These fantasies are essentially channeling Colette from Ratatouille.) There’s something icky about matching up with these stereotypes, like you’re failing to be a fully complex human being.

But to my shame some stereotypes are accurate. Specifically, I’m terrible with technology. I like to say that I’m as good at computers as the average 50 year old, but my Mom is in her 50s and is more proficient than I am. And let’s clarify that this is a me thing, not a gender thing. The other week Aaron and I went over to our friends Anne and Brian. Aaron quickly fell into conversation about tech with Anne, while Brian and I skipped off into their basement to check out their foundation with a marble. As we hurried away Anne quipped that it was computer skills verses actual skills. Our two groups each trouble shot in our own ways- Anne figured out the computer problem at hand, and Brian and I expertly decided their foundation was sound.

All this is to say that this post almost didn’t go out today, because I couldn’t get my camera and computer to synch. I still haven’t solved the problem, and my own personal IT guy (Aaron, who in addition to bar tending used to work for an actual big tech company) has yet to troubleshoot it for me. But today I did discover, after owning my computer for almost a year, that my laptop has an SD port. Problem solved? Absolutely not. Workaround found? Yes. Good enough for me? You know it.

My reticence towards technology spreads to the kitchen sometimes. I know how to sous vide and use liquid nitrogen, but I forget about them both for long stretches of the time. That kid of cooking is deeply impractical for daily life. I have a high speed blender, and I love it, but not nearly as much as I love my chef’s knife and bench scraper. I’m much more interested in fermentation than spherification. At work it’s fun to play with ideas and techniques, but at home I love the simple and the rustic.

Rustic is the adjective I’d chose for this tart. It’s made with an olive oil tart dough, which comes together with less fuss than a butter crust. There’s no cutting in the butter, and no worries about temperature. The crust is sturdy, well suited to the type of thing to make and then leave in the fridge for a week’s lunches.

I’ve paired this tart dough with a sort of faux-quiche. Ricotta and eggs make a lovely, sturdy custard, creamy and substantial. The  custard is filled with leeks, which bring sweetness, and topped with cherry tomatoes, provide brightness in both taste and color. It’s delightfully old-fashioned,  the sort of thing people might bring on classy picnics, with champaign and designated picnic baskets. I initially made this in hope for a classy picnic of our own, but the weather has not cooperated. Instead we have been steadily chipping away at this tart for lunches (me) and dinners (Aaron) in the safety of our apartment, tasting sunshine in its absence. 

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Ricotta Leek Tart with Tomato

I would highly recommend making this ahead of time, as it keeps so lovely. 

Serves 6

1 parbaked olive oil tart shell, recipe below
2 medium leeks, thinly sliced and well washed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup (8 ounces, 226 grams) ricotta
3 eggs
sea salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 cherry tomatoes, halved

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a sauce pan over medium heat warm the olive oil. Add the cleaned leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, with a pinch of salt until the leeks have softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

In a large bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, thyme, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the softened leeks. Pour out into the prepared olive oil tart shell.

Gently spoon the filling around the shell so that it’s level. Place the cherry tomato halves into the filling, cut side up. Press down gently so that the cut side is level with with the filling.

Bake for 40 minutes, until filling is set and the tomatoes have shrunk and concentrated a bit. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve room temperature or cold.

Olive Oil Tart Dough

Makes 1 tart shell

3/4 cup (120 grams) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (65 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cold water

Whisk together the whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, and salt in a large bowl. Stir in olive oil until the dough begins to clump together, then stir in the water. Using your hands, form the dough into ball, kneading it together if necessary. Wrap in plastic then refrigerate 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350. Remove the tart dough from the refrigerator and roll out onto a well-floured surface until it’s an even circle a few inches longer than your pie dish. Transfer the dough to the pie dish, patching up any holes as they occur. Crimp the edges of the tart dough down and trim as necessary, then prick the bottom of the tart a few times with a fork.

Bake the tart dough, uncovered, for 20 minutes. The tart shell should be firm to touch. Set aside until you’re ready to make the tart.

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