Monday, July 27, 2009

Stuffing Stuff!

Fact: It was Thomas Jefferson (well known for his promotion of horticulture) who introduced the eggplant to the United States in 1806 after receiving one from a friend in France.

I love eggplant; its spongy texture and ability to soak up any flavor make it a versatile and widely-used ingredient. Although the roof of my mouth tingles when I eat it, I am never intimidated by this allergy and I continue to indulge... I am not one to give up!

If you weren't aware, as eggplant contains numerous seeds, it is classified as a fruit. However, it is mostly cooked as a vegetable, with other savory ingredients. Eggplant is capable of absorbing large amounts of cooking oils and sauces, allowing for very rich dishes, although sometimes producing soggy and mushy eggplant. Before cooking the eggplant, it is a good idea to "salt" it as this reduces the amount of oil and/or sauce that is absorbed.

I decided to try something new: baked stuffed eggplant. I've seen this done before with ground beef and other meats, however as I don't eat meat, I wanted to make a vegetarian version. In addition to stuffing the eggplants, I used the same filling and stuffed that right into bell peppers, to add some variety.

Baked Stuffed Eggplant & Bell Peppers

1 large eggplant
3 bell peppers (color is up to you!)
2 shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow squash, cut into 1/4 inch thick pieces and quartered
2 bags fresh spinach
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
3 cups cooked quinoa (follow directions on packaging of quinoa)
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup grated cheese (pecorino romano, Parmesan, asiago - my faves)
1/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Preparing the eggplant:
Remove and discard the stem and half the eggplant lengthwise. Remove inside, leaving about 1.5 inches as a shell. Place hollowed eggplant in baking dish. Cube the removed part and set aside for stuffing. Season all eggplant (both hollowed and cubed) with salt.

Preparing the peppers:
Remove and discard the tops, seeds and membranes of each pepper. Trim the bottom as well so the pepper can stand upright. Place peppers hollowed side up in baking sheet.

Preparing the stuffing:
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons olive oil on medium high. Add shallots and saute about 3-4 minutes or until transparent. Add the garlic and saute for about 3 minutes (DO NOT BURN). Add cubed eggplant to skillet (seasoned with salt) and squash and saute for 5-7 minutes. In increments, add fresh spinach. I like to add a few handfuls at a time, allowing it to shrink down before adding more. Once all of the spinach has been incorporated, the tomatoes are ready to be added. Rather than pouring in the whole can, scoop out the tomatoes adding only some of the liquid, reserving the remaining liquid to top the stuffed eggplant and peppers. Add the quinoa and season with a little cheese and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Your stuffing is completed.

Vegetarian Stuffing Mixture

Stuffing the eggplant/peppers: the FUN part!
Fill both halves of the eggplant and each pepper half way with the stuffing. Add a little cheese, a small handful of pine nuts and a touch of fresh basil. Fill all the way up with the stuffing and layer again with cheese, pine nuts and basil. Before placing the stuffed eggplant and peppers in the oven, pour a spoonful of the remaining tomato sauce from the can of diced tomatoes onto each .

Cover with tinfoil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Serve with your favorite loaf of bread.

This vegetable dish can either be served as a side dish or as a main meal. It is the epitome of what comfort food should taste like and how it should make you feel. It warmed up my day and I sure hope it warms up yours!

Love and stuffings,

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fresh Pesto!

In Italy, basil has always been a token of love.

Basil is my favorite fresh herb to have on hand. It grows fast and large, is refreshingly fragrant and can be used in so many dishes. Often I'll hand-pick a few stems, put them in a small pot of water and place it on my nightstand or on the living room table. It is magical walking in to a room to experience the pungent scent of freshly picked basil.

Last weekend while at my parent's home I was wandering through their yard and I noticed that my mother's pot of basil was growing totally wild. I mean, it almost surpassed me in height and I knew that if we didn't take control of the situation then some little creatures would sneak up and enjoy it and we would be left with chewed up basil remnants in an empty pot. That is unacceptable...

