basil

The Vegetable Butcher

Most Indian meals comprise a medley of vegetable dishes ranging from mixed vegetable curries to simple stir-fried dishes. Fish and meat are usually served as a side item, and often, they aren’t missed at all. During Lent, when I sometimes crave a little meat or fish, it is vegetables with distinct textures, such as fibrous plantains, nutty tubers, or dense elephant yam that stand in for the “meaty” substance to a meal. 

It is a good a time to eat more vegetables: Local farmers are growing vegetables that were once deemed exotic, and grocery stores are offering creative plant and soy-based substitutes for meat. “Vegetable butchers,” at food markets like Eataly in New York, give basic lessons on cooking this new produce; you can ask for tips on how to cut artichokes or how to finely slice jicama in order to add it to your existing salad repertoire. Vegetables are even tossed with spice rubs and marinades, and cooked like meat on the barbecue grill.

I was inspired to try the marinade on broccoli (one of my least favorite vegetables), as it is in season and packed with vitamin C. The spiced and roasted broccoli “steaks” were caramelized by the seasonings and flavorful – and the result was (almost) as good as ribeye!

Broccoli Steaks

Broccoli – 1 bunch

Soy sauce – 1 tbsp

Hoisin sauce – 1 tbsp

Rice vinegar – ½ tbsp

Hot sauce – ¼ tbsp

  • Preheat the oven to 425ºF
  • Mix all sauces (soy, hoisin, hot sauce, and rice vinegar) together.
  • Trim the bottom of the stem and discard leaves.
  • Slice along the entire length of the broccoli stem and floret. This cut gives broccoli the “steak” texture when cooked.
  • Place sliced broccoli on an aluminum foil, spreading them out evenly.
  • Roast for 25 minutes, turning them over halfway through the cooking time.
  • Serve hot broccoli immediately.

 

 

 

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Tackling A Classic: Eggplant Parmesan

I recently bought ready-made eggplant parmesan from a small (and authentic) grocery that stocks fresh pasta made in-store by the Italian owners. The parm was delicious. There is everything to love in the two main ingredients – eggplant and cheese! Unfortunately, my new health app registered the accompanying high number of calories which forced me to attempt a healthier version of the classic.

Eggplants are notorious for absorbing unhealthy amounts of oil, and by baking eggplants, my version cuts out frying the eggplant altogether. Cutting this step also eliminates both the eggs and breadcrumbs that coat the eggplant; these add to the amount of oil absorbed, as well as to the dish’s total calories. All that was left to do was to combine good tomato sauce (thickened with celery, carrots, onions, and garlic), fresh basil, and cheese, and bake. The toasted breadcrumbs that were sprinkled in between layers added crunch, but they are not essential.

Tomato sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (28 oz) can – 2

Tomato paste – 1½ tbsp

Onion – 1 medium, sliced

Carrots – 2, diced

Celery – 1 ½ stalks, chopped

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Olive oil – 1 ½ tbsp

Salt – to taste

Chili pepper flakes – 1½ tsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add onions to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent.
  • Add garlic and stir-fry, until light brown.
  • Add carrots, celery and cook for about five minutes or until softened.
  • Remove the mixture from heat, and mix in the food processor to a grainy texture.
  • Add the mixture back to the pan. Start to heat the pan, adding tomatoes and tomato paste to the mixture. Cook the juice down, mashing up the tomato pieces.
  • Add the salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
  • Keep 3 cups aside, and boil it down until it is a thick liquid.
  • Freeze the rest of the sauce to use later. I often serve with meatballs, spiralized zucchini “noodles,” and grilled shrimp.

Eggplant

Eggplant – 2 medium sized, peeled and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch strips (10-12 strips in total)

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

  • Heat the oven at 400°F.
  • Place the eggplant slices on aluminum foil and brush lightly with oil.
  • Cook for about 35-40 minutes, turning slices halfway through, until just soft. Keep aside.

For The Assembly Line:

Toasted breadcrumbs or panko – ½ cup

Mozzarella cheese – 12 oz, thinly sliced

Parmesan cheese – 4 oz, freshly grated

Fresh basil leaves – 12-15 leaves

Tomato sauce – see above

Baked eggplant – see above

  • Lightly grease a loaf pan or Pyrex dish.
  • Divide the ingredients in the following order for three layers: sauce, breadcrumbs, overlapping eggplant slices, cheese (parmesan and mozzarella), and basil. Repeat, until you have formed 3 layers.
  • Bake at 350°F for 40 minutes. Set under a broiler for 5 minutes at the end for a crisp topping.
  • Once cooled, the baked eggplant parmesan will be firm. Loosen the slides by sliding a knife along the edges. Flip over on to a serving plate.

