Category Archives: What’s For Dinner?

Of Eggplant, Zucchini, and Burittos

Having been able to devote some time to cooking this weekend and today, I decided to try out some new things. Each night offered its own challenges, though, and a much different approach to cooking.

Sunday night is “big meal” night here. Its developed into family tradition that I spend a lot of time in kitchen preparing a tasty and elaborate meal, often with a desert, that we can use to close out our weekend. This is usually followed by a rousing game of Boggle and some Uno, both of which She-Who-Hums does pretty well at for her age. TPE and I both look forward to these nights of good company and good food. I really hope She-Who-Hums looks back on those nights fondly when she is our age and carries the tradition on.

Anyway, I figured last night was as good as any to finally try eggplant with TPE. We had a very small one procured from the farmer’s market, allowing her to experiment without a ton of it sitting around. And it can take a while to cook, making the weekend a good time to try it. I opted for a eggplant, tomato, cucumber pita with a red pepper raita for two reasons. First, the recipe called for the eggplant to be battered and baked, meaning that she’d be getting something close to fried. Second, the flavors more generally are familiar to her. I was basically trying to make the experience go well. Since its a big night in the kitchen, I also tried out the zucchini fritters from the other night, but substituted feta for goat cheese.

The meal was a mixed bag for TPE. On the one hand, she grew from uneasy acceptance of the fritters to enjoying them (especially with some of the raita). On the other hand, she took one bite of the eggplant and gave me the potato look. ( You know, the POTATO! look.)  The pitas were flimsy therefore detracted from the experience, but it was a pretty nice end-of-summer kind of meal.  Refreshing pitas with nice Greek flavors, along with savory fritters stuffed with cheese.  Not bad, all in all.  She-Who-Hums even got in the act and at a bologna pita (don’t get me started…at least her vegetables weren’t pickles and olives for once).

Tonight was a different story.  We decided early on that we’d have a black bean burrito kind of thing, having been inspired by She-Who-Hums suggestion that we go to the “Mexican” restaurant.  (We would’ve gone, but she declined to pay.  He’s absolutely hoarding money in her room, so yeah…I would’ve let her pay.)  Surprisingly, there wasn’t one black bean burrito recipe in any of my trusted vegetarian cookbooks.  So I improvised.

I know what you’re thinking, “He thinks he’s so bad-ass, just throwing things together in the kitchen.  Mr. Kitchen Know-It-All!”  While I assure you my ego is alive and healthy, improvised cooking is outside of my comfort zone.  Sure, I can make do when ingredients of a recipe are gone or I need to adjust, but that’s not me making decisions.  I’m still basically following orders; and that’s easy.

Nevertheless, I pressed forward.  We decided that we wanted black beans, rice, and “lettuce…AND CHEESE?!” (the last part was TPE’s contribution).  The problem was that she also didn’t want anything that you would put in a burrito like, you know, Mexican-themed seasonings like cumin.  (She suggested using taco mix.  REALLY!)  Anyway, I busted out my copy of THE FLAVOR BIBLE to get some ideas.  Seeing nothing all that inspirational, I made the rice and seasoned it with oregano and other assorted herbs and then make a fajita-like mix of peppers, onions, fresh corn, black beans, and diced tomatoes.  I went with about a 1/2 tsp of chili power, salt, and pepper.  I added some stock to let those flavors seep in as well, especially as the tomato broke down.  The resulting dish was fun (we built them at the table), tasty, and very filling.

So, here are my questions:

  1. What are your family food traditions?
  2. And, do you follow directions or just through stuff in a pot that sounds good?

All for now, dear reader.

Yum-Oh!

Goodness no, I won’t be posting about Rachel Ray.  She’s fine and all for what she’s trying to do, but I don’t have much interest in what she cooks.  No, I’m going to post about dinner last night and for once an annoying TV aphorism seem to fit the bill.

