Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Recipe: Eggplant Parmesan (Gluten Free)

Eggplant Parmesan in a Cast Iron Skillet
Eggplant is a strange vegetable (actually, it's a fruit).  It's related to tomatoes—which are part of the (deadly) nightshade family. Each eggplant contains the nicotine of about 1/30th of a cigarette. Eggplants are native to India, and seem to have made their way to western Europe sometime in the 1500's, along with tomatoes and the Renaissance.

Eggplants seem unnaturally lightweight for their size—which is part of what makes them such a versatile main ingredient. Unlike outwardly similar vegetables like cucumbers, squashes, and zucchinis, eggplants are not saturated with water. This airiness allows eggplants to soak up lots of oil during cooking, which is part of why they seem so meaty and rich.

This is a one-skillet recipe, and takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes start to finish. I use gluten free bread to make my breadcrumbs, but you can use regular bread/crumbs if you don't mind the wheat. I don't peel the eggplants since I enjoy the skin, but you can peel them if you prefer. I'd recommend not using extra virgin olive oil since it can burn and add bitterness. Stick with regular olive oil (or even canola in a pinch).

Slice the eggplant into 1-inch thick slices. Sprinkle each slice with kosher salt on both sides (just a light sprinkle, less than 1/8 teaspoon per slice). Let the eggplant slices sit for 30 minutes. This helps draw out some of the bitter flavors from the eggplant, and removes further water.

You can make the marinara sauce while you're waiting. You can also toast the bread in preparation for making your breadcrumbs.

Once you've toasted the bread, let it cool to room temperature. Cooling the bread to room temperature after toasting is an important step, as it allows more moisture to escape from the bread (leaving you with crumbs rather than mush after a trip through the food processor).

Once cool, pulverize the toasted bread slices in a food processor. Once the bread has reached a fairly crumby texture, add 1/2 cup of the parmesan cheese and give it a few more pulses until they are proper crumbs.

Dump the breadcrumbs and parmesan into a mixing bowl, and add a pinch of dried oregano and the flour. Then add salt, pepper, onion powder, and granulated garlic to taste. And I really do mean "to taste."

Taste the breading and re-season as necessary. The breading should taste good—not unlike how a well-flavored Italian herb and parmesan cracker might taste if you ate the crumbs. When in doubt, add more salt.

To make the dipping wash, beat one egg, and add to it 1/4 cup whole milk. Mix well.

Pre-heat your oven on 325 degrees F.

Heat a large cast iron skillet on medium heat, and wait 4-5 minutes for it to come up to heat.

When it's just starting to send up wisps of smoke, add a solid coating of olive oil, and begin breading the eggplant.

To bread the eggplant, pat the slices dry with a paper towel to soak up the water that was drawn out by the salt.  Then dip eggplant slices in the egg wash—being sure to get full coverage.

Bread the slices thoroughly on all sides. Don't be afraid to use your fingers to get as much breading on each slice as possible.

Cook the eggplant slices until nicely browned, and then flip them over and brown the other side. This might take 3-4 minutes per side.

Once the eggplant slices are browned on each side, put a generous dollop of Outstanding Marinara Sauce on top of each slice. Sprinkle each slice of eggplant with a respectable pile of parmesan cheese.

Place the skillet in the oven, and bake on 325 degrees F for 25-30 minutes.

Remove your eggplant parmesan from the oven to let cool for a few minutes, and serve! 

I like to serve this dish right in the skillet for a nice presentation. Be sure to warn your guests of how hot the pan is.

This dish goes well with rice pilaf and caesar salad.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Recipe: Pasta Autunnale

The last of the garden's summer bounty... over pasta.
Everyone's heard of pasta primavera. With asparagus, broccoli, peas, and other early-season vegetables, pasta primavera is a culinary celebration of spring.

I had to Google the Italian word for "autumn" to name this dish.  As you might imagine, this dish is a close cousin of pasta primavera... but made with fall vegetables instead.

