|Just rolled out of bed|
The individual steps had to be photographed, which involved not only clicking the camera (actually, my iPhone, which I am desperately hoping will not eventually find its way into a boiling pot I am trying to capture for posterity), but also arranging the lighting and art-directing the ingredients. Today the process continued with photo editing and now the write-up. I have to say, I find a great sense of satisfaction in all of these steps, but it certainly complicates the act of making a meal.
One unexpected aspect of cooking for the blog — which I suppose is a lot like cooking for a TV show — is that I had to have a pretty clear idea from the start of where I was going with these ingredients. My usual style is to just start in and see what I get inspired to concoct. When people ask me while I am cooking what I am making, I often honestly don't know. I expect that eventually, these two styles of creating will merge into something new. Exciting!
My favorite kitchen puzzle to solve is — what can we do with the particular assortment of ingredients before us? I am most pleased when I can use up seemingly unpromising and incompatible leftover bits of this and that and when I can create a dish without resorting to further shopping. (I have attacked puzzles of this sort in my own kitchen and — to even greater challenge — at other people's houses. Hi, Mom!)
Yesterday's problem presented itself in the form of 2 eggplants threatening to go bad if not used soon — we'd gotten eggplants 2 weeks in a row from Urban Organic, and I hadn't had a chance to do anything with them yet. I decided to give myself extra credit if I could use up the stems from the bunch of cilantro that had gone into the weekend's chicken dish. (Sorry, that was before I had a food blog.) I cheated and bought 2 things at Whole Foods — I had gone there for mozzarella cheese (what goes better with eggplant, after all?) and saw among the herbs a delightful kind of oregano that I hadn't seen in awhile. I am a sucker for fresh herbs, so the oregano ended up in this dish.
What we are going to cook here (in our imaginations for now) is a type of baked pasta dish that I originated on vacation, I think, using leftover pasta, and to which I have returned many many times for its ease of preparation, deliciousness, and possibilities of endless variation. Here's the latest version, with eggplant and homemade tomato sauce:
Don't think of this so much as a recipe, by the way — it's more of a template. Using the basic format, substitute whatever you have available, or whatever appeals to you.
I started by making the sauce. First, I sauteed chopped onions and sliced garlic (still remaining from the CSA) in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. (Eggplant tends to absorb a lot of oil — and seems to benefit from this — so I used even more than I usually do.)
Then, when the onions and garlic had softened, I added three big cans of diced tomatoes (you can see one of the cans in the picture above) and a little ground pepper. After a few minutes, I added salt, chopped oregano and cilantro stems, chopped celery with its leaves, and a handful of raisins for sweetness.
I let this pot simmer for about an hour without its lid so that it could cook down a bit and thicken. It's at its prettiest just after adding the green ingredients, before the colors get dimmed by cooking:
While that was cooking away, I diced the eggplant and put it in a bowl with a handful of salt to bleed out any bitter juices. After about 30 minutes, I pressed down on the eggplant to squeeze out the juices and discarded them.
I sauteed the eggplant in copious olive oil for a few minutes, then added enough of my sauce to cover it and cooked this mixture until the eggplant was done. Meanwhile, I had put on a pot of pasta to cook (penne was in the cupboard, so that's what I used). I find that if I under-salt the water, the pasta tastes bland and cannot be fixed adequately by sprinkling on more salt after cooking, so I always dump a big fistful into the pasta water. (Don't tell Peter — he considers me profligate with the salt and, to maintain the peace, I have created the impression that I use about a teaspoon of salt in my pasta. If he finds out, I hope he realizes that most of the salt gets discarded along with the cooking water.)
When the sauce with the eggplant and the pasta were all cooked, I started assembling the final dish for baking. (There was a lot of the sauce left, unneeded for this dish, which I froze to use later. Easy future meals!) I put pasta in the bottom of a glass baking dish and distributed halved mozzarella balls (the mini ones) and more chopped oregano over the top. (Depending on the sauce or other ingredients I am adding to this type of dish, I will sometimes enrich the pasta layer with beaten egg, olive oil, butter, and/or grated cheese. This dish, because of the large quantities of olive oil in the sauce and absorbed by the eggplant does not need further enrichment.) By the way, my baking dish is not dirty, it's encrusted with years of baked-on love.)
Next, I ladled on the eggplant/sauce mixture. I over-estimated the amount of sauce I would need, so it completely covered the pasta. Often, I like to have some bits of pasta exposed, because they get delightfully crispy during the baking process that way. Oh well, if we have left-overs, they will get a little crispier during the re-baking. If. Finally, I grated a nice, pungent aged Asiago cheese over the top. This photo makes it look as though I put the pan out in the recent blizzard. I do not stint on the grated cheese, which also crisps up wonderfully as it bakes.
Now this is ready to bake. I will put it in our counter-top convection oven (best $4 I ever spent — at a flea market in our co-op) for about 40 minutes at 350, until the mozzarella is gooey and sufficient crispening (my spell-checker has indicated its opinion that this is not an actual word) has occurred in the appropriate ingredients. I'll let you know how it turns out......
Please leave a comment to record your own creative variations.