Baked Eggplant Slices with Hot Sausage Marinara

Food For Thought

Food For Thought

Yes, it’s time again for a found entrée. A few days ago, the Mister’s boss gifted him with some beautiful eggplants and a couple of pecks of chestnuts. Frankly, both were a mystery to the Lazy Cook.

I’ve never cooked eggplant, but I’ve eaten it on occasion. Nothing against eggplants, they are beautiful things, but in each instance, there was never enough “something” (texture, flavor, smell, taste) for me to get too excited about seeking it out as an ingredient. Still Life objects definitely. Food…not so much.

And the most I knew about chestnuts was that, ideally, you roasted them over an open fire. Ostensibly to keep some guy named Jack from giving you facial frostbite. So I was going to have to do a little research on chestnuts and what was possible. The eggplants were merely waiting for inspiration to strike.

And yesterday, it did.

I knew you could make Eggplant Parmesan. But cheese is off the list entirely. So, it would have to be some modified version of that. Thank goodness breading has become more feasible since we figured out they sell 5 pound sacks of white sorghum flour at the Indian grocery in Winston-Salem. (Golden India: Awesome food, nice owners, great grocery. Try it if you are in WS. Then, go get a hot, fresh Krispy Kreme)

Evil Children Aside, they are GREAT!

Evil Children aside, they are GREAT!

And adding a little cornmeal to the sorghum gives it some “tooth”. For something as vanilla as eggplant, I figured a little cornmeal excitement would be a good addition.

I knew from the weekend meals I had half a pound of hot pork sausage waiting in the fridge. I also had a half a quart of Marinara Sauce from some other adventure. I figured that was good enough for a start.

Under that Big Rock next to the Tree

Under that Big Rock next to the Tree

I cut the top off one eggplant stood it bottoms up on the now flat top and sliced it into ½ inch slices, and stacked them into a pile. I told the Mister it looked like a stack of half-soles for shoes. We might be in an economic rhyme of the last Depression, but at least we’re not that desperate….yet.

The oven was warming at 350 degrees, while I dragged and sometimes pushed the surprisingly flexible slices of eggplant into the egg. Then I lay each slice flat into the flour mix and gently pressed. Pick it up, shake the pan to even out the flour and coat the other side. Put each slice onto a baking sheet or pan with about 2 tablespoons of oil coating the bottom. After arranging them sort-of-like canned sardines or in this case it would be flounder, I had just enough room in an enameled 9 x 14 inch baking pan, for 4 slices. Into the oven.

I took a 2 cup Corning baking dish (for soufflés or some other thing I’m too lazy to try. But the Mother-in-Law knows I’ll only use Corning or Cast Iron, so she is sweet enough to send along ware when she finds it on sale), plopped the ½ pound of sausage in and about 2/3 cup of Marinara on top of that. I tried mixing it with a fork as the dish was too small for the masher, but it soon became evident that this was going to require putting my hands in there to mix it. Ugh.

I’ve got fingernails. I don’t grow them on purpose. I’m just too lazy to cut them and they are tough as…well, nails. So they get long. And there are things you dread with long nails. Throwing a clay pot and mixing ground meat being the top two items on the list.

So, I rolled up my sleeves, turned to the sink and lathered up my hands with soapy, hot water. Potential fingernail grunge in my food is another no-no. After washing, I thoroughly mixed the Marinara and meat and put it in the oven with the eggplant. And then back to the sink to get the sausage from under my nails. Really, just gross.

As I was tidying up I spied the chestnuts. “Well,” I thought, “the oven is hot. And there is room for another baking pan.” So, I grabbed up about a dozen of the little fellows and set about slicing a couple of vents into each one. Some people cut them in half, some just cut in a couple of vents. Either way, they need a way for the steam from the cooking nut meat to escape or they explode. Considering I had never dealt with chestnuts before, having only one of them explode in the oven was a minor victory.

It was like a muffled rifle shot. All the critters looked up from their dinner at me and the Mister while we looked at each other wide-eyed. I was fearful of opening the oven door to check. Who wants piping hot chestnuts exploding just as you open the door? Luckily, it was just the one and the exploded meal was scattered about the oven, on the eggplant and in the meat mixture. Which gave me another idea……

After about 10 or 15 minutes, I turned the slices once, and noticed they weren’t really browning although they were cooking. I don’t know if the oven needs to be above 350 or I needed more oil, but after another 10 minutes and another flip, I went for the old back-up plan and stuck them in the broiler. It’s a propane stove, so the flame was on anyway. After a couple of minutes on each side they were a little more presentable. I pulled them out and waited just another couple of minutes for the sausage. One does NOT want to eat any undercooked pork.

As I was waiting, I warmed another 2/3rd cup of marinara. I pulled out some kalamata olives, put on some green peas and checked the millet that was in the steamer. The olives were on the list of ingredients, and really should have been pitted sooner, but hey, I never claimed to be organized either.

