Healthy Eggplant Parmigiana: A Story and a Recipe

Note from Naomi: This is a guest post from one of my favorite chefs, authors and mentors–my grandmother, Suzanne Loebl. Her most recent book (her 14th!), America’s Medicis, was published by Harper Collins last year and reviewed by The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Check out her blog, Branching: Thoughts of an Ever-Curious Author, where she talks about writing, art, food and life. Thanks for the guest post, Nana!

In 1971, when she was seventeen years old, my daughter Judy entered her freshman year at Princeton University. My husband and I drove an excited and somewhat nervous Judy to campus and settled her in her dorm room. Ernest and I were a bit sad realizing the relationship with our daughter was about to enter a radically new phase. We were pleased to learn that freshmen and their parents were invited to a luscious roast beef feast. Judy, however, made it clear that she wanted us to depart without dinner. Being well-brought-up parents, we left on an empty stomach, puzzled and perhaps a bit hurt.

We found out later that the reason for our boot was that Judy had decided to start her new life by being a vegetarian. It was a mild, healthy protest, much better than any other she could have chosen. I learned to cook a variety of vegetarian dishes and, being a writer and an enthusiastic cook, resolved to write a vegetarian cookbook once she had been a vegetarian half her life. As they say: the way to hell is paved with good intentions, and I never did write that cookbook. I am so glad that Judy’s daughter Naomi and her friend Ora (and others) are now writing The Big Ceci, so that I can share some of my recipes with the world at large. Of course most of my recipes are not entirely new, but variations of what is already out there.

Eggplant Parmigiana

Positive and negative caveats: I am a strong believer in making a cook’s life as easy as possible. I take shortcuts whenever I can. I am also an instinctive cook, so my recipes are often a bit vague.

Ingredients

2 large Japanese eggplants
1 large or 2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans good quality diced tomatoes
1 large can tomato paste
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
Oregano, salt and pepper to taste
1 pound best mozzarella you can find
Grated parmesan or pecorino romano

Tomato Sauce

Dice 1 large or 2 medium onions and mince 4 cloves garlic. Sauté in ¼ cup olive oil for about 7 minutes, or until translucent. Add 2 large cans good quality diced tomatoes and 1 large can of tomato paste. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of sugar, oregano if available, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring to prevent burning, for 5 to 10 minutes.

Eggplant

I love eggplant, probably because it was not available in my northern European childhood home. Use 2 large (or corresponding amount of) Japanese eggplants. (Tip: Use good looking eggplants, selecting those that, comparatively speaking, feel lightest; they have the least amount of water.) Slice crosswise into ½-inch to 1-inch slices.

Most traditional recipes start either by frying the eggplant slices in oil or by breading them. For a healthier version, I start out by steaming the eggplant slices. My preferred method is the microwave. Spread out the eggplant slices, as a single or double layer, in a large microwave-proof rectangular dish. Salt lightly, add ¼ cup water, cover loosely and microwave until soft (8-10 minutes, depending on your microwave.) Drain. You may have to do this step in batches.

If you prefer to forego the microwave, you can pre-bake the eggplant slices instead. Just preheat the oven to 400 degrees, arrange the eggplant slices on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until soft (you don’t need them all the way done, since they will finish baking in the next step).

Cheese

I use one pound of the best available mozzarella, which I slice. Other cheeses—sliced or shredded—will do as well.

Assembly and Baking

Lightly oil rectangular pan (the one used to pre-cook the eggplant will do fine) or casserole dish. Cover bottom with one layer of eggplant, top with some cheese and then cover with some tomato sauce. Repeat, until you used all the eggplant, ending with a layer of tomato sauce. Bake in conventional oven at 350 degrees (you will have to lower the temperature if you pre-baked the eggplant) for 40-45 minutes, or until tomato sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted. (Optional: remove from oven at 35 minutes, sprinkle a handful of grated parmesan over the top, and return to oven to finish baking for 5-10 more minutes.) Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino romano, and potatoes or pasta.

Notes

1. This is a fail-safe recipe.
2. Most likely you will be left with some tomato sauce. It freezes well. As a special treat, poach some eggs in the leftover sauce.
3. Prior to baking, the assembled eggplant parmigiana freezes well. You may wish to increase recipe and freeze for another meal.

Guys, PEACH PIE!!!!