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Note: Reduce the tomato sauce, so that there is no excess liquid. Otherwise, your layers will not be firm.

 

Leaves Every Which Way: Oven-Dried Fresh Herbs And Kale Chips

A few weeks ago, I had a situation with bolting basil, and I spent some time looking for ways to preserve the leaves without sacrificing their flavor and aroma. Herbs that are stored in the freezer are a good substitute for when nothing fresh is available. However, frozen herbs, especially the delicate basil, sage, and cilantro, have an unappealing papery-thin texture and lack potency. An easy way to preserve the flavor of freshly-picked herbs is to remove their moisture completely.

A dehydrator or an oven can dry out the leaves while maintaining their freshness and taste. Freshly-dried herbs are an easy way to harvest and preserve herbs that are bolting or growing rapidly, seeing you well into winter. Oven–dried basil can be crushed easily and delivers a fresh punch of concentrated flavor and bouquet. Basil is known as a powerful anti-bacterial and nutrient-rich herb, and I added powdered basil into salad dressing as well as mixed it with tea leaves for a jolt of healthy tonic.

I also experimented with sage and lavender gathered from my outdoor pots (soon to be indoors with the recent onset of cool weather!) The kitchen smelled much like an imagined idyllic French countryside when I amassed small mason jars of dried herbs. Carried away by the concept of drying leaves, I extended the process to make kale chips brushed with sage-scented oil.

Oven-Dried Basil

Basil – 1 bunch

  • Heat the oven to 170°F.
  • Rinse the basil in cool water and shake-off excess moisture.
  • Spread the cleaned leaves on parchment paper.
  • Bake for about 1- 1½ hour, until the leaves have wilted and curled. They should crumble easily.
  • Remove and cool.
  • Store in glass containers.

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Kale Chips

Kale – a handful

Olive oil – 1 tbsp

Salt – ½ tsp

Pepper –1tsp

Basil – 2, dried

  • Heat the oven to 350°F
  • Wash and dry the kale leaves. Remove the thick stalk.
  • In a bowl, mix the oil, salt, pepper, and crushed basil leaves.
  • Coat the kale leaves, using your hands to coat the oil over the leaves.
  • Lay them on a foil and bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove and turn the leaves over. Continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes.
  • Remove and cool. The leaves should be crispy and brown at the ends.
  • Eat immediately.

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Help! My Basil Has Bolted.

My summer lunch staple is often a meal of heirloom tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil vinaigrette. Recognizing that the lone basil plant on my window ledge wouldn’t provide enough leaves, I recently added a lush pot filled with three more basil plants. Two weeks ago and well into summer, the plants seemed to pull water the instant they were watered. All of sudden, I noticed tall green flower stalks appear where there should have been new leaves. I remembered the gardening adage, and pinched out the flowers to encourage leaf growth. It was too late as the plant bloomed with white flowers; my basil plant had “bolted” or gone to seed.

A plant bolts when the weather becomes too hot – a survival mechanism for the species. The stalk rapidly produces flowers, which then go to seed. Bolting is a common gardening term, but it represented nothing that I had encountered in all the years that I had grown basil. I would have not even realized the connection, if not for a Skype chat with my uncle who asked me to look out for bolt-free cultivars of spinach. (Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and cilantro are some of the plants that bolt.) Plants that have bolted become inedible, and their stems become woody and tasteless and the leaves turn bitter. The leaves on my basil plant had just started turning bitter, and I immediately stripped them off the plant. I used the basil leaves to make pesto and basil butter in order to preserve what was left of their aromatic sweetness.

Some Common Sense Tips To Prevent Bolting:

  • Move the plants to a shady location once the weather becomes hot.
  • Cover the topsoil with mulch to keep the roots cool.
  • Cut back the existing leaves further down the stem, forcing the plant direct its energy towards producing more leaves.
  • Deadhead or promptly remove the buds as soon as they start to appear.
  • If starting from seeds, stagger when the plants mature (early spring to fall) so as to have a continuous supply of new plants.

