Farmer’s Market Friday – Eggplant

It’s Friday again, and I will be getting back to the market first thing in the morning. Vacation really threw me off of my routine and it’s amazing how much I missed seeing all my favorite farm stands.

I am on a mission to not only broaden the culinary horizons of my family, but also maybe broaden my own. My project this week is more eggplant. I received eggplant in the haul I got from the produce auction, and used it as the noodle replacement in my lasagna. I also recently made a few dips out of eggplant. But that’s a pretty narrow use of a vegetable that is one of the freshest and most available at my market right now.

On a side note, is the plural of eggplant still eggplant? Or is it eggplants? This is too much for my brain to consider on a Friday….

It’s not that I don’t like eggplant, I just don’t really think about it much when I’m out. I’m usually on the hunt for my other favorites and the poor eggplant gets overlooked… again. To me, eggplant doesn’t really have a strong flavor…it can be kind of bland, which may be why I tend to pass right by. Poor, lonely, neglected eggplant. Well this week, I am going to change that! I am going to buy and cook more eggplant. Because every veggie deserves a little love.

To start things off for you, here’s how I prepare eggplant to be the base of some really delicious dips:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and dry whole eggplant. For the dips, I just use the regular garden-variety globe eggplant with the deep purple skin. If your eggplant are really large, cut them in half and brush the cut sides with olive oil. Medium to small eggplant should be roasted whole. Prick the skin several times with a fork or the tip of a sharp knife and place the eggplant onto a foil lined sheet pan. Cut eggplant should be roasted cut side down. Place in the hot oven until the eggplant gets completely soft and the skin starts to darken and blister. The skin will actually dry out and get rather like paper, and will crack when you tap it. You want that eggplant to roast well because that charbroiled flavor really is essential to a successful dip. Don’t turn your eggplant to charcoal though… nothing will make THAT taste good! Remove the pan from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.

You can either remove the skin with your fingers, or use a spoon to scoop out the flesh into a colander. If your eggplant has any large pockets of dark seeds, remove those as well since they will be bitter. Salt the eggplant and toss lightly, then let the eggplant drain for an hour. This removes any remaining liquid, which also can be bitter. Once the hour is up, if your eggplant still seems a little wet, you can press it gently with a spatula to help the process.

That’s it! The roasted, drained eggplant can now be combined with any sort of flavoring you prefer. For one batch of dip, I put the eggplant, roasted red peppers (that I had made myself and packed in olive oil), and roasted red onions in the bowl of a food processor and processed until smooth. I added the oil from the red pepper jar while processing to help make it really silky. Another batch got eggplant, roasted garlic cloves, roasted onion, fresh thyme, and a tablespoon or two of Greek yogurt. Delicious with veggie sticks, crackers, or pita bread. Even my kids loved it!

So fire up that oven and show your eggplant a little love this weekend.

Party Animals

I mentioned celebrating my grandson’s (I am not old enough to have a grandson. Seriously) 5th birthday this week. He’s starting school next week, so his circle of friends is pretty limited at the moment. Nonetheless, I wanted to throw him a party/dinner that was fun and kid friendly without it being at one of those fast food or chain restaurants. The food is better for him, and for us, and surprisingly enough, by sticking to keeping it simple, turned out to be popular with the kids and adults alike. We ended up having 15 guests for his birthday dinner, ranging in age from 71 to 2. Luckily, a good time was had by all.

Jake’s Menu:
Grilled hot dogs and hamburgers
Raw baby carrots, cucumber rounds, and celery sticks
Assorted dips: tzatziki, roasted garlic and eggplant, roasted red pepper and eggplant
Refrigerator pickles
Heirloom cherry tomatoes and mozzerella cubes
Potato and tortilla chips with salsa, guac, and onion dip
Sliced canteloupe and watermelon

Of course we had ice cream and cake too. Unfortunately for me, not gluten-free cake, but the ice cream was delicious.

The common denominator in this menu is the plethora (how’s that for an SAT word, kids?) of raw or no-cook ingredients. Veggies and melons that only needed cutting and arranging on a platter are easy, beautiful, and delicious. Pairing them with different dips makes them interactive and fun for the kids. All I needed was a sharp knife and enough platters to arrange them on. Chips aren’t exactly HEALTHY, but it’s a birthday, and I did use organic Greek yogurt and locally grown ingredients for the tzatziki, guac, salsa, and eggplant dips. I grilled hot dogs from Applegate Farms and beefed up (ha! I kill me…) my grass fed burger with vegetables to make delicious and savory patties.

Mushrooms and onions always find a way into my kitchen. I add them to all sorts of things. Since raw mushrooms aren’t a huge favorite amongst the family, I usually cook them very soon after purchase. The notable exception to this rule is those delicious portabello caps, which belong on a hot grill. I had previously purchased some criminis, and had sliced and sauteed them in olive oil and garlic. Those garlic mushrooms and a red onion made the perfect addition to those burgers, adding moisture, flavor, and best of all, enabling me to stretch out the beef to make more patties.

