Friday, February 13, 2009

Of Climate and Change

I just went to Medicine Grand Rounds this week on the health effects of climate change. The upshot? Cows produce a lot of methane. (I know, I know. You thought this was a cooking blog! Just be patient.) Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases worsen global warming. Then, well, you know the rest: more tsunamis, more Katrinas, rising oceans, spread of tropical disease, etc.

The equation is simple: eat less meat, OR ELSE. (Michael Pollan would approve.) Veggies are best, fish is good, chicken is bad, red meat is worse. We must limit consumption of red meat, for the health of individuals (B's family has a history of heart disease) and of the environment and of future generations.

Today I offer a recipe in a vegetarian vein. (Technically, cheese also comes from cows and we should limit consumption of it as well, but this is a much more difficult step for me as I adore all forms of cheese, especially in this recipe.) Eggplant Parmesan is such an overdone dish that it took me years to try this recipe I ripped out of the Times Sunday Magazine. Eggplant Parm is on the menu of every second-rate Italian restaurant, and it's usually soggy and bland and cliched; it's something for the vegetarians in a group to order but does not promise anything other than the absence of meat. Notably, I have no great fondness for chicken parm either.

This eggplant Parm is different. It showcases each of the typical ingredients in a new way. And what an ingredient list! Eggplant and marinara and mozzarella and Parm and ricotta; truly, some of Italy's greatest hits. The dish is lively with acid and full of cheese (three types!) and as colorful as the Italian flag. You do have to start a little ahead of time with this one; I'm not usually one to release the bad humors from eggplant by salting and wiping, but this step ends up being crucial for the texture of the final rounds. Then give the rounds a quick dip in egg and panko, fry, and pop them into the oven with the cheese and sauce. Fresh basil leaves make a beautiful and tasty garnish.

It may not surprise you to learn that B asks for these "eggies" almost as frequently as he asks for enchies. Whether you make them as penance for a red meat meal the night before (a sort of carbon credit, I suppose) or whether you're already a committed vegetarian, enjoy!

Eggplant Parmesan
Adapted from The New York Times Magazine, April 2003

Serves: 4 as a main course or 6-8 as an appetizer
Time: 30 min active, 1 hour total

2 large Italian eggplants
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. dried oregano
2 eggs
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 c. olive oil
1 ball (about 1 pound) fresh mozzarella
1 cup fresh ricotta
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
fresh basil leaves, for garnish

For the marinara sauce:
1 T. olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 t. salt
1 t. dried oregano

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch rounds. Use a 2.5-3 inch round cookie cutter to cut out the center of each round, and discard the skin. Lay rounds out on a cutting board and sprinkle with salt. Let eggplants sweat for 30 minutes, then pat dry.

Meanwhile, make the marinara sauce. In a 1.5 quart saucepan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Add the tomatoes with the juice (carefully, as the oil can spatter), salt, and oregano, and simmer over medium-low heat for 20 minutes or until slightly reduced. Blend to desired consistency.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix flour and dried oregano, salt and pepper on a plate. Make egg wash by adding 1 tablespoon water to the eggs and beating with a fork in a small bowl. Spread bread crumbs on a separate plate. Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a skillet over medium heat until the surface ripples. Dust each eggplant rounds with the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Dip into the egg, drain off excess and then coat with the bread crumbs. Shake off excess crumbs and fry until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Drain on paper towels and repeat, using more oil as needed. Depending on the size of your frying pan, this will take 2 or 3 cycles.

Slice the mozzarella into 1/4 inch pieces. Top each eggplant round with mozzarella. Mix the ricotta and Parmesan. Spread a tablespoon or so of ricotta mixture on top of each round and then cover with a tablespoonful of the marinara sauce. Bake until the mozzarella melts and is slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil leaves.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lazy Sunday

Sunday mornings are one of my favorite times of the week. All that extra time to sleep in, and then to lounge in bed just a little bit longer to read "Sunday Styles," and then to get up and lazily make something for breakfast at a time that would normally count as brunch but can safely still be called breakfast because it's on the weekend. Because of my limited days off and crazy February inpatient schedule, this is the first and last lazy Sunday morning of the month for me!

I had to make it count. I was pretty hungry by the time I made it to the kitchen, so I had to think of something quick but still delicious. I rejected scones because I make them all the time (though JB told me she was going to send along a recipe for a yummy raspberry version later today). No time for anything yeasted. What about some sort of vehicle for syrup? Hmm...not enough slightly-stale bread around for French toast. Waffles could be a possibility. Then, the aha! moment: time for pancakes, of the whole wheat variety.