Please forgive me Pie Eaters for missing my assigned Monday post. I hope my offering of Honey Bourbon Caramel Peach Pie makes up for it! I was in Ohio visiting the fam and Monday just rolled by like a tumble weed. But guys, this pie is AMAZING!! I accidentally made it with whole wheat flour and it turned out pretty darn tasty! In this post I wanted to tell you all about wheat and flour and the Midwest and blah blah blah but, alas, I just got home from the airport and I’m due in the hospital (to work) in just a few hours, so short and sweet is what’s on the menu. What I will say is that, while spending time in Ohio, I had the honor of talking to two women over 90 years of age about pie (one being my granny and one being my sweetie’s great aunt) and it was a hoot! Old ladies and pie might be tied in first place on my “favorite things” list! Okay, kisses to you all and I’ll see you next week!

Sunshine Pie

Hello Pie Eaters!!! I just woke up on this blustery and soggy Sunday morning and ate a piece of Stone Fruit Pie for breakfast and, let me tell you what, I’m never going back to cereal!

When I was upstate a few weeks ago I ate a lot of peaches and plums and, folks, when you get your mouth on a good stone fruit it really is like eating sunshine. I was so enamored
with the juicy goodness…then my sweetie’s mom, Lori, told me about a stone fruit pie recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit and I said, HOT DAMN sign me up! This recipe was really fun to make and when the fruit was all cut up in the bowl it looked like a sunset. The recipe has you add sugar to the fruit, let it sit for an hour and then drain off the juice. This is a really helpful step if you want to have a non-runny filling. As a little pre-pie treat I added the extra fruit drippings to my iced tea and it was bangin’! I was feeling a little nervous about the lattice top but then I just looked the lattice top in the eye and said, “I will master you!”…and that’s just what I did, Pie Eaters. I used this helpful video as a little Lattice Top 101 and went for it. It wasn’t so hard! If you have been wanting to try a lattice top, now is the time!

So I don’t know if you have been picking up on all of my sun references in this post but it was a little foreshadowing for this week’s geeky science lesson on PHOTOSYNTHESIS! Don’t be afraid, I’m gonna break it down real simple-like. Photosynthesis is the bomb! It’s the process where plants take CO2 (carbon dioxide – the stuff we breathe out as waste), water and sunlight, and turn those things into sugar! Now if that’s not magic, people, please tell me what is. So when you bite into a fresh-picked nectarine or peach that is literally made from sunlight and still warm from the sunshine, and the juice fills your mouth and drips down your chin, it’s like you are tasting the sun. Then that fruit becomes a part of you as your body breaks it down, and in that process the sun becomes a part of you too. Do you see how lucky we are? This might not be how a scientist who believes in science would explain it, but I’m a scientist who believes in magic and that’s how I see it.

I also want to tell you that in the process of photosynthesis the light is absorbed into the plant mostly by way of a pigment called chlorophyll. It is present mostly in the leaves of plants and is what gives them their green color. Chlorophyll is best at absorbing light from the blue portion of the light spectrum, followed by the red portion. However, chlorophyll does not use the green portion of the light spectrum very well and that is why the color green is reflected from the leaves. Doesn’t that blow your mind?! The leaves absorb all the colors of the light spectrum but green, so that is what color the leaves seem to us. We associate green with life and health, but really it’s the least useful part of the color spectrum as far as our food source is concerned. Nature! You win!

See you next week, Pie Eaters!

p.s. Thanks Molly for taking the wheel while I was out! Your pies looked yummy! Wish I could have had a piece!

p.p.s. Thanks Olivia for the photos. You made the pie feel famous!

Peach Pie

This week’s pie post is dedicated to my sister Rebecca Kane who is getting married this weekend. I asked Bex (as I call her) what is her favorite kind of pie. “Peach or blueberry,” she responded over text message. So I went for the peach. This is a picture of us when we were much younger. I’m the older one.

My memories of peaches date back to New Years 2000. A group of friends and I decided we wanted to have nothing to do with New York City at the turn of the millennium so we decided to road trip down to Georgia where a friend had a house for us to party in. My first impressions of Georgia, or Atlanta as I drove into the city was that every street name had something to do with peaches. Peachtree road. Peach drive. Peach lane. I mean I guess if you live there you don’t get confused…”meet you on the corner of peach and peach?” And you would know exactly what they meant. I on the other hand found it rather confusing and odd. I mean show pride for the peach, but diversify your street names.