Birthday Burgers:
3 pounds ground beef, straight out of the refrigerator (grass-fed! Trust me it makes a difference)
3 eggs, cold (again, get the good eggs)
1 large red onion
16 ounces (raw) packaged “Baby Bella” mushrooms, sliced, sauteed in olive oil and garlic. After cooking, the mushrooms will shrink down quite a bit, so don’t let the thought of a pound of mushrooms stress you out. Also, you want these cold or room temperature. Warm mushrooms will cook the meat and make it difficult on your hands when it comes to mixing!
Salt and pepper

Break up the beef into chunks, emptying into a LARGE mixing bowl. Finely chop (I used my Food Chopper from Pampered Chef) the onion and then the mushrooms and add to the beef. Season simply but liberally with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Add the eggs. If you are using very large eggs, you may only need 2. The egg is there for moisture and to help bind everything together.

Mix with wet hands ONLY until things are combined. Seriously, this is the key to a good burger – the LESS you play with it, the better your burgers will be. You want to mix as little as possible, and use your hands so that the ingredients are combined but not packed together. This is the difference between tough and tender when it comes to hamburgers. Keep that thought in mind when forming your patties as well. Don’t grab and MASH the burgers into a patty, form them in your hands by rotating the ball of meat, using your thumbs to dimple the center, and using your fingers to form the rest of the patty. That dimple in the middle will keep your burger from puffing up in the center and give you a nice flat surface for all your burger dressings.

Usually a pound of beef gives me 4 patties, but the addition of the onion and mushrooms allowed me to stretch that a bit. I ended up with 16 truly adult sized burgers from this batch. Once my burgers were formed and loaded in layers onto a parchment lined sheet tray, I put them back in the fridge while I turned on the grill. Unlike other meats, ground beef cooks best when it is cold. I use a hot, clean grill, and I flip my burgers only once. Here is a handy list of tricks to making the perfect burger. I topped these burgers with local cheddar cheese, however they are so danged good you can top them with anything – or leave ’em naked – and they’ll be just as good.

So that was the party menu. Everyone had a great time, the food was a hit and my little buddy turned another year older. Happy Birthday Jake – your Gigi loves you very much.

Raita

Raita can be thought of as the Indian cousin of Tzatziki. Yogurt based, with plenty of cooling cucumber and mint, it’s a great accompaniment to spicy food. A bit thinner in consistency, Raita does not need to use thickened/strained yogurt

Ingredients:
1 large unpeeled English cucumber, grated. Or use 2 locally grown regular cukes, peeled and seeded before grating.
2 cups plain yogurt (again, do not use the fat free stuff!)
1/4 cup (packed) fresh mint
1 teaspoon ground cumin (or even better, use a few whole cumin seeds)
1/4 teaspoon plus pinch of cayenne pepper

Grate cucumber and wrap in kitchen towel to squeeze dry. Since you are not salting the cucumber beforehand, this is the most effective way to remove the water. Again, you want to get the dryest cucumber possible so that your raita doesn’t end up too watery.

If you have whole cumin seeds, toast them in a small dry skillet until JUST fragrant. The minute you smell them, pull them from the heat. Grind using a mortar and pestle, or a spice grinder until you have 1 t. ground cumin.

Chop mint. If I’m feeling pretty, I stack the leaves, roll them into a cigar shape and cut them into ribbons. The fine chiffonade looks so fancy and really is easy. Otherwise, I utilize my favorite tool, the Pampered Chef Food Chopper. A couple whacks and I’m done.

Whisk yogurt, mint, cumin, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper in medium bowl to blend. Add cucumbers and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours. You can prepare this up to 1 day ahead. When you are ready to serve, take a pinch of cayenne pepper and sprinkle it on the top.

Tzatziki

This Greek cucumber and yogurt sauce is AMAZING with any grilled meat, as a dip for veggies, a salad dressing, or even (for you bread eaters) with some toasted pita.

1 English cucumber (the long, thin seedless kind) or 2 regular garden variety cucumbers, peeled and seeded.
1 lemon
1 pint plain Greek yogurt (not fat-free)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 lemon
Fresh dill (to taste)
Salt

Grate the cucumber on a box grater. English cucumbers can be grated with the peel on, while regular cukes must be peeled and seeded. Place the grated cucumber in a strainer suspended over a bowl. Sprinkle salt over the cucumber and set aside, allowing the salt to draw some of the water out of the vegetable. Empty yogurt into a bowl. Greek yogurt is sufficiently thick, however if you do not have Greek yogurt, regular plain yogurt will suffice if the yogurt is also put into a paper towel lined strainer, allowing the liquid to drain away and the yogurt to thicken up. Put the garlic through a garlic press since it needs to be very finely minced, and add to the yogurt. Chop up fresh dill (I usually start with about a tablespoon and adjust for taste) and add to the yogurt and garlic. Using the back of a spoon, press the cucumber to remove liquid, then empty into a dry dishtowel. Rolling and squeezing tightly, remove as much water as you can. Empty cucumber into the yogurt mixture. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon into the yogurt and stir thoroughly to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning… you may need to add more lemon juice, or even the zest of the lemon. Add salt and more dill if desired. Cover and put into refrigerator for at least 3 hours before serving to allow flavors to marry.