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Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Italian Tomato Sauce (Part 2)

One of my favorite Italian dishes in the summer is mozzarella and tomato salad. This is especially delicious in the season as the locally-available heirloom tomatoes are at their most flavorful. Any leftover tomatoes get thrown into a skillet and made into simple marinara sauce or tomato sauce. Having eaten a variety of delicious homemade Italian food in friends’ houses, I’ve noticed that the classic tomato sauce is always served on the side. This rich sauce can be paired with pasta and Parmesan cheese for a simple meal or served with meatballs for a more filling meal.

Unlike the plain marinara sauce that combines whole tomatoes and garlic, tomato sauce uses several ingredients that play a part in creating balance. Tomatoes contain both the sour element and natural glutamates required for umami, that savory taste. Garlic, onion, black pepper, and chili pepper provide pungency. Carrot and celery provide texture, adding colors that seem to deepen the bright red of tomatoes, and impart sweet and bitter flavors respectively. The herbs round out the balance giving warmth of peppery and astringent tones.

Tomato sauce is easy to prepare, and the sauce freezes well. The sauce has all the qualities of a perfectly balanced dish combined with color saturation, texture, and a full-bodied taste.

Tomato Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes (or other canned tomato) – 28 oz

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 6-8, minced

Carrot – 1, diced

Celery – ½ stalk, diced

Olive oil – ¼ cup

Salt and pepper – ½-1 tsp each

Whole red dried chili – 1

Oregano (fresh or dried) – ½ tsp

Fresh Basil – a handful of leaves

Tomato paste – 1 heaping tbsp. (optional)

Sugar – ¼-1 tsp

Parmesan cheese – 3 tbsp

  • Pour out the tomatoes from the can into a bowl. Using the back of the spoon crush them, until they are broken up into small pieces. (Beware the red juice splattering on your clothes and kitchen counter.)
  • Heat a skillet.
  • Heat oil and add the onion and stir for a minute or more, until they are soft.
  • Add the garlic, carrot and celery to the onions. Sauté until they have softened.
  • Add the crushed tomatoes to the skillet and mix into the onion-celery mixture.
  • Add the red chili and let it simmer on low for 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste (this creates a deeper red sauce and thickness) and oregano and basil.
  • Continue to simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the oil appears to float on the top of the tomato sauce.
  • Add the salt and pepper. Check for balance. If the sauce is sour (from tomatoes), start with a ¼ tsp. salt and sugar, and continue to add incrementally until no one flavor is prominent.
  • Remove the chili pepper before serving.

Serve with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese, meatballs, or zucchini spirals.

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What Is In A Name? Relish/Chutney/Pickles

I come from a culture that eats pickles and chutneys at every meal. As we snacked on samosas that I served with coriander chutney, A. voiced her curiosity about the difference between these two condiments. Chutney is a spiced condiment made with fresh herbs that are crushed in a mortar and pestle and usually eaten immediately. Indian pickles are made with fresh fruits and vegetables that are picked at their prime and preserved (with lemon, tamarind, or vinegar)  to be enjoyed well past the fruit’s season. As I explained the difference, I realized that relish, chutney, and pickles are different names for seasoned sauces. They all fit under the broader term of condiments.

Condiments balance out a meal’s bitter, hot, salty, sour, or sweet aspects. Sometimes, as in a salad dressing, they aid in bringing together disparate flavors of bitter greens, juicy tomato, and creamy avocado. Often, as in the case of mustard and coriander chutney, they add pungency that cuts into fatty sausage or spices up a samosa (a potato-filled pastry). Condiments in each culture may look different, but I am amazed at similarities in techniques that were used (such as the mortar and pestle to crush and release flavors), and the principal ingredients (like herbs and spices).

As I gathered the last of my basil and coriander from the garden, it was their fragrance that inspired me to make three enduring condiments: Pesto, Coriander Chutney, and Pico de Gallo. While cooking, the aromatic scent of crushed leaves and the texture of coriander chutney reminded me of pesto — before I had even made it!

