Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.
For a first timer, the prospect of cooking an eggplant may be intimidating. The shiny purple skin looks tough. It is a big vegetable with a reputation for turning out oily and bitter. You might even come across eggplants that are long and skinny or round and white. The point to remember, however, is that this is one tasty vegetable that's worth the effort.
If you are fortunate enough to find one of the more unusual varieties, often referred to as Thai, Asian or Italian, consider these "recipe ready." Enjoy them roasted or grilled, in stir-frys, or simply seasoned as a side dish.
The more commonly available globe eggplant is different. This is the large, shiny purple vegetable with which you are probably familiar. Unless the globe eggplant is just harvested, say, from your own back yard, it tastes best when given the extra preparation step known as salting. Slices or cubes are tossed with salt and then allowed to stand at room temperature while the salt draws water and bitterness from the flesh. This prevents the eggplant from absorbing enormous amounts of oil as it is cooked and allows the fresh flavor to shine through.
The following recipe is as versatile as it is tasty. Serve it the first time as a side dish on its own or over steamed spaghetti squash. Use the leftovers for a zesty pasta sauce adding a bit of crushed red pepper and a healthy grating of Parmesan cheese over top. You might also enjoy it as a pizza topping or on toasted French bread as an easy appetizer. Hence the name, you can always use up the extra.
You may be tempted to skip the salting step but it is necessary to remove bitterness and prevent the eggplant from soaking up all the oil. We tested it both ways and the salting made for a far superior sauce.
1 medium purple eggplant, peeled if desired and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup chopped red and green bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
4-5 Roma tomatoes, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
small handful of fresh basil torn into small bits
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving, if desired
Place the eggplant cubes in a large colander in the sink. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt; toss well and repeat with the remaining teaspoon of salt. Allow the salted eggplant to sit for at least one hour, two is better. After the hour or so, transfer the cubes to a double thickness of paper towels and blot the top dry with another paper towel.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the drained eggplant and sauté until it softens, about five minutes. Stir in the onion and bell pepper; continue cooking and stirring until the onion is wilted, another five minutes. Add the garlic, cook one minute more. Stir in tomatoes along with half of the oregano and a bit of pepper. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook until tomatoes have "melted," about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining oregano and the basil. Taste; season with salt and more pepper, if desired.
Serve warm or at room temperature as a side dish garnished with a drizzle of olive oil.
Makes about 4 cups.
Festive and Fun
For those times when you want to prepare a special occasion meal or just dress up an ordinary meal, consider Twice Baked Potatoes for your side dish. They are attractive on the plate and easy on the cook.
The name says it all because baked potatoes are hollowed out and mixed with other tasty morsels before stuffing it all back into the shell and baking again. The beauty of this extraordinary dish is that it can all be assembled ahead of time. The second baking is done at the last minute with no fuss while you prepare the rest of the meal.
The recipe below makes just two servings but the method is easily adapted to serve a crowd as well. The hardest part is hollowing out the hot potato. Avoid burns by holding it in the palm of your hand with a potholder. Take small scoops of the pulp to keep from tearing the edges or making holes in the shell.
Twice Baked Potatoes
2 large baking potatoes
3 green onions, sliced 1-inch into the green part
3 Tablespoons softened butter
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
1 Tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Scrub the potatoes and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for an hour, or until cooked through. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Slice off the top of each potato. Use a small spoon to carefully scoop out the pulp of each one leaving a shell of skin.
Place the pulp into a small bowl and mix with the green onions, butter, all but 1 Tablespoon of the cheese, the bacon and the salt and pepper. Stuff this mixture back into the potato skin shells, mounding slightly. Top with remaining cheese. (You can prepare these to this point up to a day ahead. Just store them in the refrigerator and bake a bit longer to make sure they are hot throughout.)
With oven still at 400 degrees, bake the potatoes again for 15 minutes. Serve hot.
Makes 2 servings.
Tasty and Trendy
This recipe for Sesame Green Beans creates a chic vegetable side dish that couldn't be easier to prepare. The combination of black and white sesame seeds with a backdrop of emerald greens beans is visually stunning on the plate and outstanding on the palate.
Black sesame seeds are a hot item in professional kitchens just now. You will find them on menus all over the world in everything from appetizers to dessert. Compared to white sesame the black seeds have a deeper, nuttier flavor. It is that color that makes them truly special, however.
