Gratin of my dreams

I have an Aunt Carol who is fabulous. Truth be told, she’s my step aunt, but I’ve known her as long as I can remember, and she’s so awesome, I can’t not claim her. If my memory serves me correctly, in the early ’70s, she and her equally fabulous husband first moved to Bern, Switzerland, producer of – in my opinion – the world’s best chocolate, where they taught, sang, and accompanied opera. Then, they moved to northern Germany (#2 in chocolate, but it’s a close second), where they continue to live, teach, sing, and breathe opera today.

Now, as I said, Aunt Carol is fabulous, so being fabulous, she has to study and become fluent in Greek after the age of, like, 65. Well, she lives in Germany, which is about 5 minutes from Greece, and lucky me, she’s not vegan, but allergic to dairy, so I am the happiest beneficiary of her notes about Greek peasant food that she eats or actually participates in making. I live vicariously.

Based on Aunt Carol’s descriptions, I’ve added freshly grated turmeric to mashed or roasted potatoes, and improvised a pumpkin pie surrounded in phyllo, which always gets comments like, “Mmmm, it’s like baklava!” Tonight, based on her rough description of a casserole, I came up with this absolutely DELICIOUS gratin. I don’t know how much it tasted like the one Aunt Carol ate on her last trip to Greece, but I assure you, it made me swoon.

Greek eggplant and potato gratin

  • 1 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 lrg eggplant, thinly sliced cross-wise, about 1/4″ thick
  • 6 red-skin potatoes, sliced about 1/4″ thick
  • 1 14-oz can tomato sauce
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 yellow onion, sliced
  • Coarse salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 425°. Spray a 9×13″ casserole pan with cooking spray. Heat a large cast iron pan over a little lower than medium-high heat. Add about 1/4 cup of oil to the pan, and fry the eggplant slices in batches, adding oil as needed, until golden or a little darker. Place the tomato sauce, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a bowl, and whisk to combine. Pour about a third of the tomato sauce into the bottom of the casserole pan, layer on half of the potato slices, half of the eggplant, one-third of the tomato sauce, the other half of the potatoes and eggplant, the onion slices, and the last third of sauce. Drizzle on whatever is left of the olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about an hour. Test the potato for doneness by poking it with a sharp knife. If it’s soft, uncover the gratin, and bake for another ten or fifteen minutes until bubbling. Generously sprinkle on the coarse salt (Maldon is my preference), and serve.

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The genius of the Mediterranean

I love the food of the Mediterranean. I lived in France for a year – in the Loire Valley, but I prefer the food of Provence. I’ve never been to Italy or Greece, except in my fantasies, but I have been to Spain and Portugal and Israel and Argentina…cultures that emphasize fresh, delicious, in-season produce in their cooking. Cultures that melt tomatoes in olive oil, that brilliantly combine garlic and lemon parts to make miraculous, simple un-sauces, where perfect olives of infinite variety are tapas…

In all of these places, veganism would seem preposterous to most people. Why would you willingly cut out whole categories of food? No matter. I’m grateful for the inspiration. Grateful for the history and tradition and invention.

And so, voila, my homage to the Mediterranean.

I should note that when my 5-year-old tasted this, she said, unsolicited, “You should definitely serve this to your clients. Definitely.” I also think this would make a super yummy pizza topping. And a little secret: the broccoli and tomatoes were left over from a crudite tray. Ew – refrigerated tomatoes. But in this dish, delicious!!

Mediterranean pasta

  • 1 tbsp + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, broken into small pieces
  • 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 4-5 fat garlic-stuffed olives (or Greek-cured or kalamata), sliced
  • Juice and zest of half of a lemon (I used a Meyer)
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 lb whole wheat penne
  • 1/2 cup almond meal

Put a large covered saucepan of water to boil over high heat. Once boiling, cook the pasta (add salt!) until al dente, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron pan over a bit over medium heat and add the tbsp of oil, and then, one it’s shimmering, add the shallots and broccoli. Saute for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. Coax the tomatoes into melting by poking them with a sharp knife. Add the rest of the oil, the chickpeas, olives, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Let simmer and melt while the pasta cooks.

Heat a small cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the almond meal. Toast, stirring often, for about ten minutes until well toasted but not burned.

Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a drizzle of olive oil if you like. Sprinkle each serving with almond meal, and serve.

Heaven Scent

They say your memory is strongly connected to your sense of smell. I don’t know what that means in terms of your brain, but I think for many people – especially for food lovers – it’s absolutely true that a particular smell can bring back a memory you didn’t even realize you had, until you’re there, in the moment, carried to a far away time or a far away place.

For some reason, every time I walk into the Whole Foods in Oakland, I am transported to my mother’s kitchen, where my step-father – who had cerebral palsy, and couldn’t stand for too long without getting very uncomfortable, so rarely cooked – would be standing at the stove making booze dogs. Barbecue sauce, a LOT of Black Velvet whiskey, and kosher hot dogs sliced into bite-size pieces. They were amazingly, absurdly delicious, and had such a distinct smell. And something they make in their kitchen at that particular Whole Foods smells exactly like them. And I haven’t smelled that booze dog smell in my mother’s kitchen in decades, but you better believe I know it when I smell it.