Pesto

Basil – 4 cups

Garlic cloves – 4

Pine nuts – 1 cup

Olive oil – ¾ cup

Parmesan-Reggiano cheese – 1 cup

Salt and pepper – 1 tsp. each

 

  • Wash the basil and drain well. Remove the stalks.
  • In a food processor, mince the garlic, pine nuts, and cheese.
  • Keeping the food processor running, add the basil leaves and oil.
  • Stop intermittently to push the contents from the sides of the processor. Process until you have a grainy, semi-liquid paste.
  • Season with salt and pepper.

 

Pesto can be mixed in with fresh pasta or used as a salad dressing.

 

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Coriander (Cilantro) Chutney

Coriander – 1 bunch

Jalapeno (Serrano) – 2

Lemon juice – from 1 lemon

Ginger – 1-inch

Cumin seeds – 1 tsp

Red onion – ¼

Vegetable oil – 1 tsp

Sugar – 1 tsp

Salt – 1 tsp

 

  • Wash the coriander and drain well. Remove the thick stalks.
  • Process the jalapeno, ginger, cumin, and red onion in a food processor.
  • Stop intermittently to push the contents from the sides of the processor.
  • Add the coriander and oil and continue processing, until you have a semi-liquid paste.
  • Add the lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Taste and adjust to balance the salt-sour-sweet flavors. Refrigerate.

 

Coriander chutney can be eaten with samosas and other snacks. It can be spread, like butter, on bread and served with thinly sliced tomatoes.

 

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Pico de Gallo

 

Juicy, heirloom tomatoes – 3, chopped

Garlic cloves – 3, chopped finely

Red onion – ½, chopped finely

Cilantro (Coriander) leaves – ¼ bunch, roughly chopped

Jalapeno – ½, chopped finely

Lemon juice – from ½ a lemon

Salt — 1 tsp

Cumin – ½ tsp. (optional)

 

  • Mix all the chopped ingredients in a large bowl.
  • Add the lemon juice and salt.
  • Refrigerate until needed.

 

This Mexican salsa, without avocado, is an easy side salad that works with meat or fish-based main dishes.

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Pairings – Companions Plants and Companion Foods

When my uncle gave me chili seeds this winter, the gift also came with a piece of advice: Plant the seedlings with tomatoes and basil. Companion planting is a method of fostering a symbiotic relationship between certain plants. These plant groupings support the arrival of the right insects for pollination, while simultaneously discouraging pests, and avoiding competition for the same nutrients in the soil. When I looked for other plants that could be compatible with the chili seedlings, I found brightly colored Venn diagrams and charts that offered different options for small urban gardens and even container pots. My research paid off; my tiny 8×3 ft. vegetable patch is now packed with Swiss chard, tomatoes, basil, and chili pepper seedlings. The cover provided by basil, a low-growing plant, should increase the humidity required for the chili plant to thrive, and its fragrance will repel the pesky tomato hornworm. The big tomato leaves should protect the chili peppers from the sun while the roots of the chili peppers block the growth of certain fungi.

As I was mapping out my patch, I wondered if the adage “what is grown together goes together” was why our family often enjoys juicy sweet tomatoes and freshly-plucked basil together. Pairing this combination with fresh mozzarella and whisked red wine vinaigrette (1 part red wine vinegar to 3 parts olive oil, plus kosher salt and pepper to taste) creates our favorite go-to summer flavor. Another companion plant/companion food combination that I will enjoy this summer is Swiss chard and tomato. I am excited to try them in combination with dried beans and couscous for a new summer salad.

It is not just plants and food that go together. Food and beverage pairings such as Chinese food and black tea or steak and big red wines are universally enjoyed. Tannins found in both tea and red wine are astringent (which is what creates a dry sensation in your mouth), and work well with the fat in meats to accentuate the taste of protein. It is this same astringent taste in beer that has us eating bowls of salted peanuts!

In ayurveda, an ancient Indian holistic practice, certain food pairings are discouraged as they are said to create an imbalance in the body. Eating foods that create opposition in our bodies (such as iced drinks after food) is tamping down the heat created by digestion, thereby slowing the process. Similarly, fruits and cold milk are never combined as milk acts as a laxative while fruits act as a diuretic, resulting in poor digestion. Yet I love my fruit (specifically, mango) shakes!

Do culture, current fashions, or our environment dictate our choices? When in doubt, simply follow the advice of a chef with a passion for local and seasonal ingredients – Alice Waters writes simply in The Art of Simple Food: Notes, lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: “Let things taste of what they are.”