Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Blogging is an interesting thing, especially the one I do. My focus is on seasonal ingredients and in particular what you find at the market. So I can't think too far ahead, because I need to be in step with what you can find too. Every now and then I think I have a great plan, but down to the wire I sometimes change things up. So what does that mean? Well, I had all good intentions of talking tomatoes this week - but when I hit the Larchmont Farmers Market on Saturday I was taken away by the wide variety of eggplants. So many shapes, sizes and colors. From tiny teardrops to the large plump white variety. All beautiful and amazing that I just had to grab a bunch and do something over the weekend!

As far back as I can remember I've eaten eggplant, in a variety of ways. Being of Greek heritage it's an ingredient that showed up a lot in my family's cooking. I remember my Mother stuffing them with an herby rice mixture along with tomatoes and peppers. My Grandmother would fry them and top with Tzaziki (yogurt garlic sauce) or Skordalia (garlic potato spread). Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, they are comfort food for me.

Google the word and hundreds of recipes will appear. Some sort of cooking must take place with this vegetable, either baking, sautéing or frying. Eaten raw they are bitter and not good eats. Eggplant can be used as part of a main course, side dish or even as an appetizer. I even came across a very easy recipe for a bruschetta recipe on the Wine Spectator website that can be created quickly.

In my eggplant research I came to find out that it was first cultivated in India. (So much for thinking it was native to the Mediterranean!) Nutritionally it has zero fat and is low in calories and carbs. It mainly consists of Vitamin A, along with B Vitamins, C, Folate and a bunch of great minerals. Just a quick note on the fat content: in order to keep that as low as possible you will want to think about how this great veggie is prepared. The ever popular Eggplant Parmesan is typically breaded and fried before it get's layered with cheese and sauce. One way to reduce the fat is to grill or bake the slices. I toyed with the idea of doing an Eggplant Parm recipe for you, but that just seemed a little too easy. You can find any number of recipes to fill that need. Working a little "on the fly" I came up with three ideas over the weekend, for today.

While I was at the Larchmont market on Saturday not only did I find piles of eggplant, but squash, beans, tomatoes and potatoes. Immediately a summer stew came to mind. There is a traditional dish called "Tourlou Tourlou" that comes from Greece and Turkey. The exact translation means "mixed up." There are many versions of this stew, each as different as the cook that prepares it. My mother for example does hers with just onion, okra, beans and zucchini. I'm going to give you my basic outline, but I encourage you to create your own. Quantity and variety all depend on what you like, but I will say the more variety the better the stew.

Admittedly I went a little crazy with my ingredients ... I just could not help myself! Everything looked so amazing that I just had to buy them all! First things first, you need to sauté the onions and garlic until soft then add the eggplant and squash.

While they are cooking clean your okra pods. Here is an interesting tip: my Mother swears by this - after cleaning the top off the pod soak it in lemon water for a few minutes. She claims this reduces the slime quotient. I searched everywhere for some justification on this and found virtually nothing. I'm going to chalk that up to an "old wives tale." (Unless someone out there can tell me different.) I will say that in the final analysis they were not slimy - but I'm wondering if that is because I left these little tykes whole?


Add your fresh tomatoes and a bit of water and let them cook down to a nice sauce. Add the potatoes and okra and cook until they are fork tender. The very last thing you will add are the beans, as they don't take long.

After a nice low simmer you have a lovely Summer Stew. Perfect with a crusty slice of bread.


For an easy pasta dish I took equal amounts of grilled eggplant and zucchini along with chopped tomatoes to create a simple sauce. Here's what to do: sauté 2 cloves of garlic and add 2 cups of finely chopped tomatoes, in a small pot. Cook for about 3 minutes. Add 2 cups of chopped grilled eggplant (about 1 medium size), and 2 cups of chopped grilled zucchini (about 2 medium).

Mix them together. While you are doing the quick sauce cook 1 pound of pasta according to the package instructions to al dente. Drain the pasta reserving 1 cup of the liquid. After mixing it all together top with about 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese, using the pasta water to bring it all together. Garnish with some chopped parsley or basil and you have a great dish for lunch or dinner.

My last idea is a simple, but elegant rollatini. I sliced the eggplant about 1/2 inch thick and seasoned with a brush of olive oil, salt and pepper. After a quick grill I filled them with a really tasty mixed grain I found recently at the grocery store (in the rice aisle) called Heritage Grain Blend. It cooks in 20 minutes and is a combo of quinoa, amaranth and brown rice. While the grains were cooking I sautéed half an onion and and one 15 oz can of petite diced tomatoes.


Once the grains were done I tossed with the onion-tomato mixture and added some chopped parsley, checked for seasoning, then filled the eggplant slices. I topped with a little sprinkle of Asiago - but that's totally optional. Broil for a few minutes to warm the rollatini and melt the cheese.