If you can't get your hands on black sesame seeds, this recipe could be prepared with all white seeds. Just don't skip the sesame oil, that's what makes these beans so tasty.
Sesame Green Beans
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
1 scant teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil (with chiles, if desired)
Place the beans in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat enough to maintain a strong simmer and cook the beans to your preferred degree of tenderness, anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the white and black sesame seeds with the salt and pepper in a small bowl.
After the beans are cooked, drain them and transfer to a serving bowl. Drizzle with the sesame oil and sprinkle with the sesame seed mixture. Toss well. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
When a dish is spicy hot or the temperature is on the rise this refreshing cucumber sauce is the perfect answer to cooling things down. You may be familiar with raita as a condiment to curry but it also makes an outstanding garnish for grilled fish or sliced tomatoes.
I came up with the recipe below to serve as a condiment for my favorite curried veggie burger but it would be good on turkey burgers and other sandwiches as well.
Use the ultra thick Greek yogurt if you are up for the splurge in cost and calories.
1 medium cucumber
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (4 ounces) plain yogurt
1 Tablespoon snipped fresh dill weed (or 1 teaspoon dried)
zest of a small lemon, minced
additional salt and pepper to taste
Peel the cucumber and use a spoon to remove the seeds; shred it into a colander. Toss with the salt and allow to drain for about 15 minutes. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Transfer to a small bowl; stir in remaining ingredients.
Makes about 1 cup.
Gazpacho on a Plate
Here's a fun twist on the chopped salad. The traditional ingredients that go into the cold gazpacho soup are diced and dressed with more of those tangy flavors. Heaped onto a lettuce-lined plate this salad is easier to serve than bowls of soup. Not to mention, it's gorgeous!
For an even more impressive presentation, as well as a heartier salad, prepare individual servings by arranging a portion of this salad over peeled avocado halves on lettuce lined salad plates.
Dice each of the following uniformly small:
1 small bunch green onions, with most of green parts
3 roma tomatoes, cored (or 2 small tomatoes)
2 ribs celery
1 large carrot, peeled
1 cucumber, peeled (seeded, if desired)
1 green bell pepper, cored
For the dressing:
1/4 cup tomato juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried basil (or 2 teaspoons fresh)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
4 dashes hot pepper sauce, optional
6 large lettuce leaves
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Toss the cut vegetables together in a large bowl.
Combine the dressing ingredients in a small jar with a lid; shake well. Pour dressing over vegetables; toss well. Chill.
To serve, line a platter with the lettuce leaves. Heap salad onto the lettuce leaves and sprinkle with parsley.
Makes 4-6 servings.
More Than One Way to Skin an Avocado
The pebbly texture of a ripe avocado beckons us to get inside for all that silky flesh but what's the best way to do that? Here we offer a step-by-step method for turning an entire avocado into slices and cubes or even a serving vessel that is perfect for your favorite salad filling.
Step One: Remove the little nubbin of stem that is usually still attached to the top of an avocado. Throw it away so that it doesn't end up in your final dish, giving someone an unpleasant surprise crunch.
Step Two: Push a sharp knife through the avocado from the top (where that unsavory nubbin was) until you feel the pressure of the pit. Angle the knife down and through the avocado working around the pit until you meet up with the cut on the other side.
Step Three: Put down the knife and twist the two avocado halves in opposite directions to pull it apart. To remove the pit, softly tap the sharp blade of the knife into it and twist. Using a paper towel or piece of plastic for traction, cover the pit on the knife and carefully pull to dislodge it.
Now you have several options for how to use the avocado.
For guacamole and other recipes where the flesh will be mashed, simply scoop it out with a spoon. In the recipe below you want to run a large spoon along the shell all the way around and remove the flesh in one piece.
If you would like to end up with slices of avocado for a sandwich or some other application, cut each of the halves in half again. Run the tip of your knife through the flesh but not through the shell from end to end three or four times, depending on how thick you want the slices to be. Starting at the more pointed end, peel the shell back from the flesh to dislodge the slices. If this doesn't work for you, (maybe because the shell breaks or is really sticking to the flesh) run a butter knife between the skin and flesh to release the slices.