I pulled out the sausage, drained the fat into my pork fat jar for later use and spooned a couple of tablespoons of meat onto each eggplant slice. I spread it out so that it covered most of the slice, and spooned a little warm marinara over that. Then I pulled out the chestnuts, shelled and chopped about 6 of them, and pitted the kalamatas. I sprinkled chestnuts and kalamatas across the slices and voila, it’s pretty and it’s food.

The one thing I would do differently, although neither Roger (who was over for Monday night HLF practice) or the Mister complained, is peel the skin off the eggplant.

As for the chestnuts. Interesting flavor. And texture. It reminded me of the sweet Mung Bean filling in the Moon Cakes. They are small celebration cakes for offerings or some-such. We get them at the Hmong Market.

And now I’m wondering if you can make a chestnut soufflé? Stay tuned. We might just find out.

The Lazy Cook Makes Pasta Sauce for the Coming Year

My mother taught me to can. Not to cook mind you, well, not directly anyway. That was my sister’s thing. I was the official “guy” of the house; fixing the lawnmower, changing the oil in the cars. I didn’t start cooking until I was away from home.

But canning enough food for the coming year requires more than two people, so I helped prep vegetables, wash jars, tend the cooker and in general take orders while staying out of the way.

And over the years I watched my mother drag out her canner, can a batch of something and put it away. A few weeks later when another batch of something was ready, she would drag it out again.

When making pasta sauce this was not nearly lazy enough for me. Tomatoes are fickle. Too little rain means they wait to flower and fruit. A lot of rain often means blossom end rot and few tomatoes. Sporadic rain means batches of randomly ripe tomatoes.

So the Lazy Cook came up with a plan. We are lucky enough to have the space for an upright freezer; as many farms and rural households do. So as the tomatoes ripen, into the freezer they go. And when the season is through, you can bring them all out at once and make a weekend of it.

Freezing the tomatoes has the added benefit of making them easy to peel. Spending a lot of time up to my elbows in raw tomatoes irritates my skin. If I can dip the frozen fruit into boiling water for a few seconds, the skin slips right off and I can cut out bad spots and chunk them with relatively little mess.

Yes, it’s cold; but much less messy. Besides, there will be plenty of time to warm hands once the cooking starts.

This year, I’m trying out Amish Paste Tomatoes. They are an heirloom variety, so if they make a tasty sauce, I’ll just keep planting them as I need them in the future with no fear of Monsanto coming in and busting up the joint.

Many people add sugar to their sauce to offset a bitterness that can arise in the process of cooking away the excess liquid that regular tomatoes often have. Adding sugar is unnecessary and, frankly, an affront to the tomato. Here are some ways to avoid this, which are also conveniently lazy:

– Use sauce tomatoes which are less juicy. Roma, Amish Paste and quite a few other varieties are less watery.

– Use a sweet onion in your sauce. I use Vidalia onions; and a lot of them. It’s almost impossible to get your sauce too “onion-y” with these. Sometimes, if I want a different flavor, I’ll sautee the chopped onions to the point of crisping the edges. Sometimes I just dump them in raw. Add a few grated carrots too.

– Roast your sauce. Yes, Roast Your Sauce. Best lazy move I ever made.

You’ll need enamel pans or Corning ware. I end up stacking pans on dishes on pots in my oven. The very occasional stirring becomes more complicated, but on the whole it’s much easier. I have yet to burn a batch of oven-roasted sauce, unlike some of my early stovetop batches.

Turn your oven onto its lowest setting. I use propane and have a newer stove, so the lowest oven temp I have to work with is 170 degrees. My last stove’s lowest setting was 120 degrees. I miss that oven. Because, in this case, the slower you can cook the sauce, the better it will taste. So it might take all day, but you won’t have to stand over a hot stove. Unless you want to stick around because your hands are still cold from dealing with frozen tomatoes.

The sauce ends up with this amazing sun-dried flavor. Not a hint of bitterness even though I don’t remove the seeds. (Lazy)

Roast a batch, adding your spices in somewhere along the line. I tend to wait until it is almost “done”. My logic is: some spices don’t like extended cooking. Because I’m going to have it boiling in a canner for another 30 minutes with an additional hour to cool off, the flavor will have plenty of time to release. This allows me to make individualized batches. I just have to remember label them properly after the jars are cooled.

Put the roasted sauce in a suitable (non-metal) container and stick it in the fridge. Repeat until all tomatoes are processed. Then you can re-warm the sauce to a suitable temperature for the canning process.

If you decide to freeze it, reconsider when to add the spices. I make no promised here, as I’ve never tried freezing sauce.

Have fun.

Basil Mayonnaise

Basil Mayonnaise

1 cup of Dukes Mayonnaise. I make no guarantees for any other items making claims to mayo-hood.

1/8 cup of fresh chopped basil.

