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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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

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At our wedding, almost three years ago, Aaron and I gave bookmarks to our guests as tokens of our gratitude. These bookmarks were printed with various lines from a few of our favorite poems. One was the closing stanza of Margaret Atwood’s Variations on the Word Sleep:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

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Lentils are stodgy things, unassuming and cheap. There’s an hippie strain about them, tainted with the implications of under-salted, uniformly brown meals. It’s easy to obsess over the beauty of fresh produce. There’s a vitality, brilliantly colored and beautifully arrayed. If lentils inspire love, it’s the love of gratitude. It’s a long running marriage to an heirloom’s passionate affairs. Lentils are supportive. There is always more they will be willing to give.

Perhaps we ought to celebrate lentils more. Lentils are accessible. They are sustaining. They give, quietly and without complaint, again and again. And they are happy to fade into the background, allowing their more glamorous accompaniments to take the spotlight. They are unnoticed. They are necessary.

In the spirit of generosity I offer this red lentil dip. Earthy from the lentils, sweet from coconut milk, and with a kiss of heat from ginger. My dreams of taking this dip on a picnic were destroyed by Aaron devouring half of it when he arrived home from work. I’m not fond of this habit of assigning any mashed beans the moniker “hummus”, because there’s no tahini and no chickpeas in most. But this is satisfying in the same way as hummus, with a similar texture and similar balance of flavors. And because red lentils are the uncelebrated workhorse of the kitchen, this dip comes together from start to finish in about twenty minutes. Pretty remarkable for something so unnoticed.

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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

Be careful when blending the dip- too fast or too long and it may start to take on paste-y quality. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth- in fact, a slightly nubby texture is delightful.

Makes about 2 cups of dip

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt
1 cup red lentils
1 fifteen ounce can coconut milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lime

to serve

sesame seeds
crackers
vegetables

Melt the coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook gently for about five minutes, until the garlic and ginger are fragrant but not taking on any color. Add the coriander, black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir well, then continue cooking for another minute. Stir in the red lentils until they are coated in the spice and shiny with the oil, then stir in the coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer and stir often, cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the lentils are tender but firm, about ten to fifteen minutes. If the liquid is absorbed but the lentils are still hard, add water at half a cup at a time and keep simmering. You don’t want the lentils to dissolve for this.

Transfer your cooked lentils to a blender and blend until the lentils are mashed. While the blender is whirling, add in the olive oil, lime juice, and 1/4 cup of water. Taste, and add any salt you deem necessary. Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with sesame seeds surrounded by crackers and crudités of choice.

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Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

 

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My sister Abby used to make lemon squares. As a tween, they were her flourish. She would make them, over and over, for almost any occasion. She pulled out the recipe whenever she needed to impress. She made them for family parties, and for teachers. Sometimes she’d make them just to make them. They were always delicious and always devoured, no matter how set or loose the filling was. Abby developed a habit (which she still has) of not measuring when she baked, which meant the same results were never repeated twice.

Neither she nor I can remember which cookbook she used, but I have a feeling it was found in one of two- either the cheerful, red and white checked Betty Crocker, a binder disguising itself as a cookbook; or the stately, encyclopedic Good Housekeeping with its torn cover and pictorial index filled with unmistakably 80s food photography. There’s a chance too that it came from the recipe box stuffed with family favorites, but I doubt it. No one else in my family made lemon squares. Those were Abby’s alone.

Abby lives in Oakland now. Part of being an adult is the missing. There’s nostalgia for what you had, but also a profound sense of loss for what you could have had. Right now life has us in two very different parts of the country, and we’re not able to visit often. But the relatively recent miracle of the internet means we’re still connected. We Facetime and email and tag each other on Instagram. And food, while still miraculous but much more ancient, can bring us together in other ways.

These lemon squares remind me of Abby’s, but they’re not quite the same. Hers were exactly sweet enough for preteens, with a gooey filling and crumbly bottoms. The filling for these lemon squares is creamy instead, and the sweetness is tempered by a flurry of thyme and the floral notes of grapefruit juice. The crust is essentially a shortbread that’s patted into the  pan and then par-baked. And, unlike Abby, I measure while making my lemon squares. I suggest using weight measurements for the greatest precision, but volume works too. Just as long as you use some form of measurement. Please.

Returning again to the miracle of food, this is where we were and where we are. My sister’s favorite childhood dessert, constructed with my pastry training and the sun-filled ingredients that populate her current home. It’s transportive- keeping us connected even when the distance feels insurmountable.

