Crisis luncheon – tomato and eggplant tart

March 30th, 2009

Being a freelancer has its ups and downs. One of the ups is that you can have a mid-week break from reporting on the effects of the financial crisis on a small European country and cook lunch for a friend who lost her job because of the very same crisis. As she is one of the most cheerful people I know, I decided to make an equally cheerful savory tart, with tomatoes and grilled eggplants topped with goat’s cheese. It was accompanied by one of my favorite salads – Lebanese tabbouleh, to bring the spring back to our recession-ravaged lives.

By now I’ve learned how to navigate my sorry excuse for a kitchen and on that sunny March morning even the temperamental gas oven wasn’t a match for me. Tart crust is easy if you don’t panic, and is ready in a breeze. This tart calls for a pre-baked shell so you can make it ahead of time.

I used small Sicilian eggplants, which are extremely beautiful with their light purple and white stripes. I don’t salt the eggplants and don’t wait for 20 minutes when they don’t have many brown seeds – it’s a waste of time. The bitterness is in the seeds. The tomato sauce I use for pizza and spaghetti with meatballs, which I usually make in batches and freeze afterwards, made the whole operation faster. I wish I could have served it all with a crisp and fruity Portuguese Vinho Verde, but didn’t have time to get any that day.

Tomato tart with eggplants and goat’s cheese

For the tart crust see my cranberry tart recipe. Keep the remaining part of the dough in the freezer for future use. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Pierce the shell with a fork to keep the crust from rising. Place aluminum foil on top of the tart shell, weigh it down with dry beans or tart weights if you have some and bake for 15 minutes on racks positioned in the middle. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until the shell is golden brown. Take out and leave to cool.

Filling

  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • ¾ cups tomato sauce
  • 3 small Sicilian eggplants, cut in half lengthwise and then quartered – you should have eight strips (or 1 medium size Italian eggplant – cut in ¼ inch rounds)
  • 1/8 pound fresh goat’s cheese (or feta)
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • chopped parsley (or dill) for garnish
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat, add the eggplants in batches if they don’t fit in single layer and saute until soft and slightly brown. Transfer to a plate covered with a paper towel to soak up the extra oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss.

Spread the Dijon mustard over the bottom of the tart – it gives a nice sharp bite to the sweet tomato-and-eggplant filling. Spoon in the tomato sauce and spread it evenly. Arrange the eggplant strips in a fan (or if using rounds – starting from the outside lay them in overlapping circles). Crumble the cheese on top, sprinkle with more black pepper and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the cheese starts melting and the eggplants are warmed through. Serve warm with a salad and a nice crisp white wine. It will really make a difference to your mid week or light weekend lunch.

The eggs I love – Spanish tortilla with potatoes, ricotta and sausage

March 23rd, 2009

Until my early twenties I was a dedicated egg-phobe. Then I was suddenly converted, and though I still won’t touch an underdone egg, I love ingredient-loaded omelets. When I discovered Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the flour and corn tortillas of Central America), I fell in love from the first bite. This is the universal crowd-pleaser and my brunch or weekend dinner staple.

Thicker than the Italian frittata and usually containing my other favorites – potatoes – this Spanish omelet has as striking a flavor as its looks. It’s easier to make too, as you don’t have to fight to flip it over, but simply bake it in the oven. It can stoically take on whatever you throw at it, and no fridge push-around need be wasted again. The classic one with potatoes is great, but I’ve done it with zucchini, parsnip, feta cheese, Parmesan, bacon, various types of dried and fresh herbs, and combinations of the above. It’s a successes every time, and the only person who refuses to eat it is my daughter – the new egg-phobe in the family.

I finally have a cast-iron paella pan, perfect for tortillas too, which I put to heavy use. The recipe is enough for four as a weekday supper, or for eight as part of a weekend brunch with friends. If there are leftovers, they are very good the next day and make a great lunchbox item. I often wrap them in whole-wheat tortillas with Tabasco’s Chipotle sauce and fresh cilantro (coriander). I love to answer the what’s-for-lunch question – tortilla in tortilla.

For a vegetarian version skip the sausage.