The menu last night was pizza (three kinds, of course…stupidly, or course) with peach galettes and homemade vanilla ice cream for desert.  TPE has not been feeling well of late so I needed something that would fit her sickly-stomach.  At the same time, I finally had some time to cook and was inspired to use the fresh peaches and ripening tomatoes from our Farmers Market.

Nothing comes easy in this house though.  TPE loves my homemade crust, She-Who-Hums (seriously…she’s sitting here humming as I type!) despises and detests it.  So, she would only agree to homemade pizza if I bought a Pilsbury crust (which I find atrocious).  With that under my belt, my plan was something like this:

  1. Get the crust for the pizza done, let it rise.  My uncomfortable relationship with yeast notwithstanding.
  2. Get the ice cream in the freezer to set.
  3. Make the galette crust.  Easy breezy.
  4. Cut the peaches and make the filling.
  5. Pre-heat the oven.
  6. Fill the galettes and put them in the oven.
  7. Get the toppings ready for the three pizzas.
  8. Cook pizzas.

A good plan, right?  I think so.  However, if you happen to let your yeast dough rise in your oven, its important to remove it from said oven before engaging in step #5.  I forgot that important detail and almost lost a bowl, crust, and house in the bargain.  TPE even asked me if I knew that you couldn’t put plastic bowls and towels in the oven.

Anyway, aside from that minor disaster things went very well.  Here are the highlights:

  • The filling for the galettes was sliced peaches, a TB of flour, and sugar.  Once on the galette, I drizzled it with honey.  If I were very adventurous, I might sprinkle a little rosemary on there sometime for an herbal note; other ideas?
  • She-Who-Hums had a three cheese pizza.  With olive slices.  It makes me want to vomit, but she seemed happy.
  • TPE’s pizza was straightforward — some sauteed mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella and parmesan.   It was surprisingly flavorful with a nicely textured bite.  Next time, I’m going to use a little basil puree to season it a touch more.
  • My pizza was an adaptation of one from Deborah Madison’s cookbook.  There was no sauce on it, save for some (good) olive oil.  I layered it with diced tomatoes (rather than cherry tomatoes), sliced and sauteed zucchini and squash, some caramelized onions, a little mozzarella, and 6 oz of goat cheese.

The pizzas turned out really well, as did the galettes.  But the highlight of the meal probably was the ice cream.  I used 2-parts heavy cream and 1-part milk to increase the butter fat, and added a couple of egg yolks.  It was awesome.

As a side note — Madison’s recipe for pizza dough is the best one I’ve found yet, particularly for this climate.  I strongly recommend it.  I added about 2 TB of sugar too.

Pesto! With a Twist!

We’ve had an uneventful couple of days, marked by one night where we just sort of picked at food from the fridge and a second night of an OK quiona salad.  You know, that’s all well and good but its not really blog material.  And believe it or not, I really don’t plan the meals with this blog in mind.

My inspirations often come from elsewhere.  In my most cliche’ moments, I’d say my inspiration often comes from the local Farmers Market.  That is certainly true of this week’s meal.

Usually our Farmers Market trip is fairly routine.  The selection here isn’t overwhelming compared to other parts of the country, so we usually get the things that I know I like to cook with.  This week there was — as usual — a lot of herbs.  I don’t often pay much attention to those because I have a small selection of fresh herbs in pots in the back.  But this week TPE was asking for “something with dill” (I have no idea why…stay tuned), which I don’t have.  I didn’t really find the dill I was looking for, but there was one organic stand with a lot of nice looking basil at a good price ($3 for a large bunch).  So I decided that pesto would be one of the meals of the week.

Pesto is easy enough but, honestly, I’ve been avoiding pasta since TPE became a vegetarian.  Not only is it “too easy” but I’m worried that it will become so much of a crutch that eating it becomes unhealthy.  The basil was just too much to pass up in that quantity at that price to not eat it this week.  That challenge is to do something interesting with it though.