So, we agreed to utilize as much as we could of the heaping pot of basil and prepared a Fresh Pesto Farfalle with Sauteed Shrimp. Farfalle, for those of you who don't know, is a bow-tie shaped pasta... absolutely adorable. The name is actually derived from the Italian word farfalla meaning "butterfly." Farfalle is my favorite pasta to eat with pesto. Maybe it's the way the pesto gets stuck in the little crevices, or maybe it's simply that I love bow-ties; regardless, it's always my first choice.

Pesto (the Pescatore way):

4 cups packed fresh basil
4-5 cloves garlic (my mom and I used 6 -- we are nuts)
6 tbsp Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
S&P (salt & pepper)

In a food processor, add basil and pine nuts. Pulse a few times. Add garlic and Parmesan cheese and pulse two or three more times. Slowly add olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Adding the olive oil like so, allows for a perfectly creamy pesto sauce. Add S&P to taste.

Add pesto to cooked farfalle and coat completely. Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Pesto Farfalle (Bow-tie pasta)


The number of shrimp you cook depends on the size of your party. Generally, I like to serve each guest 5 shrimp. Paired with the pasta and a loaf of Italian bread, this is sure to be plenty. Please keep in mind that I have a very large appetite :)

In a medium saute pan, heat about 4 tbsp olive oil and a couple pats of butter until the butter is melted. Add the shrimp so that each shrimp is lying flat in the pan. Cook on each side for 2 minutes. Be careful not to overcook as shrimp get chewy when overcooked. You may have to saute the shrimp in increments depending on the number of shrimp and the size of your saute pan.

Pesto Farfalle with Sauteed Shrimp

Combine pasta and shrimp. Serve with remaining pesto sauce and a loaf of your favorite Italian bread.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

Love and bow-ties,

Monday, July 6, 2009

Don't Play Squash... EAT IT!

Since I can remember, every Sunday my family has enjoyed pasta with homemade gravy. Sunday is a family day and goes hand-in-hand with some variation of pasta with red sauce (must be red); puttanesca, shrimp fra diavolo, red clam sauce, bolognese are just a few of my family's favorites.

As a 'Pescatarean' and on a low-carb/low-budget kick, I have decided to put a little spin on a summer 'pasta' dish -- Spaghetti Squash with Chunky Summer Vegetable Sauce.
Spaghetti squash makes for a great pasta substitute. It is extremely easy to prepare, has a delicious, earthy flavor and is totally satisfying when craving that authentic Italian taste.

Spaghetti squash at our garage sale at The York Family ranch in Chester, NJ.

Spaghetti squash can be cooked several ways; it can be baked, boiled, microwaved or even cooked in a crockpot. When it is raw, its flesh is solid. However, when cooked the flesh comes out in ribbons resembling that of spaghetti, hence forth the name of this amazing vegetable. Although I don't ever recommend cooking food in a microwave, spaghetti squash serves as one of the few exceptions; it comes out perfect every single time.

Spaghetti Squash with Chunky Vegetable Sauce

How to cook spaghetti squash:
You will need a big knife and strong muscles :)
Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Place both halves in a microwave safe dish cut-side up with about a half-inch of water. Cover with plastic wrap. Cook on medium for about 10-15 minutes. Depending on the size of the squash, the time may vary. It will be done when you press the squash and it 'gives' a bit. I prefer mine al dente, so I tend to cook it for less. When it is cool enough to handle, scoop out the seeds and discard. Hold one half in your palm and with a fork scrape out the flesh. Set aside in a serving bowl.

Chunky Vegetable Sauce:

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 medium sized eggplant OR 1 small eggplant, cubed
1 zucchini, sliced about 1/4" thick and cut into half moons
6 mushrooms, sliced
(1) 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
Parmesan Cheese (optional)
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

In a medium saucepan add olive oil on medium-high heat. Add shallots and saute for 3-5 minutes or until they become translucent. Add garlic and saute for another 5 minutes. DO NOT burn garlic. Add zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms to mixture and saute for about 5 minutes to get the flavors working together. At this point, add the can of crushed tomatoes. This is usually too thick for my liking, so I fill the empty can of crushed tomatoes about a 1/4 of the way with water and add to the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 30 minutes. The veggies will cook thoroughly during this time.

Spoon sauce over the spaghetti squash and serve immediately. Garnish with parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper flakes (both optional).