For cubes of avocado, follow the steps above but make a second series of cuts in the opposite direction. Turn the shell "inside out" and pluck off the cubes or use a butter knife to dislodge them.
A few more tips: A ripe avocado yields to gentle pressure when pressed with a fingertip but isn't mushy. If you want to buy one ahead of time, choose one that is hard and allow it to ripen on your countertop.
Should you only want to use half of an avocado, leave the pit intact and cover the extra half with plastic wrap so that the cut surface is touching the wrap before storing in the refrigerator. This will keep the flesh from turning dark.
Do the same with guacamole, press the plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent it from discoloring.
This color change is due to oxidation from exposure to air. It does not affect the taste but to avoid any unsightly problems, cut avocados or make guacamole just prior to serving.
Stuffed Avocado Salad
This is an elegant yet easy brunch dish that adapts to any whim. Stuff the avocado with tuna or shrimp salad instead of chicken. Consider other garnishes like grapes, radishes or freshly snipped chives. The croissants could always be a fan of crispy crackers or a pair of crossed breadsticks.
6 cups mixed salad greens, cleaned, washed and torn into pieces
2 ripe avocados, halved and pitted
2 cups chicken salad
8 tomato wedges
1/2 cup sprouts
16 thinly sliced rings red onion
4 warmed croissants, if desired
Divide the salad greens between four chilled plates. Using a large spoon, carefully remove the flesh from the avocado in one piece. Place each half, with the pitted side up, in the center of the greens on the plate. Fill each cavity with chicken salad, allowing it to spill over the sides as necessary. Arrange 2 tomato wedges, 2 Tablespoons of the alfalfa sprouts and 4 red onion slices decoratively around each of the avocados. Add a croissant to each plate, if using. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Fun with Food: Sprouting Seeds
If you have ever planted the seeds of an herb or vegetable you know how long it takes to reap what you sow. It is fun to watch your plants grow, however, and eating something that you have taken an active role in producing is well worth the wait. Suppose you could go through the entire process in five days. That's the beauty of spouting seeds!
Sprouts are wholesome and flavorful. They add texture to everyday foods. Depending on the type you might find a peppery bite or the crunch of a vegetable.
If, like me, you have tried to sprout seeds at home with marginal results in the past, take a look at the latest in tray sprouters before you dismiss the idea altogether. The stackable kit that I ordered is easy to use; it keeps the kitchen counter tidy while the sprouts grow and then collapses into a small unit for storage. Other available kits are more elaborate or larger and priced accordingly.
The process itself is basic although you must be faithful to the project or the sprouts will dry out. An initial overnight soak of the seeds is followed by several days of rinsing them two or three times. It is fun to watch them transform and the rinsing gets easier as they grow. Deciding when the sprouts are finished is a matter of taste. When I sprouted alfalfa they were bitter on the fourth day and perfect on the fifth.
Alfalfa is perhaps the most popular sprout, and the seed that came with my kit, but a wide variety of sprouting seeds are available. Beyond grassy types like alfalfa and wheat you will find beans such as garbanzo, adzuki and lentil, plus veggies like radish, onion and broccoli.
Once you have a delectable package of home-grown spouts in your vegetable bin you will find a million ways to use them. My personal favorite use for alfalfa sprouts is to toss them into scrambled eggs along with bits of cream cheese and tomatoes. Or stuff them into pita bread along with some of my Basic Chicken Salad.
More About Spinach
Last week we talked about cleaning and storing fresh spinach (see below). This week, let's use it in a recipe. This Double Bean Spinach Stew is a tasty vegetarian dish that's a snap to prepare.
It is also a recipe that allows for easy dabbling. Add a bit of sausage or bacon if you are feeling carnivorous. Use kidney beans and white beans instead of the black and reds. Even the spinach is dispensable if you want to substitute kale or chard or mustard greens. Frozen greens will work, too.
The pickled jalapenos really do make the dish, however, so add more or don't use as many but do put them in.
Another important note is to chop up the spinach leaves. I have tried just tossing them in whole with poor results. You end up with globs of greens that don't cook evenly or mesh with the other ingredients.
The stew is a meal on its own but I like to enjoy it with Sage and Sausage Corn Muffins or, for variety, over a mound of brown rice.