I used a fairly basic recipe for starters.  About a 1/2 cup of cheese, a couple of cups of basil, 1/2 of olive oil, two cloves of garlic, and some butter.  “No pine nuts?,” you must be asking Faithful Reader.  Nothing is that easy.  TPE doesn’t like pine nuts and generally doesn’t do well with nuts at all.  Yet pesto without the nuts… what thickens it and helps it cling to the pasta and not be too oily?  My solution was to replace the pine nuts with chickpeas.  And that worked great with respect to flavor and texture.  I’m a big fan of this now, if only because it means I can feel ok about the protein thing.  Yeah, I know that’s not as much of a worry as people think.  Still.

But how to spice it up?  How to make it better than the normal pesto?  She-Who-Hums has been begging me to make caramelized onions lately.  She got hooked when I made some for the lentil croquettes that are becoming as stable of our family cuisine.  TPE calls them “lentil balls.”  That makes me giggle.  Anyway, I decided to caramelize onions and put them in with the pesto.  I could get a veggie into She-Who-Hums that wasn’t an olive or pickle, plus it would be a nice little twist in our relatively simple meal.

It worked wonderfully!  I even called them “a revelation,” but that was probably hyperbole.  But the sweetness of the onions, the saltiness of the cheese, and the slightly bitter garlic in the sauce made for some pretty darned good eating.  In retrospect I need to pay a little more attention to how much garlic goes in there and just how pungent it is (dinner was a touch bitter), but it was great.  And She-Who-Hums had a nice meal to boot, with onions, pickles, cucumbers, and onions to match her bologna sandwich (cut into the shape of a star).

Of Kitchen Floors, Take-Out, and Simple Food

Has it really been eleven days?  It has to be, as that’s what the blog calendar tells me.  And the block calendar can’t be wrong.

I wasn’t taking a hiatus.  At least not on purpose anyway.  We had an out of town guest who was here to work with me, which meant I wasn’t home cooking (I did enjoy some of the best BBQ in the world though).  Then I was working on installing a new kitchen floor.  It looks like…I’ll put some pictures up later.

All of that added up to lots of take-out and no food at home.  Taking out and eating out isn’t easy for vegetarians.  But that’s another post.

Tonight I cooked.  And I want to talk about the cooking.  I wanted something simple, but different because we’ve started to get into too much of a routine.  We didn’t have a whole lot of food, however, so options were limited. At the end of the day, I went with two different things in the entree:

  1. Stuffed mushrooms.  You’re supposed to use big portabella caps, but I found that the small ones worked just fine.  Leeks, green onions, green peppers, mushroom stems, garlic, and mozzarella cheese.  Yum.
  2. Lentil sandwiches.  The smashed lentils have squash, tomato and green onions.  I flavored it with just salt and pepper, then fried it (some egg and breadcrumbs in there too).  I put it on a wheat wrap, finished it off with balsamic, feta, and olive oil.  TPE said it was her favorite thing yet.

All in all, it was a great return to normalcy.  You don’t really know how much cooking for yourself — especially vegetarian — contributes to healthy living, until its gone.  I’ve felt sluggish, greasy (yes, greasy), and cranky.  Some of that was because of the long hours and hard work, but its more than that.  Its the food.  And…its more than that.  Its the release I get from cooking it.  The creativity, the sheer pleasure of doing something without knowing the result and getting validation from a hungry audience.

I’m glad to be back, at least until the next trip or project.

Vegetarian for Busy Eaters

Given how little I’ve posted this week, its evident that its been a crazy week in our household.  It was nothing specific really, just a whole bunch of late afternoon early evening activities that made making dinner challenging.  I suppose that’s good news for the blog though, because someone had just asked for most posts on quick cooking on busy days.

The answer?  Grilled cheese.

Not really, but kind of.  I was intent on not cooking pasta just because I was busy.  Not only does it seem like that is low hanging fruit, but I’m pretty sure its a good way to be fat.  I am trying not to be fat.  In the past on busy days, I could count on a backup of sandwiches and soup/salad.  So at least once this week, I succumbed to that temptation and made a stellar grilled cheese with a nice little side salad.

