Sunday, December 29, 2013

Did Santa Bring You Stretchy Pants?

Our Christmas dinner this year wasn't very traditional, but it was delicious. It was just the two of us--newlyweds! in our first house!--so there wasn't much pressure to spend all day churning out dish after dish. We just went for one cozy, delicious dish: eggplant parmesan!

Before 2006, I'd really only had eggplant parmesan at Olive Garden. (Small Southern towns aren't known for great Italian family restaurants.) Then I moved to the DC area and met my friend Jeff, who pretty much nailed Italian comfort food (and chocolate chip cookies, but that's another post) and who was nice enough to invite us over for home-cooked meals. He fed Josh and I eggplant parmesan almost four years ago, and we still talk about it. Making friends with Jeff was an excellent move; wearing stretchy pants to his place for dinner was genius.

By nature, this is a rich dish. But after a month of Christmas treats in the atmosphere and four days at my parents' house, stocked with the usual parade of sweets...well, stretchy pants can only stretch so far. I consulted my favorite guilt-proof cookbook for some tricks on making the dish a little that I could still eat dessert. (My carryon was packed with two kinds of cake, pecan turtles, peanut butter balls, and fudge. I had work to do.) The biggest difference came from baking the eggplant instead of frying, but other small tweaks helped too.

Eggplant isn't something I unequivocally love. Too often, it's bland and boring; at the worst, it's limp and squishy. Eggplant needs a bit of finagling to make it really shine--salting, draining, and pressing slices does the trick. Dredging only one side in flour, egg whites, and then toasted panko (Japanese-style breadcrumbs--they're crustless) with parmesan keeps the slices from getting limp and squishy. Problem solved! And with room for fudge, even in the pants that are begging for mercy.

Notes on this recipe

  • If you don't have panko, use three cups of regular breadcrumbs. They'll shrink as they toast.
  • Although the recipe calls for homemade tomato sauce, I've found that jarred tomato sauce with basil and garlic works really well. (I like Newman's Own fire-roasted tomato and garlic sauce.)
Eggplant Parmesan
Adapted from The Best Light Recipe | Serves 6

For the sauce
Two 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
½ cup chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper
For the eggplant
2 eggplants (about 1 pound each), ends trimmed, sliced into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
Vegetable oil spray
1 ½ cups panko (see note above)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1/2 cup)
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
3 large egg whites
1 tablespoon water
8 ounces reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

For the eggplant: Toss half of the eggplant with 1/2 teaspoon salt, then place in a large colander set over a bowl or in the sink. Repeat with the remaining eggplant and 1/2 teaspoon more salt, and transfer to the colander with the first batch. Let the eggplant sit for 30 minutes to drain, while you make the sauce. (Or fold laundry and watch Bravo, if you chose the Paul Newman option above.)

For the sauce: Pulse the tomatoes, with their juice, in a food processor until mostly smooth. Cook the ­garlic, tomato paste, oil, and pepper flakes (if using) in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the tomato paste begins to brown, about two minutes. Then stir in the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook until thickened, 20 to 25 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside until needed.

Prep your dredging ingredients: Combine the panko and oil in a 12-inch skillet, and toast over medium heat, stirring often, until golden, about 10 minutes. Spread the panko in a shallow dish and let cool slightly, then stir in the parmesan. In a second shallow dish, whisk the flour, garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper together. In a third shallow dish, whisk the egg whites and water together. (I use a small Pyrex baking dish for the panko and two wide, low pasta bowls for the flour and egg whites.)

Now back to that eggplant: Spread the eggplant over several layers of paper towels or clean tea towels. Firmly press the tops of the eggplant dry with more towels, really squishing out extra liquid. Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 475 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Season the eggplant with pepper. Lightly dredge one side of each eggplant slice in the seasoned flour, shaking off the excess. Dip the floured side of the ­eggplant into the egg whites, then coat the same side with the panko, pressing to help the crumbs adhere. Lay the eggplant slices, breaded-side up, on the baking sheets in a single layer.

Lightly coat the top of the eggplant slices with vegetable oil spray. Bake until the tops are crisp and golden, about 30 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through.

It's layering time: Spray the bottom and sides of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish, then spread 1 cup of the tomato sauce in the bottom. Position half of the eggplant slices, breaded-side up, on top of the sauce, overlapping the slices to fit. Distribute 1/2 cup more sauce over the eggplant and sprinkle with half of the mozzarella. Layer in the remaining eggplant, breaded-side up, and dot with 1 cup more sauce, leaving the majority of the eggplant exposed so it will remain crisp; sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella.