Spanish tortilla with potatoes, sausage, ricotta and fresh herbs

serves 4

  • 6 – 8 large eggs – free range or organic
  • ½ cup fresh ricotta (or thick sour cream)
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled, cubed or sliced into thin rounds
  • ½ pound good quality sausage (I use Polish sausage with thyme and garlic and no preservatives added) – cubed the same size as the potatoes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup mixed chopped dill, mint and parsley (or cilantro)
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper, Spanish smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 375°F (200°C) – with racks positioned in the middle. In a heavy-bottomed oven-proofed frying pan (cast iron is best), melt the butter and olive oil over medium high heat. Saute the potatoes until slightly brown and tender – about 10 minutes. In the meantime beat eggs in a bowl to break the egg yolks. Add the ricotta and beat well – though some cheese lumps are OK. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, add the herbs and green onions and mix.

When the potatoes are ready, take them out of the pan with slotted spoon and stir into the egg-cheese mixture. Add sausage to the pan and fry for 5 minutes, until sightly brown. Add onion and garlic and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Pour over the egg-cheese-and-potatoes mixture, stir well, and let cook on medium low for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with smoked paprika and transfer the pan to the oven to bake for 10-15 minutes or until the top of the tortilla is set and slightly brown.

Serve warm with the pan (makes a great impression) with rustic bread and simple green salad. My son loves it with a few drops of Tabasco Chipotle sauce. I have it with extra Bulgarian cheese, feta style.

Goes great with a light, bubbly Portuguese Vinho Verde or Italian Prosseco for a more elegant experience.

A sandwich’s best friends

March 11th, 2009

Condiments are as essential for a good sandwich as good bread is, at least for me. I can’t stand a boring assembly and would rather spend half an hour sauteing and marinating ingredients than getting a quick fix of ham and cheese. To avoid dropping from hunger in the meantime, I always have a few essential condiments in the fridge to add zing to the experience. I make most of them myself, as I’m too picky and besides, it’s more fun and cheaper than buying ready made.

The two that for me are must-haves are sun dried tomatoes and caramelized red onions. I have serious competition for the first one – my daughter, who devours them straight from the jar. She also helps me make them and keeps track of the supplies, pushing the alarm button when we are left with only half a jar.

I use $3,99 500-gram packages of Turkish dry tomatoes without oil from a Lebanese store on Kedzie and Lawrence, which I marinate and keep in the pantry. It’s enough for three 12oz jars packed tight to the top. It’s much cheaper than buying them ready made and I can control the ingredients. I use them for pasta, salads, antipasti, grilled meats, dumpling stuffing – the possibilities are endless. Never throw the marinade away – it makes a great base for vinaigrettes or adding extra flavor to simple tomato soup or roasted potatoes.

The onions are my guilty pleasure – I can go though a jar in a single day, eating them with absolutely anything – including pancakes. I takes all my willpower to screw the top back on and put the jar aside. The recipe is very basic and anyone can make them.

Both condiments will make a delicious and sophisticated dish out of any boring sandwich, burger or cheese plate, if you care about impressing your guests or family. I simply like to indulge myself and anybody else brave enough to follow suit.

Marinated sun-dried tomatoes

  • 1 pound (500 gr) dry tomatoes (not in oil)
  • ¾ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 ½ cups olive oil – doesn’t have to be virgin or very expensive
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • leaves from a few sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3X12 oz jars, washed and dry

Fill a soup pot a third full with water and bring to boil. If the tomatoes are salty (like the Turkish ones I use) don’t add salt to the water, if not – add I tbsp salt. When boiling, add the tomatoes and bring back to boil for 2-3 minuets. This will soften the tomatoes. Meanwhile in a big mixing bowl combine the rest of the ingredients and whisk well. With a slotted spoon take out the tomatoes and place them into the bowl. Stir them around in the marinade to coat well. Leave for 5 minutes, turning occasionally. Spoon the tomatoes into the jars, dividing the remaining marinade among them. Add extra olive oil to cover the top and close tight. Keep in a cool place, and after opening in the fridge. Best after 2-3 days if you can restrain yourself.

Caramelized red onions

makes about 1 ½ cups or one 12 oz jar

  • 2 big or 4 medium red onions, peeled, cut in half and sliced – not too thin
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp Sherry vinegar (or balsamic red wine vinegar)
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over low heat. Saute the onions for 15-20 minutes or until soft, stirring occasionally. Add the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and cook for another 2-3 minutes or until caramelized. Spoon still warm into the jar and close tight. Keep in a cool place, and in the fridge after opening.


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