It's not really fair to pigeonhole these pancakes in the syrup-vehicle category (though, really, who except B doesn't love maple syrup?) when they are so much more than that! The whole wheat flour adds texture and color. Plus, they're quick. A simple batter takes only five minutes to measure out and whisk up.

(B thinks this picture is unappealing, but I think it is very representative and thus worth including.) Then, a few more minutes on the stove, with plenty of butter in the frying pan, to ensure slightly crispy edges. (Aside: I love my Scanpan an irrational amount.)

Sometimes at this point, when they look so convincingly done, I think of that scene in one of the Ramona Quimby books when her parents are fighting, and her family isn't doing well economically, and for some reason they have pancakes for dinner one night. Ramona's really excited because pancakes for dinner sounds so exotic, but then her dad tells her mom that they're not done, and her mom says they are, and then her dad slices one open with the spatula and batter oozes out, because he was right and they really aren't done. Her mom storms off, and Ramona's almost as sad as the time when she had to use all the toothpaste that she squeezed out into the sink. Never fear, though, these are rather thin silver-dollar pancakes, and they are always done when they look done! Also, don't worry about Ramona and her parents; it all ends up working out by the end of the book (I can't quite remember--it may even be by the end of the chapter; would that all our current economic woes were to resolve so handily).

While the pancakes are frying, slice up some berries and lightly sugar them. Serve the pancakes with plenty of maple syrup on the side. Enjoy!

Whole Wheat Pancakes
Serves: 2 (if one of them is a big eater like B); makes about 25 silver-dollar pancakes
Time: 20 min active and total

1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra butter to grease frying pan
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Place all ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and whisk until dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Heat a large frying pan or griddle over medium heat. When hot, grease pan with an extra 1/2 T. of butter. Pour a generous tablespoon of batter into the pan to make each pancake. Cook for approximately 2 minutes, or until bubbles appear on the top and the bottom is browned around the edges, then flip and cook for 2 more minutes. Repeat with remaining batter, making sure to grease the pan each time.

P.S. A post titled "Lazy Sunday" wouldn't be complete without a link to this. Or, for you West-Coasters, this.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fit for a King

Once upon a time--way back in the early 70s--there was a woman named A. (I don't actually know her name, so I picked the first letter of the alphabet.) She was in her twenties, and worked as a secretary in a busy research lab. She had a sad expression on her face a lot of the time. No one who worked with her knew why she was so very sad, but they suspected that her sadness was deep-seated and profound.

One day, my mom (who happened to be a lab technician in this same busy research lab back in the early 70s) asked A why she was so sad. Without much hemming and hawing, the story came out. It turned out that A had recently gotten divorced, which explained the sadness. And not just divorced at a young age, but divorced from the scion of the King Ranch in Texas. Unfortunately, she was now essentially penniless, having to work as a secretary to make ends meet.

"But," A said to my mom, "I do have a great recipe for enchiladas that they used to make at the King Ranch.

"It's literally the only thing of value I ended up with from the relationship."

The question, of course, remains whether this recipe was valuable enough. Not personally knowing A, but having personally consumed a lot of these delicious chicken enchiladas in my lifetime, I have to say her nasty, brutish, and short marriage was worth it! (Especially since A eventually realized her dream of going to law school, and remarried, and had several children.)

The enchiladas are like no enchilada you've had before. The filling is creamy, the cheese topping slightly crunchy, and the flavor piquant. They take a while to make, but they are definitely worth it. The recipe is easy to double, just by putting everything into a 9x13 in pan instead. Also, they freeze pretty well, or you can make them 24 hours ahead of time just up to the point where you pop them into the oven, and then refrigerate them to bake later. A few other cook's notes: when you boil the chicken breast, add some garlic, tomato, carrot, and onion to the water, and then you'll have some good chicken stock around for other recipes. Also, I substitute a whole red bell pepper if I don't have pimientos around, and saute that with the onions. I frequently serve the enchiladas with black beans.

My med school friends used to clamor for the "enchies," and now B does on a regular basis. I have given out the recipe to a lot of people (one of whom rather excessively doubled the cream cheese!), but I feel the obligation to tell even more of you through this blog, sort of like the internet gospel of that $250 Neiman Marcus cookie recipe. Feel free to disseminate further, and enjoy.