Not only is this a beautiful dish, but it's incredibly tasty and healthy too!

I hope this inspires you to get a few eggplants and cook up something special this weekend. On another quick note: if you are interested in brushing up on your cooking skills I have some great new classes coming up in September. Check the Tarry Market website for details.

Buon Appetito!

Chef Maria's Summer Vegetable Stew
Serves 4-6

1 cup red onion, ¼” dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup eggplant, 2 small Japanese, 1” slice
1 cup summer squash or zucchini, 1” slice
3-4 cups of fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 cup okra, whole if tiny, or 1” slice
½ lemon
1 cup new potatoes, quartered
1 cup wax beans, 2” pieces
1 cup green beans, 2” pieces
¼ cup fresh basil, roughly chopped 
¼ cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Kosher salt
freshly grated black pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Over medium heat add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a small pot and sauté the onion and garlic with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until soft. Add the eggplant and squash, with another sprinkle of salt and pepper and continue to cook until the vegetables take on a light brown color, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile prep your okra by cleaning the top and soaking in a small bowl with cool water and the juice of ½ lemon. If the okra are larger than 2” slice them to 1” pieces and set aside.

Once the eggplant and squash become golden in color add the tomatoes, another pinch of salt and pepper and 1 cup of water. Lower the heat and cook for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes break down. Stirring occasionally.

Add the okra, ½ lemon, potatoes, and bay leaf. You may need to add a little more water if the veggies are not submerged. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 10 minutes.  Add the beans and cook for another 5 minutes. Check your seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
When your stew is nice and thick remove the lemon and bay leaf and stir in the fresh herbs. Serve with a slice (or two) of a nice crusty bread to soak up all the great juice!

Cook's Note: Variety of vegetables is completely up to you. Use my list above as a guideline, just keep in mind that you want the size of your cuts to be similar so they cook at the same rate, and the quantities close to what I note for the final dish. Let yourself creative!

(Recipe created by Maria Reina of Bella Cucina Maria)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Yummy Summertime Squash

Before I get into our topic at hand I'd like to take a quick moment and say "Happy Birthday" to a woman that inspired me to do what I am doing today: Julia Child. Today is her 100th birthday. What an amazing woman she was - inspiring generations of home cooks to rethink how they prepared and ate food.

For me her life story has so many parallels to mine: she had a long career as a single woman, met her husband later in life, discovered a passion for cooking after they were married, and with his support was able to create a new career for herself. While my life has had it's share of sadness, like everyone else, the happy moments far outshine those. (My glass is always half full!) I'm doing exactly what I love, thanks a lot in part to Larry. Much like Julia had with Paul. Larry is my taste-tester, supporter and all around fabulous husband! He is, as I am fond of saying, the "lid to my pot!"

So let's get to this week's topic: Summer Squash. They are everywhere right now. Piles and piles of zucchini are at the grocery store and corner markets. Loads of them, yellow, lita and pattypans are at the farmers markets. Just google the word "squash" and you will get pages of recipes, pictures and ideas for this great summer vegetable. Savory and sweet, baked, raw, fried, grilled ... you name it! 
But before we dive in to my recipe ideas, here are a few tidbits on summer squash: it's low in fat and carbs, loaded Vitamins A and C, which acts like an antioxidant that promotes tissue repair. It's also a great source of fiber, potassium and folate. Since they are tasty and tender in the summer, versus their counterparts in the winter, the skin is edible and filled with nutrients. So keeping it on is optimal!
While I was doing my squash research this week I came across another very interesting bit of information: there seems to be some evidence that squash was cultivated as far back as 10,000 years ago. Astounding! It's also one of the "Three Sister" crops that were grown by Native Americans. You might be wondering what a Three Sister crop is? They are three main native crop plants that were, and still are, planted together to sustain each other. That being corn, squash and beans. Basically the beans grow up the cornstalk and the corn leaves provided shade for the squash growing underneath. The squash provides ground cover to limit weeds that might damage the other two crops. Mother Nature at her very best!
The best time to eat summer squash is of course in the summer. They are also best eaten when they are small. Larger sized summer squash tend to have less flavor. In addition to the actual vegetable you can also eat the blossoms. Zucchini blossoms can be prepared in many different ways, but the stuff and fry method is pretty traditional.
I have four ideas for you to try this week using various summer squash: grilled, baked, raw and fried.

Grilling is just about the easiest way to prepare any vegetable. You basically need four things: olive oil, salt, pepper and the vegetable. In this dish I used the pattypan squash from my Gaia's Breath Farm CSA basket. If you remember I spoke about CSA's (Community Support Agriculture) a few weeks back. Making these could not be simpler. Just cut them on the bias about 1/2 inch thick, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and grill until soft, but not mushy. I topped these with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and some basil from my garden. Yum!