Another smell I’ve never smelled anywhere but at its source, is the fragrant potatoey scent of roasted potatoes made by my first host mother in France. I lived in the Loire Valley for about a year 25 years ago, but the smell of ma chere Gazou’s roasting potatoes is one of my top five favorites (guessing, I’ve never actually counted). Sadly, I have no idea how she made them, other than with some magic. I’ve roasted potatoes many many MANY times, and they always taste and smell great, but not like Gazou’s. Well, at least until today.

Country-style French roasted potatoes

  • 12 red-skinned potatoes, chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray, then add the potato chunks. Drizzle the olive oil on, rub the oregano between your hands, and sprinkle on, add the lemon zest, and salt, and toss the potatoes with your hands until well coated. Roast for 45 minutes or so, tossing after 20 minutes. They should be crisp.

Nachas and tomato soup

Why is it that summer is over, and NOW I can’t get enough tomatoey things? I love a fresh tomato, sliced, sprinkled with a little salt, and popped into my mouth. Or drizzled with a little olive oil. Done. Delicious. But as the weather cools down, what I’m craving is the tomatoey warmth of cooked tomatoes. Enter stage left: San Marzano tomatoes.

Yes, they’re more expensive than regular canned tomatoes, but when you’re making something in which the tomatoes have been cast in the starring role, spending a little extra is worth it. Costco sells them in a four-pack, which brings the price down a little, and they are so rich and tomatoey. Do it.

Today, my daughter was named student of the day for the second time. She had a substitute teacher. I asked my daughter what she did to deserve the honor, and she didn’t know, so I asked the sub. She said she enjoyed having her in class: she was quiet, attentive, and happy. I was SO proud. I asked my girl what she’d like for dinner in light of her honor, and she requested tomato soup.  Here ’tis.

Dreamy creamy tomato soup

  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • 1 1/2 cups veg stock
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 15-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
  • 28-oz can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • Pinch of sugar, if necessary

Place the cashews in a small saucepan with the veg stock, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove from heat.

Meanwhile, place a Dutch oven over medium heat and add the olive oil. When hot, add the tomato paste, and saute, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste has melted into the olive oil. Add the onion and carrots, and saute until softened, about five minutes. Add the herbs and salt and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the canned tomatoes, squishing the whole toms with the side of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for flavor, and add a pinch of sugar if you find it necessary. I generally do not.

Place the cashews and veg stock in a blender and puree until smooth. Add half of the tomato soup and puree. Pour the contents of the blender into a bowl, and then ladle the rest of the soup into the blender, pureeing until smooth. Pour all of the soup back into your Dutch oven, stir well, and reheat, if necessary. Enjoy!

I made purple challah

My challah is usually yellow. Many years ago, when I first started making challah, I used a pinch of saffron threads soaked in hot water to lend a delicate yellow hue to my challah, along with the eggs.  As a vegan, I use some kind of fruit puree to sub in for the egg, generally either persimmon, mango, or peach. YOLK-colored fruit.  Well, yesterday, I didn’t have any of those yolk-colored fruits, but I did have some left-over gorgeous black plums I’d mostly used up canning plum jam. So I threw some plums in the blender with some agave and canola, leaving the skins ON, and voila, purple challah. But you better believe, it was delicious!

Challah – Purple or Not

  • 2 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups white whole wheat flour
  • 1 tbsp instant yeast
  • 2 tsp table salt
  • 3 lrg plums*
  • 1/3 cup agave
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup warm water
  • Olive oil and flour for rolling

Place the bread flour, 2 1/2 cups of the white whole wheat flour, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer with the dough hook, and mix.  Pit and quarter the plums, and put them in a blender with the agave and canola oil.  Add the plum mixture to the mixer, and add the water.  Add more white whole wheat flour to get to a very thick pancake batter consistency.  Don’t add so much flour that the dough gets tough; it’s okay if it’s not pulling away from the bowl all the way.  Sticky challah dough makes soft bread.

Place a teaspoon of olive oil in a large bowl,  OIL YOUR HANDS, and scrape the dough into your bowl.  Roll the dough around as best you can to get it fully oiled.  Cover with a dish towel and let it rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray.  Generously flour a board.  Uncover your dough, gently punch it down, divide it into two balls, and put one back in the bowl.  Place the second ball on the board, sprinkle some flour on top of your dough, and oil your hands (keep your hands oiled through this process).  Knead a few times to integrate the flour.  Cut the ball into 2 parts, 1/3 and 2/3 pieces.  Divide the 2/3 hunk into thirds, and roll each 1/3 into a snake.  Braid the three snakes together, and tuck the ends under to make a pretty bottom layer.  Place the bottom layer on 1 side of the cookie sheet.  Repeat process with the 1/3 hunk.  Place the top layer on top of the bottom layer.  Repeat the process with the second ball of dough.  Cover the cookie sheet with a towel for about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  After the challahs have rested for 20 to 30 minutes, remove the towel, and place in the oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, and check for color.  It should be golden or darker.  Bake for an additional 5 or 10 minutes to achieve good color.  Remove from oven and let cool before slicing.  Or not.  We never slice, and we generally don’t wait for it to cool.  But that’s us.

*If you want actual yellow challah, as opposed to purple, you can puree persimmons (the custardy kind work best for this), mango, or peaches in the blender.  You want the equivalent of about 4 eggs.  Sorry I can’t give you an approximate weight, but you probably know what an egg looks like, you can guess about how much fruit would be its equivalent.