Well, that gets you through one meal.  What if you have to make it through two, three, or even four meals in a row like this?  For a committed cook like myself, that’s annoying because I enjoy eating well.  However, for a busy parents like myself sometimes I need to just get by.  So what to do…(DAMN YOU PASTA…I WILL NOT EAT YOU AT EVERY MEAL!)

One night I decided to cook some burritos.  Those were quick, easy, and delicious.  We had a fruit salad to accompany it, as well as another salad.  Salad has been a bit hit this week.  The nice thing about these is that you can usually put them together with just about anything that is on hand.  For example, we had no black beans but the red kidney beans we did have worked just fine.  As long as you have some onions and peppers — and if you’re me, you avoid putting anything to hot in them because TPE will start the mouth-waving dance — you can pretty much pull these off.  For this reason, I will forever be keeping burrito wrappers on my “must have” list along with plain yogurt, vegetable stock, and lentils.

Another night I made lentil croquettes.  These are quickly becoming my go-to recipe.  You cook some French lentils with celery, carrots, and salt until they’re done.  You then put them through a food processor (you could mash them as well).  Combine the mashed lentils with egg, bread crumbs, roll them, and fry them.   They’re tasty, generally healthy and a nice vehicle for lots of other things.  I’ve been following Deborah Madison’s suggestion of caramelized onions.  Oh yeah, I also made macaroni and cheese. (OK pasta, you got me this time.  Until we meet again!) What was I going to do, She-Who-Hums was insistent.  TPE did graciously suggest that I clean up and bathe the kid after I worked on this meal for like an hour.  (Maybe I’ll put red pepper flakes in her ice cream as retribution.)  The nice thing about this meal is that you can freeze your croquettes and use them at another meal.

Tonight we did a bean salad and a mixed green salad.  I also made a version of grilled cheese for myself with thinly sliced onion, tomato, and zucchini.  It was so yummy that I’m inspired to start planning on making more vegetarian sandwiches (e.g., pan bagnat), so that I have more of these go-to recipes in the future.  Mark Bittman has some nice, inspirational suggestions in his book How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.

The other meal this week was stir fry with tofu.  That deserves a post of its own.

All in all, I think that this was a challenging week.  TPE had one meal that caused her to literally gag and the rest of the week was busy, busy, busy.  But I learned some things that will help going forward, like the value of the burrito and the need to figure out how to replace sandwich meat without just making grilled cheese.

But if you have to, I recommend the grilled cheese.  Just try to use good cheese.

Don’t Be Galled by Galettes!

After savoring the leftovers from my Father’s Day feast yesterday, I was looking forward to getting back in the kitchen today.  That’s especially the case because I’ll be spending some time out of the kitchen again for the next few days and I wanted to use up some of our ingredients that weren’t going to make it much longer.  I finished up work a bit on the early side and planned to make an elaborate dinner when I got home.

For once, things went according to plan.  I was intent on using the remainder of our button mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms.  In perusing my cookbooks, the one thing that caught my eye was a recipe for a galette.  I’ve never made a galette before and I’m not smart enough to avoid pastry crusts in the middle of the week, regardless of whether it means dinner will be a disaster.  So undaunted, I decided to jump into this dish with one small change — I’d add some white beans.  TPE hadn’t really had any protein (save for cheese) the past few days, I figured it was a good idea to add some in.

Much to my surprise, the galette is easy.  (TAKE THAT PASTRY CRUST!  HA!)  The dough is simple, easy to use, and very tasty.  It also has a lot of butter in it, so healthy it is not.  But we don’t eat them every night and you only live once, so I embraced the butter this evening.  The base of the dough is a cup of flour, two teaspoons of sugar, a pinch of salt, and 6 TB of butter cut in (yeah, I said 6 TB).  After you get the crumbled texture you’re looking for, you start sprinkling ice water until a ball forms.  Let it sit and you’re ready to go!