I found this week’s pie recipe a bit more challenging than last week’s. The graham cracker crust that I made last week I had made before. This was my first regular ole piecrust. I combined in my kitchen aid mixer (although I think a food processor could have been better) 1 ½ cups of all purpose flour, 1 tbsp of sugar, ½ teaspoon of salt, ¾ stick of butter, diced, 1/3 cup of shortening frozen and diced, and 3 ½ tbsp of ice water. The dough came out a bit moist; this could be because I forgot to add some of the flour and put it in at the end or because my shortening was not so frozen. I let the dough sit in the fridge for an hour, but it still was a bit tough to roll out. Instead, I sort of pressed it into the pie plate.

I bought 7 peaches at the local farmer’s market near where I work. They came from Wilklow Orchards. Yay, for locally grown. Then I realized I needed one more. So, the 8th came from Key Food. I peeled the peaches and cut into one-inch slices. I tossed the peaches with ¾ cup of sugar, 2 tbsp of quick-cookie tapioca, ¾ teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ tsp cardamom, ¼ tsp nutmeg, and 1 ½ tsp lemon juice. Let it stand for about 20 minutes and tossed the peaches occasionally. I then poured the peaches into the pie crust.

For the topping I combined 3 tbsp of packed light brown sugar, ½ tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp salt, and 5 tbsp. melted unsalted butter. I crumbled the mixture on top of the pie. Baked the pie at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, then covered and am cooking for an hour at 350.

The pie cooks as I write and I can’t wait to share it with my sister and the rest of the folks I’ll see this week. Thanks so much to Ora and Molly for inviting me to post on Pie Time. B’tei Avon!

The Art of Improvisational Desserts (aka winging it and hoping for the best)

If I had a cookie for every time a great cook has told me they don’t/can’t/won’t bake desserts because they “don’t like to follow recipes,” or they “like to improvise,” or they “can’t be precise” (or some other reason along these lines), I’d be set for life.

I’ve never really understood the apprehension cooks have about desserts.  Cooking and dessert-making have always seemed connected to me.  Perhaps that’s because I have a huge sweet tooth and started baking before I ever started cooking anything too interesting, but nevertheless…

In today’s post, I’m going to share a dessert-making story from this week that will hopefully debunk some of the myths about dessert-making being strict and rigid (while perhaps reinforcing them too. You’ll see what I mean shortly).

I just returned from a month of touring with my band Red Baraat, so I’ve been excited to have more time to get down in the kitchen and enjoy the summer’s bounty now that I’m home.  By my second day back, I had a few projects lined up.  One was making a banana pudding for a friend who cat-sat for me while I was out of town, and the other was making a dessert for a small gathering that evening.  With my puddingy reputation, I figured I’d go pudding all around, hoping to pull off a blueberry pudding pie with fresh mint.  I felt confident in my pudding abilities, so I winged it.  I made a double recipe of vanilla pudding (using the seeds from a vanilla bean), saved half for the banana pudding, and then added a puree of a handful of New Jersey blueberries and a sprig of mint from my fire escape (the only food I can manage to grow with my touring schedule) to the other half.

Suddenly my beautiful, creamy vanilla pudding looked like a blueish liquidy disappointment.  I stuck it in the fridge with the hopes that it might set, but I was feeling pessimistic.  Something about the little bit of blueberry puree seemed to undermine the thickening properties of the cornstarch (other hypotheses are welcomed).  Sure enough it was soon clear that the blueberry pudding was a failure, and I needed to rethink my strategy.  I had already been to the grocery store once and didn’t want to go again (and didn’t really have time either).

I still had half a pint of blueberries that I was determined to use and a couple of limes in the fridge.  Then it dawned on me.  Perhaps I could adapt my go-to (key) lime pie recipe!  I didn’t have enough limes, but I did have some bottled organic lemon juice (for emergencies like this one) and a carton of OJ.  So, I zested and juiced my two limes, and added lemon juice and a little orange juice for the remaining liquid, and made a mixed citrus pie filling.  I stirred in the whole blueberries before pouring it all into a vanilla wafer pie crust (I bought the vanilla wafers for the banana pudding) and baked it.