Any day now the frost is going to sweep down out of the Rockies and end the gardening season. But for now, we've got yellow squash, chard, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, green beans, and thyme (I bought the mushrooms from the store). I used yellow squash in this recipe, but you could substitute zucchini if you happen to have a few hundred extras (like most gardeners I know).

  • 6 oz cremini or baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 large yellow summer squash, sliced roughly 1/2 inch thick
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 4 large cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 10 green beans, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 small bunch of chard, chopped very rough
  • 1 pound of linguine pasta (I use Tinkyada brand gluten free)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme, chopped (about 1/4 teaspoon loosely packed)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (e.g. Chardonnay)
  • 1/3 cup veggie broth (or chicken, if you don't mind the meat)

Boil the pasta is well-salted water (the water should taste like a too-salty soup). NOTE: I did not include the pasta water salt in the above ingredients list. Once pasta is al dente, remove from heat, drain, toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and set aside covered.

As the pasta is nearing doneness, heat a large stainless steel saute pan on medium to medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and then toss in the squash, mushrooms, chard, onion, and green beans. After about 3 minutes, add the butter and lower the heat to just under medium. Add the salt and pepper.

Saute the veggies, tossing or stirring frequently. Try to develop a bit of browning on the squash and onion caramelization.

After about 10 minutes, toss in the tomatoes and thyme. After another 3 minutes, taste the veggies to make sure they're pretty soft.

Prepare to add the pressed garlic. Do this by clearing a spot in the center of the pan, adding a splash of olive oil, and then putting in the garlic.

Stir the garlic around in its little clearing for about 1 minute, and as it begins to stick to the bottom (but well before it burns), deglaze the center of the pan with the white wine and scrape up any stuck garlic. Toss in the pasta, add the broth, and toss everything together to mix it.

Simmer for 1-2 minutes to evaporate some of the liquid.

Serve immediately topped with Parmesan cheese. I didn't have any, but some chopped fresh parsley on top would have been nice.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Article: PFOA and PFOS linked to High Cholesterol in Children

The Ohio River Valley, where Teflon has been manufactured for decades
In a recent study that examined over 12,000 children ages 1 to 18, high levels of PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluoro-octanesulfonate) were associated with high levels of LDL (or "bad") cholesterol.

This study was conducted in the Ohio River Valley as part of a class action lawsuit against DuPont, the makers of Teflon. DuPont's manufacture of Teflon-containing products, including non-stick cookware, has polluted the area's ground water with PFOA and PFOS.

While DuPont and other manufacturers have agreed to phase out the use of PFOA in their manufacturing processes by 2015, little is known about the safety of the new chemicals that will replace PFOA. I don't believe that the money allocated for the review of chemical alternatives to PFOA is sufficient. 

In the face of continued political pressure to reduce the EPA's ability to perform its functions—thereby putting corporations in charge of public health—the conservative approach is to seek alternatives to Teflon cookware in your home.

It is likely in this case that the manufacture of Teflon-containing products was responsible for the elevated blood serum levels of PFOA in these children (as opposed to the use of Teflon-containing cookware). However, because PFOA off-gasses from non-stick cookware under normal use, I recommend you throw out your Teflon and other non-stick cookware in favor of cast iron cookware and stainless steel cookware.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Article: CNN's "Toxic America" Series Recommends Cast Iron Cookware

A Teflon pan releases PFOA into your food at medium-high heat
CNN has been running a series on chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens that happen to be in the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans—including babies that haven't been born.

One of the articles in the series covers 5 toxic household chemicals, and offers guidance on avoiding them.

One of these toxic chemicals is PFOA, or perflourooctanoic acid.  PFOA is a chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon and other non-stick cookware.

According to the CNN report, "PFOA causes cancer and developmental problems in laboratory animals."  The CNN report goes on to note that the EPA has determined that research on PFOA is "suggestive of carcinogenicity but not sufficient to assess human carcinogenic potential."

