For those who love to cook, there is possibly no outing quite as enjoyable as a trip to the farmers’ market. Getting to see what’s at its peak and speak with the people who grew it feels like a privilege in comparison to shopping at the grocery store.
I like to go without a plan, grab whatever looks best and then spend my walk home daydreaming about what I can make. While I have a terrible memory when it comes to things like names, my brain has a crystal clear index of every recipe I’ve ever read, most of the ingredients within it and where I can find it. It also catalogs all food images from places like Instagram and food magazines.
This week, when I scored the most beautiful, deeply purple eggplants with taut, shiny skin and cherry tomatoes so sweet I could have popped an entire pint as if they were berries, I was reminded of a picture I’d seen on Canal House’s Instagram feed.
These days, I prefer to cook from pictures rather than recipes. The former allows for creativity and spontaneity, while the latter is time consuming (re-referring to the written word) and/or disappointing (I usually know how to produce the flavors I prefer). As the famous Italian chef Lidia Bastianich said in a recent interview, “Release yourself from the recipe!”
So, with that in mind, I hit my kitchen to make a braised eggplant dish sweet with cherry tomatoes, rich with olive oil, and spicy with garlic and red pepper flakes. Chris and I sat down to dinner with the dutch oven between us, a fresh ball of burrata cheese, sliced crosswise and drizzled with our best Italian extra virgin olive oil, and pan-fried and garlic-rubbed peasant bread to serve as a bed for it all. I also made a shaved fennel and arugula salad showered with plenty of lemon juice and more olive oil because I always like to have something bright to cut through something so rich.
This is the rustic fair that dreams are made of.
EGGPLANT BRAISED WITH CHERRY TOMATOES AND GARLIC
2 small to medium eggplant
4 cloved garlic, thinly sliced
¼ tsp red chile flakes
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 pints cherry tomatoes, left whole
Several handfuls of basil, torn
1 ball burrata or a couple of balls of fresh mozzarella (optional)
Grilled or pan-fried and bread rubbed with garlic (peasant loaf, ciabatta, or any other bread you like)
Salt and pepper
Prep the eggplant: Peel long strips down the eggplant from stem to end, leaving them with a zebra print. Next, make a partial slit lengthwise down the center of the eggplant but try not to cut all the way through. This is just so the flavorful broth has an easier time penetrating the eggplant. Season them lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper, massaging them into the eggplant a bit.
Preheat a braising pot over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot, pan fry the eggplants, turning them every two minutes until they are well-browned on all sides. Remove them to a plate.
Add remaining two tablespoons olive oil and add 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes. Once garlic is very lightly golden, add in the 2 pint whole cherry tomatoes, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and stir to combine. Place top on braising pot and let it do its thing over medium-low heat.
After about 20 minutes, most of the cherry tomatoes will have popped open, producing a juicy liquid. Taste it and correct seasoning with more salt if necessary. Carefully add the eggplant into the juicy tomatoes, slit side up and ladle a little of the braising liquid inside the eggplant. Add a sprig of basil, pushing it into the liquid, cover and continue to braise for 20 minutes. At this point, the eggplant will be meltingly tender and flavorful.
To serve, remove the sprig of basil and add a fresh shower of leaves over the braise. Present the whole pot on the table with several spoons to dig in, grilled garlic-rubbed bread and burrata or sliced fresh mozzarella. Enjoy!
Serves 4 (Any leftovers can be smashed into a delicious pasta sauce for later in the week!)
I haven’t always loved quinoa. Too many dishes I’ve tried featuring it are a little mushy, a little bland, just generally not worth eating. Why does everyone else go crazy for it? The only answer, I’ve deduced, is quinoa’s strong health halo. It’s as if people don’t necessarily care if it tastes good because they’re more concentrated on the fact it’s good for them.
To each his own but I’m not one of those people. There is not a food in the world I would eat just because its healthy. Why when there are so many delicious alternatives? However, after being forced to get to know the grain (or, to be more accurate, the seed) by city clients, Copper Beech customers, friends, basically the rest of the world, I’m a convert.
My conversion was gradual. It began by applying a little common culinary sense and culminated soon after I hired Charlotte.
Cooking directions on most boxes of quinoa reads as follows: “Place 1 cup (whatever brand) quinoa and 2 cups water in a 1 ½ quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.” These instructions yields wet, overcooked quinoa, with zero texture and little flavor. If the dishes I’ve tried while dining out are any indication, the majority of people follow these instructions.
If I wanted it to be less wet, why not add less water to begin with? Overtime I reduced my quinoa:water ratio to 1:1.5 and obviously, obviously, added a big pinch of salt. (Why wouldn’t boxed directions mention that?!)