I was a little nervous, but when I took it out of the oven it looked beautiful, and the crowd was quite pleased with the results.  I failed to take any pictures, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it was a success in improvisational baking!

creamy blueberry mint ice pop

As for the aforementioned failure, there is a silver lining.  I bought popsicle molds a couple of weeks ago (inspired by the ridiculous heat wave), into which I poured the liquidy pudding. I apprehensively tried the makeshift pops the next day and was pleased by the creamy texture and refreshing blueberry-mint flavor. Disaster averted!

So the take-home message here is you CAN freestyle, change recipes, and experiment creatively in your dessert-making (just like you do in your cooking), but practice will show you what does and doesn’t work – which is also a lot like cooking, right?  I’m sure we’ve all had some failed attempts at creativity in our savory cooking (that would be a fun post – worst cooking experiments ever?), so there’s really no need for baking anxiety.

Without further delay, here is how I made the Citrus Pie with Blueberries. I encourage you to change the recipe.

Ingredients

For crust:
35-40 vanilla wafer cookies (or ginger snaps or graham crackers)
Half a stick of butter

For filling:
Half a pint of fresh blueberries
3/4 cup of citrus juice (mine was mostly lime and lemon juices with a little orange)
the zest of 2 limes (the more zest the more limey, or lemony)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs

For topping:
Fresh whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Crush the cookies in a food processor, blender or by hand.  Incorporate the melted butter.  Press buttery crumbs into a pie dish with your hands, using the bottom of a glass to help you smush it down and up on the sides of the pie dish nicely.  Bake the crust for about 8-10 minutes until it begins to brown.

While the crust is baking whisk together the eggs, and add the condensed milk, citrus juice, and zest until smooth and creamy.  Gently stir in the blueberries.  Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 20 minutes until set.  Cool completely in the fridge and serve with a dollop of lightly sweetened (or unsweetened) whipped cream.

Pie Time: Key Lime Pie

Thanks Molly for having me as a guest pie blogger!

My first memory of key lime pie takes place in Key West, Florida. My 11- or 12-year-old self wondered about how the lime made it to Key West, Florida. In addition, I could not figure out what the difference was between a lime and a key lime. So in my journey of baking a key lime pie last week, I searched for the answers. A few googles later…the limes that we now call “key” are native to Malaysia. The limes came over with the Spanish to the now Florida Keys in 1500 and thus became known as “key limes.” The limes we typically find in the grocery store are Persian limes. In the 19th century a woman named “Aunt Sally” first made a Key Lime Pie, which is a funny coincidence cause I have an Aunt Sally. The pie was a big hit at the time because it required no milk, no refrigeration, and no ice, items not available in the Keys until the 1930s.

When looking for a good key lime pie recipe, remember it is not necessary to have key limes to make the pie. Unless you are living in the Florida Keys, in which case shame on you if you don’t use the local limes. There are several ways to make a key lime pie. I chose to go with a graham cracker crust, which is pretty simple to make. You can either crush up graham crackers or go with the pre-crushed. Whisk together 5 tablespoons of melted butter with 1½ cups of graham cracker crumbs. Press the crumbs into a pie plate and bake at 350 degrees for 5 to 10 minutes.

While the crust is baking, combine 2 14-ounce cans of condensed milk, 1 cup of lime juice, and 2 whole eggs.

Let the crust cool a bit and then pour in mixture. I found that I had leftover mixture for a 9-inch pie so I ended up quickly throwing together a little more crust and making a small heart-shaped key lime pie tart.

Now, for many this could be the end of your key lime pie baking journey. You could bake the pie for 15 minutes and then let it chill for a couple of hours and eat. I chose to make a meringue to put on top. If you want to go this route, beat together 2 egg whites and ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar (found in the spice section of your grocery store) until peaks form. Then blend in ¼ cup of sugar. Finally fold in about a teaspoon of lime zest. Spread on top of pie and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until meringue is golden brown. If you want to dig in right away, try to at least let it cool for about 45 minutes. If you have some more time let it chill in the refrigerator for several hours.

In sum, this is a great summertime desert. Refreshing. Light and tangy. For me, the best part of baking is sharing. I shared the little tart with my girlfriend. I then brought the pie over to a dinner gathering the following night. The rest of the pie then served as a thank you to Jose for painting my office last week.

One final note: if you love key lime pie and are not so into making it yourself and you are in the New York City area, I highly recommend Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I like that Steve calls his place authentic…perhaps, Red Hook is the Key West of New York City. No matter what, Steve’s got good key lime pie. Enjoy and B’tei Avon (Hebrew for Bon Appetit!).