Add some couscous, scallion, lemon zest and basil. Remove from heat and set aside. All of the sautéing and couscous making is happening while the shells are cooking - so multi-tasking is the name of the game here. Once the shells are cool enough to handle stuff them with the filling. I also added a little parmesan on top just for fun! These are great "make-ahead" side dishes. They will take you less than an hour from start to finish and can go from the fridge to table in a snap. They can be rewarmed either in the oven, or the microwave. I used couscous, but quinoa or even rice would be perfect here as well.

My third idea comes by way of my friend and old Sous Chef from Tarry Lodge, Melissa Forte. She suggested the idea of grating the squash raw and mixing with hot pasta. For this recipe I used a yellow squash, spring raab greens (spinach would be great here too), basil, scallions and a relatively new Veggie Pasta from Barilla.

I blanched the greens for 1 minute then shocked them in an ice bath. After draining I chopped them up and added to a big bowl. While the pasta is cooking you take a yellow squash and grate it raw right into the bowl, along with the juice and zest of one lemon. After the pasta is cooked drain it, reserving half a cup of pasta water, and add it right on top of the squash. The heat from the pasta will soften the squash. Then I added in a chopped scallion, about 1/4 cup of fresh chopped basil and 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese. Toss well using the pasta water to bring it all together.  

I served this pasta dish with a lovely grilled pork chop, topping it with some fresh cherry tomatoes! 

For my last recipe I thought it would be fun to show you how to do a fried zucchini flower. Zucchini flowers are completely edible and very tasty. There are lots of ways to eat them: fried, baked, tossed in pasta, placed on top of a pizza, or even in a soup. You just need to do a little prep before using them. Carefully open the flower and remove the pistal, trying to not tear them. I actually picked these from a friend's garden last night and when I got them home they had a few ants on them. Gently give them a rinse if you see any dirt or bugs ... definitely not good eats!

You can fry them simply as is with a little batter, but I decided to fill them. There are no real recipe measurements here, I just used some fresh ricotta, a little lemon zest and some mint from my garden. 
I carefully stuffed them and gave them a little squeeze to hold it all together. 
My batter was simply 1 yolk, 1/2 cup of sparkling water and 1/2 cup of all- purpose flour. You can use flat water, but the sparkling gives the batter a little lightness.

After a dip in the batter carefully drop in the oil. They take no more than a minute to cook. As soon as you pull them out sprinkle with a little salt and serve immediately! 
I hope you enjoy these various ways to enjoy summer squash! Please send me a message with your favorite recipe when you have a chance! 
Buon Appetito! 

Couscous Stuffed Lita Squash
Makes 6

6 lita squash
1 cup cooked couscous or grain of choice
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Zest and juice of one lemon
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly grated black pepper
Parmesan cheese, optional

Preheat oven to 425°.

With a paring knife slice cut down and around the squash, leaving a ¼“ edge. Carefully scoop out the center and place on a cutting board. Season the squash shells with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a foil lined sheet and bake for about 20-30 minutes, or until the shells are tender, but not falling apart.

In the meantime, make your couscous (or grain of choice) according to the package instructions and set aside.

Roughly chop the squash filling and add to a heated sauté pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Sauté for about 5 minutes or until most of the water has evaporated. Remove from heat and add in the couscous, scallions, lemon zest and juice combining well. Once the filling has cooled a bit add in the basil.

Remove the shells from the oven and cool until they can be handled. Fill with the couscous-squash mix and top with a sprinkle of Parmesan, if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.

These can be made ahead and rewarmed either in the oven or microwave.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Did she just say "Let's do a Throwdown?"

It’s been a very exciting couple of weeks for me. This past Saturday (August 11) I was competing against fellow blogger JL Fields in a Farmers Market Throwdown. The evolution of this event was somewhat random and then took on a life of it’s own! A few weeks back I created a very tasty Cold Beet Soup that JL commented on. Being a vegan she is always on the look-out for new recipes to use for her clients. After a few email exchanges with Liz Johnson, our fearless leader and Journal News Food Editor, the friendly competition was born.

First, here’s a quick look at my entry in the Throwdown, the Chipotle Black Bean Burger on You Tube.


I thought it would be fun to go live to a farm in Westchester to choose our main ingredient. Larry and Marian at Amawalk Farm were happy to help.

Their farm is just lovely.

Here is Sam keeping an eye on us as we walk towards the field.

They told us they are growing Sweet Potatoes for the first time this year.

Here is the Kale patch … JL was very excited!

and here are their Rainbow Chard I used for my Cold Chard Soup.