I found I liked it even more and had more control if I left the top off the pot entirely while the quinoa simmered away. I could easily adjust the heat to speed things up or slow things down. If necessary, I could drain the quinoa as soon as I saw the germ ring along the outside of the grain or add a few tablespoons of water if it all evaporated before the quinoa was ready. To ensure the quinoa remained as fluffable (that’s not a word, but it should be) as possible, I’d then place a clean kitchen towel over the saucepot and top it with a lid. This allowed the quinoa to steam for a few minutes while the towel absorbed excess liquid. The resulting quinoa was fluffy and flavorful, if not a little clumpy.
That’s when Charlotte sealed the deal. While “training” her during her first week with What We Eat back in January, I assigned her the task of a quinoa salad. I watched with one eye as she first rinsed the quinoa, then added it to a saucepan. Of course, I jumped in to explain how “we cook quinoa” (I’m so obnoxious) explaining to her that rinsing it first was unnecessary. Being the sweet person she is, she accepted this without question and continued as instructed.
But guess what? Char’s rinsed quinoa prepared with our previously adaptions was perfect. Fluffy, flavorful, with just the right amount of pop and not at all clumpy. Not above admitting my faults, I quickly accepted this initial rinse and have never looked back.
Now I happily prepare countless quinoa dishes without feeling like my clients (or I) are trading pleasure for health. So, if like me you’ve been anti-quinoa, try this method and experiment with a few of our favorite add-in variations below. Who knows? Maybe you can learn to love quinoa too.
How What We Eat Cooks Quinoa
Scale as necessary and assume 1 cup quinoa feeds about 2-4 people.
1 cup quinoa
1.5 cups water
Pinch of salt
First, rinse quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer, moving the grains around a little bit with your hands to make sure you are removing any excess starch. Next, transfer quinoa to a pot so it comes up to no less than 1.5 inches in depth and no more than say 3.5 inches. The latter will only happen if you are making a large batch. If you use a pot that’s too big, the water will evaporate before the quinoa has time to cook. If you use a pot that’s too small, the quinoa at the bottom will overcook by the time the quinoa at the top sprouts.
Next, add in water so that its a 1:1.5 ratio of quinoa to water and a generous pinch of salt (more with more quinoa). Put on the stovetop over high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer. No need to stir it at all during this entire process. Let the quinoa do its thing for about 5 minutes then after that, begin to watch it more closely. Can you see the quinoa begin to “sprout” little curly cues? If so and there is a good amount of water left, turn up the heat so it evaporates more quickly. Does the quinoa still look exactly the same as when you started it while a good amount of water has already evaporated? Turn down the heat to slow things down. Ideally, the water will be absorbed/evaporated at the exact time the quinoa is done. If there is water left but the majority of curly cues are showing, drain it in the fine mesh strainer and return it to the pot. If it needs more time, water, add water by the tablespoon full until its done. It’s generally done anywhere between 10-18 minutes (longer times are more common with black and red quinoa).
When you are nearly happy with what you see–the quinoa will be showing a good amount of curly cues but not look water logged and all water is evaporated–place a clean kitchen cloth over the pot and top it with the pot top. Again, do not stir it. Allow to rest and steam for 5 minutes. After that, remove the top and cloth and fluff gently with a fork. It’s ready!
There are certain “gateway salads” we’ll prepare when feeding self-proclaimed veggie-haters. I stubbornly refuse to believe that anyone could honestly dislike vegetables. The real issue simply has to be that they haven’t had one of our vegetable dishes yet. Given enough time, we can flip just about anyone.
Our bag of tricks is large and includes:
There is perhaps no better gateway salad that employs these tricks than panzanella. Traditionally, panzanella is made with day-old bread tossed with and rehydrated by perfectly ripe summer tomatoes, vinegar and plenty of olive oil. We love this version but it’s only the tip of the bread salad iceberg.
While the bread-tomato mix is perfection, almost all other seasonal vegetables cozy up well to torn bread. In the spring, one of our favorite versions includes blanched market peas, haricots verts and sugar snaps. In the fall and winter, you can’t beat a bread salad that’s equal parts roasted mushrooms or delicata squash. And this time of year, roasted or grilled bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant and/or onions are all good alternatives.
And yes, stale bread sops of vinaigrettes and vegetable juices like a sponge, but do you know what else it sops up? The drippings leftover from perfectly roasted chicken!
Our best-selling salad at Copper Beech is our roasted chicken panzanella. While resting our just-roasted chicken on a cutting board, we toss torn day-old bread with the juices left at the bottom of the sheet-pan plus a little olive oil if necessary, salt and freshly cracked pepper. That gets popped back into the oven until the bread is crisp and brown on the outside but still a little chewy and wet in the center. The warm croutons are then tossed with pulled chicken, plenty of herbs like fresh basil, parsley or mint, and then whatever combination of market vegetables we have on hand. No matter how much we make, it sells out.