The crust is very flexible and you can put just about anything in it after you roll it out.  You can go savory, as I did this evening; you can go sweet, with poached fruit or even a fruit-cheese mixture.  And the beauty of a galette, according to a cookbook of mine, is that the rough edges add to the charm.   The filling tonight was onions cooked in olive oil with fresh rosemary, mushrooms, and some white beans.  There is a sauce that includes tomato paste, red pepper flakes (more on this in a second), broth, and Dijon mustard.  You could clearly add cheese and any sort of herbs as well.  (Note: The basic recipe comes from Deborah Madison’s cookbook.  The white beans were my idea…I know, real impressive to add beans, huh?)

I served mine with some fresh broccoli and cucumbers, for a meal that I’d say was pretty good.  The problem was that TPE apparently does not tolerate any heat in her food.  And when I say “any”, I mean it.  There couldn’t have been 1/4 TSP of red pepper flakes in the dish and it came into the cooking process very early on, so it was a real background flavor to the dish.  However, she alternatively accused me of making her face go numb and trying to poison her.  So the dish was a success, but the meal was not unfortunately.

What did TPE end up eating?  Lasagna of course.

But I won’t give up!  I’ll find something for the galettes that won’t make her gag.  I’m already pondering Madison’s suggestion of leeks and goat cheese.

Potential Disaster…Bean Rice Patties

Its been a crazy couple of days here at VPE.  The family has been insanely busy and I haven’t had the time to cook that I normally do.  Because of our diet change for TPE, I don’t have the “go-to-dishes” for quick easy meals that I usually have and its put me off my game in the kitchen.

Tonight I was determined to put forth the time and effort to try something new.  Like I’ve said before, I can’t stand the same-old-same-old.  And we need to continue expanding TPE’s list of veggie friendly dishes.  Since she’s recently said that she likes black beans, I figured I’d keep working in that vein.  Looking at one of my new cookbooks, I saw an interesting recipe for a grilled black bean veggie dish that seemed interesting and easy enough.

The basic principal here is to create a patty that is reminiscent of meat (even served on buns if you follow the book’s advice).  You cook some red onion, garlic, and green onion to softness.  You then add black beans, coriander, cumin, oregano, orange zest, and red wine vinegar and cook until the beans become mushy.  After that cools, you mix in some brown rice (I used jasmine) and form it into patties that you can grill.

Simple enough.  Right?  Eh.

I followed the directions pretty assiduously and ended up with a product that was tasty, had the promised meat-like “feel”, but that could have been a real disaster.  It was dry.  Very dry.  And the patties didn’t hold up very well when put on the grill pan (it would’ve been a significant disaster on the grill, no doubt).  I contemplated adding some egg and/or oil (i.e., fat) before making my patties and I regret that I didn’t.

You know, I love the idea of this kind of dish.  You feel like it has main dish quality, something that’s trouble me in the past.  It has a nice flavor profile, so it defies the stereotypes of much vegetarian food.  And it also seems like something you could put in the freezer, for a quick meal.  But it just didn’t work for me.  Did they really try this out before they published it?  It tasted OK, sure, but it just didn’t hold up on most of the other dimensions.  I’m glad it didn’t end up a disaster, but it had that potential.  And with a newly minted vegetarian in the house, I always feel as though the quest stands on the edge of a knife.  (Yeah, I totally plagiarized that last part.  I’m still scared from the bean patty incident.)

Back in Action…What’s for Dinner?

So we’ve obviously been traveling, which is why I haven’t been posting. And some day I’m sure I’ll be inspired to write about the challenges that TPE’s new diet creates when we travel, particularly to see family. But today is not that day. Instead, its more about how to cook when you just got back into town and you don’t have any food in your house.

Of course this isn’t a problem if you’re not a vegetarian, or not concerned about the food you put in your body.  But we’re really trying to focus on those things as much as possible for TPE.  (I should note that The Kid is easy…find package, unwrap, throw on miscellaneous vegetables, and move hand before it gets eaten.)  And because she’s picky, I really hesitate to give her just anything.  Any bad experience is likely to have future consequences.