Double Bean Spinach Stew
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 fat clove garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
2 Tablespoons chopped pickled jalapenos
1 can black beans, undrained
1 can small red beans, undrained
1 bunch spinach, washed well and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt or more, to taste
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion; cook, stirring often, until translucent and just beginning to brown, about eight minutes. Stir in the garlic, cumin and the jalapenos. Cook and stir for a minute or so. Stir in the cans of beans with the liquid. Reduce the heat to medium and add the spinach. Cover the skillet and allow the spinach to steam. Stir every couple of minutes, cooking until the spinach is well wilted into the stew, about 10 minutes. Taste for salt and season according to your taste.
Makes four servings.
Mom was Right: Eat Your Spinach
Fresh spinach leaves are available to us year around these days. Bags of pre-washed baby spinach may be convenient but they are sometimes expensive and lack the crispness you will find in the big bunches that are nestled among the lettuces and other greens in the produce bin. Give the real thing another try and I'll bet you won't go back to the bags.
Choose bundles of spinach that appear the freshest, no wilting leaves or obvious bruising. Once you get them home, fill the sink quite full with cold water and drop in the whole bunch. Swish it around a bit and then set to "picking." This entails removing the tough stems and any leaves that have a sort of transparent or slimy look. Drop the good leaves back into the water and place the rest into a discard pile next to the sink. I always pile the undesirables onto the plastic bag the spinach came in for easy transfer to the trash bin.
After you are through picking the spinach, you are left with a sink full of fresh, clean leaves. Now, lift the leaves from the water and into the basket of a salad spinner, or a large colander if you don't have a spinner. Give the leaves a whirl to dry or roll them into a kitchen towel and then transfer to a clean plastic bag. Press as much air as possible out of the bag before closing and storing in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. From here, you have the same convenience you find in the aforementioned pre-washed product.
Why go to all this trouble? You will see at the end how much sand has settled at the bottom of your sink. By lifting the floating spinach from the water, you have left all of that silt behind. This cold water soak also serves to refresh the spinach. Do get it as dry as possible before storage so that it will stay crisp.
From here you can use the spinach any way you please. Follow the links below to find recipes but also think of raw spinach on your sandwiches or cooked spinach in your omelets. Slice it into thin strips for dropping into soups at the last minute or stir the strips into your favorite pasta sauce. Keep in mind, mounds of fresh spinach reduce to mere handfuls when cooked so be sure to start with plenty. One bunch of cooked spinach will yield two portions for most applications.
Whatever you do, try to eat more spinach. Mom really was right, spinach is good for you. It is an excellent source of Vitamins K, A, C and B1 as well as iron, potassium, calcium and fiber, even protein. The World's Healthiest Foods website (www.whfoods.com) states: "Researchers have identified at least 13 different flavonoid compounds in spinach that function as antioxidants and as anti-cancer agents."
One more note about this fabulous food. It is fast and easy to grow. Find out more about tending spinach in your garden at Ehow.com.
A note about salad spinners: They are great for freshly washed herbs too. If you don't have one of these handy items in your kitchen, you might want to invest. Not only will they enhance your salad greens (by allowing dressings to adhere better) but those greens will last longer when properly dried.
Basic Veggie How-to
part of "The Basics at Home" Series
With "The Basics at Home" series we offer pages of simple recipes within a theme. Also included is food for thought about how to use the basics as a jumping off point to create your own versions and links to other applicable recipes within the aPinchOf website.
On this page: Stuffed Avocado Salad; Sprouting Seeds; Double Bean Spinach Stew; Eat Your Spinach; Gazpacho Salad; Cucumber Raita; Sesame Green Beans; Twice Baked Potatoes; Eggplant Extra
Read more: All About Sesame Seeds
I ordered my kit from the Territorial Seed Company but you will find plenty of options if you Google "sprout kits." The Sprout People website is a wealth of information on the subject as is the Mumm's Sprouting Seeds site.
Recipes with spinach: Shrimp and Spinach Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette Dressing; Substitute spinach for the chard in Skillet Steamed Swiss Chard; Spinach pesto
Other articles you might enjoy:
For best results, don't store whole, fresh eggplant in the refrigerator.
Learn more from the Mother Earth News about the different types of eggplant and how to grow them.
Visit Taunton Press' Fine Cooking for more eggplant recipes and information.
Read more: All About Sesame Seeds
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