Consider making this salad for the next veggie-averse person in your life. Is it still considered a salad if its half chicken-dripping-logged bread and roasted chicken? Our answer is a confident and stubborn, “Yes!” It’s a gateway to the wonderful world of veggies after all.
With love always, Laura
Roasted Chicken Panzanella
1 4-5 lb organic chicken
kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
4-6 cups pieces torn bite-size bread (French bread, ciabatta or peasant bread all work well)
2 garlic cloves
6 cups vegetables of choice (halved cherry tomatoes and/or chopped cucumber and/or cooked vegetables like roasted mushrooms or grilled zucchini, etc. — the skies the limit!)
1 cup torn fresh herbs (basil, mint, and/or parsley are all delicious)
Zest of 1 lemon
A few handfuls greens (optional)
A generous shower of cheese like torn fresh mozzarella, crumbled goat cheese or shaved parm (optional)
Vinaigrette (whisk together the juice of 1 lemon, a spoonful of dijon mustard, 1/3-1/2 cup olive oil depending on your taste, salt and pepper to taste)
Roast the chicken: Preheat oven to 425 degrees and remove chicken from fridge to come to room temp for 45 minutes. Place chicken on a sheet tray, breast-side up, dry thoroughly and season generously all over with a five-finger pinch of kosher salt (about 1 tbsp) and a few grinds of freshly cracked pepper. Drizzle generously with olive oil and roast for about 50 minutes until chicken is golden and a thermometer pricked into the breast reads 160 degrees. Remove from oven and transfer chicken to a cutting board being sure to drain any juices in the cavity back onto the sheet pan. (Feel free to gussy up the raw bird more if you’d like with compound butter, fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme, etc. but this will yield a simple but delicious roasted chicken.)
Prepare the croutons: After moving the chicken to a cutting board, toss the torn bread and garlic in with the chicken drippings. Make sure every bit of bread has been swiped through the liquid gold. Add a glug of olive oil if it seems at all dry. Season lightly with a pinch or two of kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper and return the sheet pan to the oven. Toast for about 10 minutes, tossing halfway through, until bread is golden brown, crisp in some places and still a little soft and wet in others. Remove from oven to cool.
Finish the salad: First, pull chicken in large pieces off the cooled bird. Save any juices that have accumulated under the cooled chicken. Next, toss the pulled chicken, just-warm croutons and remaining ingredients in a large shallow bowl. Add in the reserved chicken juices if there are any. Next, add in vinaigrette to taste. Toss well so all ingredients are coated. Taste and adjust again with salt and pepper if necessary.
I can’t think of a single smoky-flavored food I don’t love. Smoked salmon and trout, all manner of BBQ, bacon…but living in Brooklyn with outdoor cooking prohibited and a sensitive fire alarm makes achieving that flavor with fire nearly impossible. Enter: smoked paprika.
I first added this spice into my culinary repertoire about five years ago when making David Tanis’ Pimenton Roast Chicken with Crispy Potatoes. To be honest, before this recipe I shied away from most dishes with paprika. I’m not sure why exactly. Probably because the only paprika I tasted growing up was a generic supermarket brand that had been sitting in the back of my parents’ spice drawer for years. I thought paprika was a spice that added a red hue but not much else to a dish. Boy, was I wrong.
Tanis’ crisp-skinned roast chicken had a depth of flavor I didn’t know was possible without open-fire cooking. It was garlicky, a little bit spicy and with a deep smoky aroma. With the success of this recipe, smoked paprika quickly inherited valuable real estate in my spice rack.
This spice is made most often in Spain where ripe red chile peppers are dried slowly over smoldering oak for up to two weeks before being ground into the powder we find on market shelves. Other aliases include pimenton, smoked pimenton, and Spanish paprika. The second you take a whiff, you’ll know you have the right spice. You can also find it at varying levels of heat, from sweet (dulce) to spicy (picante). I like all of them so that’s just a matter of personal preference.
Below are several favorite ways to use smoked paprika in cooking. This is a spice you can be quite heavy handed with, so don’t be shy. Give one or two of them a try and I promise you’ll be hooked.
On vegetables – sprinkle over roasted or grilled corn, cauliflower, sweet potatoes,
In vinaigrettes – add a pinch or two to a mix 50/50 mix of lime/olive oil (add a touch of honey or agave too, and of course salt and pepper to taste)
On proteins – sprinkle over fried eggs, season a mild white fish like halibut with it for fish tacos (use cumin too), use it on any poultry, or even use it as your secret ingredient in burgers
On pepitas – when toasted pumpkin seeds on the stovetop, add a little olive oil, salt, and smoked paprika for the last few minutes of toasting
On legumes – fry chickpeas in olive oil on the stovetop for about 10-15 minutes until crispy, adding a generous pinch of smoked paprika for the last few minutes and then finishing the whole thing with a squeeze of lime juice
With love always, Laura