As I sat down to figure out what to make for dinner, I settled on something that wouldn’t be too taxing on our depleted pantry – risotto.   It satisfies a lot of the things I need for TPE and its pretty easy.  Plus, I figured I had the necessary ingredients – rice, stock, some vegetables, cheese.  Problem solved.

Not so much.  Although we did have enough vegetables (in this case scallions, shallots, spinach and fresh oregano), we did not have the rice I wanted.  Aborrio rice, as I’m sure many of you know, makes a much better risotto than just about all of its counterparts.  But we were out (how did that happen?) and we didn’t have any suitable substitutes.  I couldn’t use brown rice because it takes too long; basmati is out of the question because it has its own distinct flavor; and, we didn’t even really have good old (not really) minute-rice.

This kind of moment can be pivotal.  In the rush to get dinner done, I didn’t make sure that I had all the ingredients before I started some of them.  I know I should, but I just knew I had the rice.  And you have to be careful, because everything won’t always work as a substitute.  Fortunately, TPE’s new diet has introduced new ingredients in the household and there was one that would work just fine in this kind of application – Israeli couscous. The finished product wasn’t quite as good as a regular risotto, but you know what…the dinner went just fine and I achieved my goals.  Everyone was sated, TPE seemed to enjoy her food, and I didn’t have to run out to the store in the middle of dinner.

What’s your favorite substitution that not everyone makes?

Black bean enchiladas

Earlier this week I made the black bean and squash enchiladas that were featured in my Guest Recipe from last week. Its a really nice recipe, but I had some trepidation about making it for TPE. She’s only had one experience with squash so far. It was an OK experience with squash, but with her its always hit or miss. I was also a little concerned because most of the flavor in this recipe comes from various chili powders, and TPE does not tolerate heat in food very well. I figured I’d try adjusting it for her tastes and go from there.

All in all, I’d say the experiment was a success.  TPE not only liked it, but she had seconds.  The squash (and zuchinni…I mixed it up) wasn’t really mushy and retained its texture, but she still really liked it.  I managed to get enough flavor in the recipe by playing with cumin, salt, and cheese (some of these aren’t part of the original recipe) for both of us, while keeping the heat in the background.  I imagine that those of you who have different tolerance for heat would be able to adjust as necessary too.

Probably the most interesting part of all this was that she came out of the experience saying that the black beans are her favorite.  That surprised me a bit because just last week TPE was adamant that black beans were not high on her list of things to each and that she didn’t really want me to force them on her!  This is quite a relief to me, because different beans mix with different ingredients.  If we were really going to limit the different beans that we could eat, it was going to be a problem for me because of my need for variety in my diet.

Panzanella!

After last evening’s rather heavy fare, I thought all of our stomachs could use a break.  I was thinking about something seasonal too.  The perfect recipe for this scenario was panzanella, a lovely Italian bread salad.Although the Italian’s apparently use this as way to use up aging, crusty bread it does not have to be seen that way.  I was thinking of it as a method of delivering vegetables to TPE in a way that would be pleasing to the eye and the stomach.

I took my panzanella in a clear Mediterranean fashion.  The onions were red, the peppers were bright green, a locally grown cucumber that was sweet, and some tangy tomatos. There were also some Kalamata olives and capers added in for more punch.  I added in about 6 oz of mozzarella to give a little bit of protein (plus TPE loves her cheese).  It was finished off with basil from the herb garden, red wine vinegar, and a Spanish olive oil.   The bread was a local, organic product from our co-op.

The result was very good.  I was a little worried that TPE might not be a big fan, in no small part because you can’t make the vegetables so small in this that you can’t taste them.  Its a very vegetable front-and-center dish.  But how wonderfully refreshing on a hot day.

If you make a panzanella, I will say this — use good olive oil and a very, very nice bread. Most recipe’s I’ve seen call for cibatta bread, but I’ve had good luck with any crusty bread.  And while this dinner took all of about 10 minutes to make, its better if it can sit for a while and let the flavors blend.  Each bite offers something completely different.

Let us know if you try one!  I strong recommend it…I’ve never