Bake until bubbling and the cheese is browned, about 10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the basil and serve, passing the remaining sauce separately.
Per serving: 425 cal.; 25 g pro.; 54 g carb.; 13 g fat (8 sat., 4 monounsat., 1 polyunsat.); 27 mg chol.; 985 mg sod.; 8 g fiber; 14 g sugar; 28 percent calories from fat.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Favorite Things

So Christmas is three days away, somehow. I always dream too big with crafty projects and ambitious decorating themes, and it always sneaks up on me. I didn't make those salt dough ornaments from Pinterest or the toffee I meant to send as gifts. I also meant to do a good job of sharing my favorite things that I recommend as gifts. A good job would have been posting this three weeks ago...maybe next year.

Rejoice, fellow procrastinators! There’s still time to get (or make) these gifts before Christmas though! You may have to get creative when it comes to wrapping a printout of a gift card or subscription. A few hints from my study of denial and deception: wrap in a series of boxes (like Russian nesting dolls) and include nonessential household objects that are heavy and that will make noise when the box is shaken. Jars of quarters, puzzles, and rocks are all good choices.
One of my goals is to work in googly eyes into every post.
For the busy woman who needs new clothes but hates shopping fruitlessly
My first favorite thing is a personal styling shipment from StitchFix. For $20, your lucky girl will receive a box of clothes and accessories personally picked out just for her. She’ll fill out a style assessment, give her sizes/proportions, rate a few collections of outfits, and can even link to a Pinterest board. She can leave comments--I asked for help with finding dresses with sleeves and got two adorable and perfect dresses. They’ll ship a box of items picked out for her (along with cute styling ideas for each item!), she decides what to keep, applying the $20 styling fee to anything she chooses to keep. If the stylist really knocked it out of the park and your girl wants to keep all the items, everything is 25% off the list price. (She also gets to pick how much she wants to spend on each type of item...maybe she likes cheap tops but designer jeans--they’ll match how she likes to spend.) 
My latest fix--a bundle of clothes and styling suggestions

For the gentleman who has everything he needs
Give him beautiful things he'll love. Bespoke Post is a subscription box for men, themed each month with cool artisan products. Themes have included poker night, dopp kits, and crisp autumn days. You can select a box for him, or give him a gift card and let him pick out his own themed box (or boxes, depending on how good he's been this year).
One of Bespoke Post's themed boxes
For the obsessive baker
Guys, a kitchen scale is where it’s at. Baking is all about precision, and this scale will ensure that your flour is perfectly measured so that your cakes don’t flop. This OXO one is backlit and has a pull-out display, which allows the baker to use a giant bowl.

For the scientist who wants to cook but needs fool-proof recipes for positive reinforcement
Cooks’ Illustrated Cookbook is amazing. America’s Test Kitchen is all about science, experimentation, and fine-tuning. Because they test each recipe multiple times in house and with home cooks (I’m a recipe tester for them), I know every dish is going to turn out well. They publish a lot of themed cookbooks (Best One-Pot Dishes, Best Light Recipes, etc.), but this one covers all of the basics and a lot of variation. It’s a wonderful reference cookbook too.

For the pretend Grinch
You know those people who would be just as happy not receiving anything, but whom you feel bad about excluding from present time just because they're a minimalist consumer? Find a cause they're passionate about--animals, children, research for a disease or illness--and make a donation in their name. A charity gets funded, the honoree is touched by your attention to their passions while their home remains uncluttered, and you get to give a heartfelt and generous gift. Nobody can be upset by that, not even someone whose heart is two sizes too small.

Feeling DIY-y?
Good for you! And you still have time! I made a ton of tiny jars of gifts and sent sets to close friends and family. I included salted caramel sauce, chocolate peppermint syrup, and citrus salts. This year, I upped my game and boiled and stirred the daylights out of a liter of maple syrup. . . which makes MAPLE CREAM. Here are the recipes I’ve used and love.

Stocking stuffers
Nivea lip balm: This is pretty much the best $3 you can spend on your lips. After three of my best friends and I finished pho one night, we each pulled out our own tube. You can find them at most drugstores or superstores.
Post-pho glam
Fish spatula: This kitchen superstar lifts cookies, flips steaks, and really shines when handling delicate foods--it’s perfect for frying green tomatoes. Oh, and it also flips fish really nicely. Honestly, if all of your kitchen stuff gets lost or stolen, buy yourself a cast iron skillet and a fish spatula and you’re pretty much set.

Vegetable peeler: Don’t laugh. Besides a fun design, it’s incredibly effective and comfortable. You and this veggie peeler will make very fast work of a butternut squash. That is all I really need to say.

I hope you're enjoying your holiday season as much as I am. I'm hoping that Santa brings me foresight and tenacity this year, so that next year I'll finally make those ornaments and toffee.

Full disclosure: None of these companies asked for my referral; I just genuinely think they're good gifts. However, if you use my StitchFix or Bespoke Post referral links above to make a purchase, I do get a credit. Merry Christmas to ME!