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Thyme Kissed Lemon Squares

These lemon squares will absorb any powdered sugar you sprinkle onto them. I would advise waiting until the last moment to dust with powdered sugar in a decorative flourish.

makes 24 bars

adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark

1 1/2 cups (195 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (55 grams) confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon finely minced thyme
2 tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup grapefruit juice

Confectioner’s sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl combine the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and salt. Add the butter in, and toss to distribute and coat in the flour mixture. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter into the flour for about 5 minutes, until the butter is well distributed and the mixture comes together when squeezed. Turn the dough out into a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and pat it down. The dough should make one even layer in the bottom of the pan. Bake until golden and set, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and set aside.

While the shortbread is baking place the sugar into a medium bowl. Rub into the sugar the lemon zest and the chopped thyme until the sugar is fragrant and evenly speckled. Whisk into the sugar the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a small bowl whisk together the eggs, lemon juice, and grapefruit juice. Pour into the sugar mixture, and whisk until smoothly combined. Pour the lemon filling over the baked shortbread crust.

Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is just set, about 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool, then cut into squares. Top with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.

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Radicchio Panzanella from “Eat This Poem”

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“Because when we eat and when we read, we honor what was made for us to consume. We savor every last bite.” -Nicole Gulotta, Eat This Poem

One of the great gifts of poetry is attention. Have you ever tried to read poetry like prose? It doesn’t work. You scan the lines and end up losing the thread halfway through. No, to read poetry you must slow down. Let the rhythm wash over you. Luxuriate with the feel of the words in your mouth. To understand poetry you have to fall in a little in love with it.

Cooking is the same. There’s a world of difference between cooking pasta and setting a pot of water to boil, adding a steady stream of salt, running your fingers through the pasta before adding it to the roiling water, and testing it until it embodies the perfect marriage of yielding and firm. When it’s done with attention and care,cooking ceases to be a chore and becomes a meditation.

If you care about both food and poetry you’re likely already following Nicole Gulotta’s brilliant site Eat This Poem. And if you’re following Nicole online- and even if you’re not- you need to check out her new book of the same name.

I say this as someone who was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of her  book. When I was taking notes for what to make I filled three pages of a legal pad. I started using symbols to keep everything straight- , a circle for make at work, a star for must-dos, a heart for date night. Her book is filled with simple, good food made with attention.

Nicole’s book is organized not around meals or seasons but by theme. These themes- On Splendor, On Moments in Time, among others- speak to the rhythms of our life. These themes are filled with poems and accompanying recipes. And what poems. I found myself lingering over old favorites from Theodore Roethke, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver. And I fell for new to me poets like Jehanne Dubrow and Richard Levine (whose enclosed poem, “Believe This”, I emailed to two separate people in with the title OMG OMG. Look it up. Fall in Love.). There is splendor here.

It’s a brilliant idea. And what transforms a brilliant idea into a treasured work is that it works beautifully. The recipes are elegant creations, delicious and creative but written with life in mind. This is a working cookbook that exists in a space that’s been sorely neglected. Nicole is not preaching the gospel of a 30 minute meal. She’s not a chef whose sub-recipes have sub-recipes. Instead she’s an evangelist of the calming, attentive power cooking brings- choosing a peach, chopping parsley, gently cooking garlic until it’s just fragrant. These actions nourish us just as much as what we place in our mouth does, and Nicole appreciates these acts without fetishizing them.

In response to “Tree” by Jane Hirshfield, where Hirshfield speaks of “That great calm being/ This clutter of soup pots and books-” Nicole offers a segment of simple, comforting meals that feed the calm being in us. For this lovely radicchio panzanella found with Hirshfield’s poem radicchio is quickly seared then chopped. It’s then tossed with whole grain croutons, Parmesan cheese, white beans, and a punchy dressing and topped with chives. I was curious but cautious when I saw the recipe- radicchio is famously bitter and can be overwhelming. But I trusted Nicole and recommend you do the same. The heat tames radicchio’s bite enough that it will play nice with the other ingredients. It’s a dish unique enough to stop you in your tracks, but no harder than boiling and tossing pasta. And by the act of making something both commonplace and special you are are practicing the poetry of cooking.

Eat this Poem is released on March 21st and you can find it here. I already have a list of people I’ll be buying it for as gifts. Congratulations Nicole! You’ve created something truly exceptional.

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Radicchio Panzanella

Adapted from Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta, © 2017 by Nicole Gulotta. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com
Nicole recommends drizzling the radicchio with olive oil and sprinkling with salt and pepper, then searing it in a dry pan. I seared my radicchio in a healthy drizzle of olive oil because I was distracted and not paying close attention. (I am fully aware of this irony.) This meant that the radicchio was a bit more cooked, but was still excellent.