Here is a fun pic of our husbands toting cameras and video equipment. They were such good sports that day while we walked around oohing and ahhing at all the marvelous vegetables!

We decided on Cipollini Onions

and Bunching Onions

I also came upon their beet patch. I picked a few of them too, wondering if I would be able to incorporate them somehow?

My mind was racing – what could I do? I will admit on the drive home at one point I looked over at Larry and said “What the heck was I thinking? How am I going to use onions??” To which he replied, “If you were on Chopped or Iron Chef America you would do it in a snap!” Very true! (My husband is a wise man!)

Once I got it all home I laid them out on the counter and started raiding my pantry: couscous … black beans … chipotle … I immediately thought “burger.” We also decided at the farm that I would make every effort to “vegan-ize” the recipe so JL’s constituents would be able to eat it too. The only animal product I would be using was egg, as the binder. No problem, the swap out for an egg is 1 tablespoon of ground flax plus 3 tablespoons of water.

So let’s get to my burger. This recipe is super easy and comes together in less than 30 minutes, especially if you have a food processor.

Saute bunching onion with jalapeño pepper.

Add in the beet, then mix it all together.

I used some beautiful cilantro that was in my CSA basket that week from  Gaia’s Breath Farm.
We decided on two types of onions at the farm. The bunching went into the burger. I took the cipollinis and used them for a topping. The recipe for the topping is adapted from Bobby Flay’s Oaxaca Dog recipe. (Incidentally from a Throwdown he did!) I love his version and use it a lot for Larry. For this recipe I changed it up a little.

Here is my finished product. (The full recipe is below) I really think it’s a winner! The flavors really come together and pack a great flavor punch. I topped it with some Asiago cheese, but if you are vegan, that would be left off. 
Buon Appetito!

Chipotle Black Bean, Couscous and Beet Veggie Burger
Makes 6 patties
1/2 cup couscous
1 garlic clove, cut in half
2/3 cup boiling water
3-4 Amawalk Farm Bunching Onion bulbs, about 3/4 cup chopped fine, tops reserved
2 teaspoons finely diced jalapeno
2 garlic cloves, finely diced
1/4 cup shredded raw beet from 1 medium beet
2 (15.5-ounce) cans of black beans, drained and rinsed, setting aside 1/2 cup
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
Zest of 1 lime and juice of half of it (reserve other half for the pickled onions)
1 egg beaten, or 1 tablespoon ground flax with 3 tablespoons of water
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Asiago Cheese, optional, but very tasty! 
Make the pickled onions first and set aside to cool. (See separate recipe.) If using ground flax substitute for the egg combine that now and set aside to absorb.
Place the couscous, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a small bowl. Pour the water over it and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside for 5 minutes.
In the bowl of a food processor chop the bunching onions but not quite to the liquid stage. They should be a little smaller than 1/4-inch dice. Place in a sauté pan with 2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil along with the jalapeno, garlic and beet. Season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and sauté until most of the liquid evaporates. (Cook’s note: The mix should be soft and smooth, but not caramelized. Use a spoon to stir is around so the bottom doesn’t burn.) Turn off the heat and set aside to cool slightly. You should have about ½ cup of the onion-beet mixture when you are done.
Fluff your couscous up with a fork and place in a large mixing bowl. Break up any lumps with your fingers.
In the same food processor pulse the black beans until they are broken up. (Remember to keep 1/2 cup whole.) Add the pulsed beans to the couscous along with the egg or flax mixture, onion-beet mixture, whole beans, lime zest, lime juice, chopped chipotle and cilantro. Season with another teaspoon of salt and mix well.
Form into patties and pan fry in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil. You want to get a nice golden brown crust on both sides. After flipping the burger, add the the Asiago on top to melt slightly, if desired.
To serve spread plain mayo on the bun and top with lettuce, pickled onions and the reserved bunching onion tops.
(Recipe created by me exclusively for the August 11, 2012 John Jay Farm Market Throwdown!)

Pickled Onions
2 Amawalk Farm cipollini onions sliced thin, or 1 small red onion
2 garlic cloves, sliced in half
1 teaspoon finely diced jalapeno pepper
12 leaves of cilantro roughly chopped, 2-3 stems
1/2 cup fresh lime juice from 2-3 limes
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon each of superfine sugar and kosher salt
Place the onion, garlic, pepper and cilantro in a non-reactive container. Then place the lime juice, vinegar, salt and sugar in a small glass measuring cup. Microwave the liquid on high for 1 minute. Pour over the onion mix and set aside to cool. Refrigerate the unused portion.
Adapted from Bobby Flays’s Oaxaca Hot Dog Recipe on foodnetwork.com.