King Ranch Chicken Enchiladas
Serves: 2-3 people
Time: 30 min active, 2 hours total

1 large chicken breast (whole), boiled until tender, cooled, and diced
1/4 pound low-fat (not non-fat) cream cheese, softened
1 large onion, sauteed in 1 tablespoon olive oil until softened
2 tablespoons pimientos
1/2 teaspoon salt

6-7 corn tortillas, each softened in hot oil (cool on a plate before handling)
1 1/2-2 cups extra sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 can Herdez salsa casera or other salsa
1/4 cup milk or cream

Mix filling ingredients together; set aside. Add approximately 1/4 cup to center of each tortilla. Bring sides over so that they overlap and place seam side down in a lightly-greased 9x9 inch pan. Repeat for remaining filling. Top each with salsa and cheese; pour milk or cream over. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in preheated 350 oven for 15-20 minutes. Uncover and bake until bubbly, approximately 15 minutes longer.

P.S. Sorry there are no pictures! I made these the other night right up to the popping in the oven, so that B could bake them for dinner while I was stuck in the hospital overnight on call. The enchies were already decimated by the time I got to them the next day. Next time I make them I promise I'll take a pic and post it.

P.P.S. More milk and meat mixed together. Sorry, JB.

Monday, February 2, 2009


B was away again this weekend, of course with his cycling team. Which, as I've discussed before, always makes me a little bit sad and lonely. This time, I didn't even appreciate the chance to sleep diagonally because I didn't sleep well at all. I think I was nervous about coming back to inpatient medicine and being on call after a really lovely vacation in Costa Rica. Here's B's favorite orchid that we saw in the cloud forest at Monteverde:

The hot springs at Tabacon are pretty amazing too, though the top of the Arenal volcano was continually enshrouded with clouds while we were there. Imagine 102 degree water and warm mist and many other pools and rivers to explore nearby when you look at the picture below.

I don't have any fun pictures of Playa Ocotal on the Pacific coast, but that was great too. We went diving one day and saw eagle rays and baby sharks and sososo many pufferfish. We loved the flying devil rays we saw from the boat too!

This is really supposed to be a blog about cooking, so I guess I should mention the meal we ate approximately once a day: casado with batido. Casado, as you Spanish linguists may know, literally means "married," but in Costa Rica also refers to a typical plate of rice, beans, usually chicken, fried plantain or banana, and salad; a perfectly filling and well-rounded lunch! Batido is a thin milkshake made with fresh fruit, and particularly delicious when made with blackberry (mora). Sometime soon I'm planning a Latin-inspired feast, and fried plantains (patacones) will definitely be making an appearance.

Anyway, we got back from our trip and B went away for a few more days to ride his bike while I got to contemplate the end of vacation. Which left me the aforementioned slightly sad, lonely, and nervous. I was, however, excited about the chance to make spaghetti carbonara while mi casado was gone. B, after all, doesn't really like pork. Or, more accurately, doesn't like identifiable pork, which means he'll eat it when chopped up into little bits (imperial rolls) or when heavily sauced (pulled pork sandwiches), but doesn't like pork chops or Italian bacon or pork tenderloin. And he definitely wouldn't like the recent-craze-inspiring bacon explosion. But I count myself lucky, as the list of foods that B didn't like when we met has shrunk significantly. (Some of these deficiencies were easy to correct. I mean, who doesn't like avocados? He clearly hadn't really tried them.)

I wouldn't call myself a true pork afficionado. I don't scout out the best San Francisco salumi like our friend D, though I admit that I have sent bacon as a gift more than once. And I do really like the little crunchy bits of pancetta involved in spaghetti carbonara. I also like the brightness of the parsley and the richness of the egg yolk and the creaminess of the, well, cream. Not a dish for the kosher among us; JB points out that you can't really avoid the milk/meat mixing. However, this is a great weeknight dish and heats up well as leftovers. Serve with a quick salad of Mesclun greens with lemon-olive oil-thyme dressing and you're all set for dinner! Assuming, of course, that YOUR casado likes pork.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Adapted from Pasta Fresca

Serves: 2 with leftovers
Time: 20 min active, 30 min total

1/4 pound pancetta, thinly sliced; then diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1 T. olive oil
2 egg yolks
3 T. cream
1 c. grated Parmesan (about 3 oz.)
1/4 c. Italian parsley, finely chopped
3/4 pound spaghetti, such as De Cecco

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until ripples form. Add the pancetta, garlic, and red pepper flakes and saute until pancetta is rendered and crispy, keeping in mind that the pancetta will continue to cook in the hot oil for a minute or two after the heat is turned off.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in salted boiling water until al dente. Mix together the yolks, cream, and 3/4 c. Parmesan in a small bowl. You can mix the pasta, the egg mixture, and the parsley with the pancetta in the large saucepan. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 c. Parmesan and serve with even more.