If this were a mass production, I’d just toss it all in my little food processor. But the simplest thing is to chop the basil, turn it into the mayo and mix well.

Let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours so the flavors can have an intimate discussion without you being all Nosy-Parker and there you have it.

This is awesome on homegrown, fresh from the garden tomato sandwiches, with lots of black pepper (of course) and a little sea salt.

It’s also good on a quick salad or as a base coating for today’s recipe: Chicken Breast Strips crusted in Fresh Basil, Almond Flour and Brined Green Peppercorns.

Enjoy

Back to The Lazy Cook

Chicken Breast Strips crusted in Fresh Basil, Almond Flour and Brined Green Peppercorns

(a gluten free recipe)

You know how these things go.

This started out as black cracked pepper on Chicken Strips, but I realized I had some fresh basil. You really have to keep the basil pinched back or it heads off and gets leggy, fast! Half of it is already flowering; which tells you that in addition to being a lazy cook, I’m also a rather lazy gardener.

So, it turned into Fresh Basil Chicken Strips.

About mid morning, in the process of transferring the 48 ounces of Duke’s Mayonnaise (the ONLY mayonnaise, in my humble opinion and no, I WISH they were giving me a kickback) from the wretched plastic containers they’ve started using (what the hell were they thinking?) to mason jars I had to find some room in the over-packed fridge and came across a jar with about a cup of almond flour.

The Lazy Cook is allergic to casein and the Mister has a family history of Celiacs Disease; with some degree of sub-clinical symptoms, so almond milk and rice milk are the creamy beverages of choice.

Rice Milk is fairly easy to find and not as expensive as the less available (in a small southern town) almond, so I bought some in bulk and put it back. It has come in handy for the Chard Almond Loaf.

So, as it is with the Lazy Cook, it turned into Chicken Strips crusted with Fresh Basil and Almond Flour.

Then I found the brined green peppercorns……

The Lazy Cook is an adventurous eater. And there is a fantastic Hmong Market in the city nearby. They carry all the standard Asian foodstuff, plus the in-store kitchen makes treats like the “rice bombs” (as we call them) wrapped in fresh bamboo leaves. But I digress.

Initially I picked up the brined green pepper corns because they looked interesting. That’s it. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. They’re from Thailand, out of Bangkok via Chicago. Go figure.

The flavor is an interesting mix of green citrus zing from the immature corns, with the expected spice of pepper and a slow heat that lingers on the lips and tongue for a bit; and obviously the salt.

I am pretty sure that the citrus notes from the peppercorns will play nicely off the smoother, deeper basil flavors. We shall see.

So, in the end, it became Chicken Breast Strips crusted in Fresh Basil, Almond Flour and Brined Green Peppercorns.

Here’s the plan:

Once the chicken is thawed, I’ll pat it dry with a paper towel after setting the oven to 350.

While the oven is heating up, I’ll brush on some of the basil mayonnaise I made this morning (which started this whole mess) and roll the strips in a mixture of almond flour, chopped fresh basil and slightly crushed green peppercorns.

Sorry the only measurement I can really give you is a cup of almond flour to a pound of meat. The basil mayo is just a suggestion. Any oil will do: olive, coconut, lard. Or leave damp with the juices if you are watching the cals. (Me? I scoff at cals)

With the fresh chopped basil, I’d stick with around 1/8 cup. Dried, I’d use a couple of tablespoons.

Not all of us have a Hmong market nearby, so pepper on-hand options: powdered black- to taste, but I’d say about 1 generous tablespoon. Coming to the South from the Northern regions, the Mister said he’d never seen so much black pepper used in his life.  And to keep the citrus note, sprinkle a little lemon or lime juice on before coating it.

Cracked pepper, use more, but keep it coarse.

With the green, I’ll end up using about 2 tablespoons.

Because I want this to remain fairly “dry” (rather than sitting in the “broth” the chicken processors inject into the meat) I’ll space it out on a baking sheet (or tin foil or one of those enameled pans with the raised center panel….whatever you’ve got on hand) With just the thinnest dab of grease so it doesn’t stick.

Cook for 20 to 30 minutes depending on your oven type, altitude and so on. But check it after 20 to test for doneness vs. dryness.

I’ll serve this with white rice and some black-eyed peas I made up for the Barley-SouthWest Salad (which the Mister found quite tasty) and a fresh sliced tomato topped with a dab of basil mayo. I’ve got some young carrots from the garden. I might steam them slightly, roast them in some coconut oil then toss them in a slightly sweet wheat-free tamari (also courtesy of the Hmong market) while the chicken is cooking.

If I had my druthers, as we are want to say in these parts, I’d use brown rice, skip the legumes and have a cucumber, onion and tomato salad, from today’s garden pickin’s or use a green veg instead; steamed Asparagus with garlic butter springs to mind. But, alas….

As with all the Lazy Cooks recipes, there are no guarantees. Only adventure.

Back to The Lazy Cook