In other words, the EPA is pretty sure PFOA is bad stuff, but because it would be unethical to run an experiment on humans to prove it, they can't say for sure.

CNN's recommendation:

"You can reduce potential exposure by using stainless steel or cast iron cookware. If you use nonstick cookware, do not overheat, which releases toxic gas."

I heartily agree with CNN. But I'm biased.

Or am I?

I don't sell anything on this website. My only bias comes from the fact that I have two small children and a wife that I love very much, and I'd like to keep the carcinogens in their bloodstreams to a minimum.

On the subject of bias...

DuPont, the manufacturer of Teflon, has agreed to reduce the presence of PFOA in their products by 95%. This is an abrupt about-face for DuPont, who for the past 30 years has steadfastly denied any dangers associated with PFOA or Teflon. It turns out DuPont was lying, and in 2006 the EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for the cover up. NOTE: $16.5 million represents roughly 1/50th of 1% of DuPont's profits during those years.

Given the 3-decade lag between when DuPont knew about the dangers of PFOA and when they began removing it from their products, I don't trust that whatever chemical they decide to use instead of PFOA will be safe.

And I'm not waiting 30 years to find out.

If that sounds sensible to you, I encourage you to check out my collection of recipes using cast iron and stainless steel cookware. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recipe: Outstanding Marinara Sauce

Marinara sauce is a pretty simple affair of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil.

Contrary to some accounts, it is not named for the men of the sea (mariners) based on its ingredient list. While fish (most commonly in the form of anchovies) feature prominently in some marinara recipes, the name apparently derives from the old Italian grandmothers of Naples who served this delectable sauce to their sons and husbands upon their safe return from the sea.

Of course, tomatoes didn't exist in Italy until mariners brought them from the new world... so perhaps there's more to the story of how this sauce got its name.

Full disclosure: this recipe is adapted from the Cook's Illustrated "Best Quick Tomato Sauce" recipe from the May / June 2009 Issue.

I didn't change much.

As is true with many a great recipe, this recipe's brilliance stems from its expert pairing of sweet, salty, acidic, and bitter flavors—along with a proper dose of savory (also called Umami).

Unsurprisingly, the saltiness and sweetness come from... salt and sugar. The acid comes from the tomatoes. The bitterness comes from the seared garlic, olive oil, and oregano. The savory flavor comes from butter and the fond developed during caramelization.

This recipe is cooked in stainless steel as opposed to cast iron.

I bring it to you for the following reasons:
  1. Stainless steel is safe cookware, and affords the cook the development of a robust fond (browned bits of goodness that stick to the pan) for later deglazing.
  2. This recipe is really easy to make, and the flavor far surpasses anything you will ever get from a jar. Seriously.
  3. This marinara sauce is featured in several other recipes on this blog, and thus it would seem a disservice not to provide it.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano)
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, pressed (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1 - 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 - 14 ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste
Heat a medium stainless steel saute pan on medium heat. While the pan is coming up to heat, grate the onion using a coarse grater (your garden variety grater, the one with roughly 1/4 inch holes). A third of a cup is about a third a medium onion.

When the pan is warm, toss in the butter, and then immediately add the grated onion. Stir things around frequently to avoid burning. You'll caramelize the onions for 5-7 minutes, until they reach a golden brown. Because the onion is in such small pieces it can burn quickly, so stay nearby during this part!

Once the onion is well-caramelized, clear a spot in the center of the pan and drop in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Immediately add the pressed garlic and black pepper. Stir the garlic and black pepper around for 30 seconds or so, and then add the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, sugar, and oregano.

Simmer for no more than 10 minutes, during which time you should salt it to taste. You'll probably add between 1/4 teaspoon and 1/2 teaspoon of table salt (more if it's kosher salt). How much salt you add depends on how much salt is in the canned tomatoes, and of course your preferences. If in doubt about whether you've added enough salt, add (a little) more and taste again.