Serves 2-4

4 cups whole grain bread cubes (cut from about 4 slices each an inch thick)
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 pound radicchio (about 2 medium), wilted outer leaves removed and quartered
1 1/2 cups cooked white beans such as cannellini, or one 14.5 ounce can
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
minced chives

For dressing:

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the bread cubes onto a sheet tray and toast until golden and crisp, about 12-15 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

In the meantime, warm a healthy drizzle of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the quarters of radicchio in the pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sear until the leaves are soft and just going brown in spots, then turn. Repeat until all sides of the radicchio have been kissed by oil. Transfer to a cutting board and roughly chop the radicchio. Place in a large bowl and top with the beans, bread, and Parmesan cheese.

To make the dressing, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, and honey. Add in the olive oil and whisk while it’s combining. Season to taste with a healthy pinch of both salt and pepper, then pour over the salad and toss well. Top with a flurry both of Parmesan and chives.

 

 

 

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Shakshuka

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This week I’ve been hanging with my dear friend Sara. We met in junior high when we attended different schools but the same youth group. She wasn’t yet my friend when our youth director showed us The Sixth Sense as a treat and I called my parents to take me home (still haven’t seen it). But we became friends in spite of my scaredy-cat tendencies. And we’ve stayed friends for over half our lives. She’s spent the week staying on a nest of sleeping bags in my living room, where we’ve occupied our time taking Buzzfeed quizzes, arguing about movies, and taking long walks around the lakes. And cooking.

Sara, my oldest friend, my penpal for almost 10 years, and owner of a key to my parent’s house, has Celiac’s disease. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen together cooking and eating together. We went out for arepas one night and Italian another. There have been occasional impromptu dances to Earth, Wind, and Fire. She organized all the magnetic poetry on the fridge by type of speech. We made these beans and tomato sauce, threw together a lentil soup, and tried out some earl grey macaroons (verdict- delicious, but not very earl grey-y…). And there was shakshuka. Because what better way to celebrate a close friend’s visit than with tomatoes and peppers and onions and eggs?

Shakshuka is a North African dish that’s essentially eggs poached in a sauce of tomato and peppers. As with all straightforward sounding dishes, there’s a world of variations available. I found my recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s brilliant (and classic) book Plenty, which may be the first cookbook I ever obsessed over. I know I’m not alone in this. I used to carry Plenty around with me in my purse JUST IN CASE someone hadn’t seen it yet. I was insufferable. I still am.

I’ve heard the mark of friendship isn’t liking each other but understanding each other. I think there’s some truth to that. But when you’re lucky you have people who like and understand you. I’m lucky. I have friends like Sara, who doesn’t laugh or roll her eyes when I decide that the perfect writing outfit is leather leggings and Aaron’s sweater. She drags me bra shopping and makes sure to bring backup sizes. We debate what makes Pride and Prejudice a great novel, the love story or the social commentary, and still swoon together when Elizabeth and Darcy touch hands. We annoy each other with our music choices, and then both belt out Backstreet Boys in the car. There are many gifts of friendship, but one of the best is that it can make you more open to your shared joys and sorrows.

And that makes sharing a meal, breaking the (metaphorical) bread together, that much more sweet.

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Shakshuka

The spice and herbs here are flexible- you could up the cayenne pepper, add hot peppers, and change out the herbs. Cilantro, thyme, and chives would all be excellent. The saffron here is optional- the shakshuka will still be fantastic even if saffron runs a bit too dear.

adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

serves 4

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
pinch saffron (optional)
scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
8 eggs

In a large pan over medium high heat add the cumin seeds. Toast them, stirring often, until they start to smell fragrant and get dark, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil and the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onions are soft.  Add both the peppers, the oregano, and the parsley and stir well. Continue to sauté for 10 minutes, until the peppers are soft.

Add the canned tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, and a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the same consistency as pasta sauce. If you need to cook it a bit further to get it there, or add water to get that result, do what you need to do. Add the lemon juice and taste, then adjust seasonings as necessary. It should taste bold.

This can all be done ahead of time. To serve the shakshuka, place a portion into a skillet and warm it. Make as many nests in the tangle of peppers as you want eggs, then crack an egg into each nest. I find it easiest to crack an egg into a small bowl, then slip it into the nest. Season each egg with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and cover the skillet. Cook the eggs until they are set to your liking, starting to check at about the 6 minute mark and then for every 2 minutes after. Serve with a generous sprinkle of parsley.

 

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