Just before serving (or using the marinara in another recipe), add that last tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil to freshen up the taste.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Quick Tip: Use Plastic Mesh Produce Bags for Cast Iron Clean Up

Cook's Illustrated magazine Quick Tip on cast iron cleaning
Many months ago, I sent a note to Cook's Illustrated magazine about using plastic mesh bags for cast iron cleaning. They published it in their "Quick Tips" section in the November / December issue.

Using these plastic bags (that would otherwise be thrown away) is a great way to remove heavy grease or other crud that you don't want sullying your normal cast iron scrubber pad.

You can throw away the plastic mesh bag after use, or even use it again if it isn't too soiled.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Recipe: Dutch Oven Chili

Dutch oven chili simmering on the stove

This is an easy-to-make chili that'll make you feel like a cast iron pro. You can use your cast iron dutch oven, or an enameled dutch oven if that's what you have on hand (bare cast iron is preferable since it allows for the development of fond, which improves flavor).

This chili accommodates a variety of meats and beans, but more importantly it's very tasty.

Related Recipes:

This recipe serves 8-10.

The two most most common problems with chili are:
  1. General lack of flavor
  2. Too-watery consistency
    This recipe solves both problems.

    • 2 lbs ground bison, beef, or turkey
    • 4 cups cooked beans (kidney, pinto, red, etc.)
    • 1 medium onion, chopped
    • 4 stalks of celery, chopped
    • 3 cans (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
    • 2 tablespoons oil
    • 1 tablespoon flour (I used gluten free, but wheat flour is fine, too)
    • 1 tablespoon chili powder
    • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
    • 1-2 tablespoons kosher salt, and to taste
    • 2 teaspoons black pepper
    • 2 bay leaves
    Heat your cast iron dutch oven on medium heat, and add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan. When the oil is hot and shimmering, toss in your onions and celery.

    Aromatics and ground bison
    One of the keys to developing flavor for chili is to pair sweetness with salt. The sweetness comes from caramelizing your onions before adding liquids. Because the onions and celery will continue to cook as the meat browns, I like to give them a 5-6 minute head start.

    Stir the aromatics around as they cook to avoid scorching, and then add the ground meat. Brown the meat, stirring every minute or two. This will take around 10 minutes.

    Once the meat is browned, add another tablespoon of oil, 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and the flour, chili powder, and granulated garlic (NOTE: I use kosher salt because it's what I have in a bowl next to my stove. If you're using table salt, cut quantities in half).

    Always taste your chili and re-season as necessary
    Cook the spices (in the meat and aromatics) for about a minute to release their oils, and then add the beans, diced tomatoes, and bay leaves. Stir things around once more, and then simmer on low heat for 30 minutes to 3 hours—depending on how hungry you are. Stir it every 10 minutes or so while is simmers to avoid burning.

    The longer it simmers, the better. As your chili simmers, taste it! You want the beans to soak up as much flavor as they can, since this makes each bite of chili more balanced once it hits the spoon. As the beans soak up flavor from the surrounding liquid, you'll want to add more salt and seasonings.

    If the chili doesn't delight your palate with flavor upon tasting, add salt until it does. If you prefer more heat, add black pepper (NOTE: pepper takes some time to release into the dish, so wait 20 minutes after adding pepper to taste for heat). If you'd like a little smoke, add a smokey hot sauce like Uncle Brutha's (which, of course, will add heat, too).

    As mentioned above, you'd be silly not to serve this chili with some cast iron skillet corn bread. We like to put it over noodles or rice, and it's best served with fresh chopped onions and grated cheese.

    Clean up

    Scrub your dutch oven clean with a non-abrasive cleaning pad and hot water. If you don't want to dirty your sponge, or if your sponge is full of soap, you can use a plastic mesh produce bag (like for  onions or citrus) and throw it away when you're finished.

    Once clean, dry your dutch oven with heat on the stovetop or in the oven (on 250 degrees F). Once it is dry, oil the dutch oven all over and let it cool. Cast iron should always be put away shiny with oil!

    Read more on the care of cast iron cookware.