eggplant caponata

I first alluded to this dish back when I posted on a cold noodle salad I’d made for a dinner in my favorite style: that is to say, tapas, or little plates. It’s a trendy word these days, but eight times out of 10 I’d rather have a cocktail party at my table over a big plate of food.

This past week, almost two years later, that dish came to mind again. We’d been invited to an Italian-style potluck, and as usual, I signed up for appetizers. It was a mid-week gathering, and so being the working woman that I am, I had to enlist my second set of hands to do the dirty work, once I’d thought up our piece de resistance. There was so much food that we went home with enough to serve again to friends on Friday night. With fresh mussels, green salad from their garden (in February?!? What is this California or something?), and a cheese plate, it was tapas time all over again.

If you love the meaty, mushroom-meets-scallops consistency of long-cooked eggplants, then get out your pan because this is a recipe for you. It doesn’t skimp on the olive oil, making it what I’d imagine to be an authentic Sicilian caponata, perfect for soaking up soft and crusty Italian bread (we ate ours all up, hence the crackers’ debut in these photos).

Best of all? This stuff  just keeps getting better as it sits in your fridge, and can be used as an impromptu pizza topping for pitas, or just eaten straight outta the jar with a spoon. I found Bittman’s use of olive oil a tad excessive (although it was lovely how it soaked up the pigment from the peppers and eggplant) so feel free to reduce to four tablespoons if you want to experiment with a lower-fat version. Try it at least once with the full six tablespoons, though.

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moroccan roasted vegetables

The markets and orchards of Central New York are swollen with colors more vibrant than a box of Lucky Charms. From procuring ingredients for my first salsa to picking apples with visiting family, all this bounty has kept me busy.

And then there was Saturday night’s excursion to the bedimmed Manlius Theater to see Food, Inc., a new documentary on the evils of the modern food industry. There were the expected appearances by Michael Pollan and his crony EricSchlosser of Fast Food Nation. There were undercover slaughterhouse cameras and dejected farmers. There was an appearance by the grieving mother of a 2-year-old poisoned by contaminated ground beef.

There were as many “corporation X refused to comment for this film” as there were new reasons to eat real food.

Check out this quote by Pollan on the backwardness of the modern food industry:

It’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot … the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters. Watch out for those health claims.

We have a warped system where Coke and Doritos are more affordable than the ingredients for a salad. We sit blindly by while a handful of corporations mess with our kitchens. I watch documentaries like King Corn and Food, Inc., and still it’s hard to say no sometimes to chicken wings. Ignorance may truly be bliss, but for me a daily commitment to  real, raw, unprocessed food brings a more continuous joy.

Take these delicious Moroccan roasted vegetables, an idea lifted from my old standby, the Moosewood New Classics. Plain old yam wrested from the earth, shiny purple eggplant and zucchini from a local farmer, red pepper and onion all tossed with lemon juice and the fire-colored spices of northern Africa. Easy as chopping, seasoning and baking, this saucy mix yields enough to last for a few days.

Better than the lack of additives and sweeteners was the simplicity of flavors. The original Happy Meal was never patented and is not sold along suburban byways. It’s right here, in our fields and on our plates.

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vegan moussaka

You know what I miss? When I had the time to flip through my cookbooks or scroll through food blogs and bookmark recipes I actually planned on making. My hours of stomach-rumbling browsing has turned to minutes. My zest for multi-step, artfully assembled dishes such as this vegan moussaka with pine nut cream, has dwindled to cravings for simple and quick meals.

For all the things that being busy gives, there are so many things it takes away: the time to let books enliven the mind, friends renew the spirit, and food delight the senses. At least I have the pictures to remind me of these things passed, surely to come again.

I made this moussaka a month or so ago to share with friends for dinner. It made for a wonderful side dish to the salad, cheese, bread and wine they provided.

My first experience with moussaka was in Patra, Greece. Freshly off the ferry, my companions and I stopped for a bite before boarding a tumultuous train to Athens. I don’t remember much aside from the picture I have of the moment. Isn’t it strange how pictures so often circumvent memory?

I can see four women bent over plates of pita, gyro, hummus, and tzatziki. I can see goblets of wine casting their sunny purple on our stacks of this earthy eggplant casserole, with all its layers fused together with rich tomato sauce.

The picture takes me back to that slight strangeness we felt, having just met, and it’s quick dissolution over the new tastes before us. I can almost sense, once more, the Mediterranean air so near our skin.

The bright colors of this carefully layered dish bring two things to mind then. One, the gift of having time to make good food, and two, the thrill of newness. Balance is not an easy thing, but gratitude, once learned, surely is.

On this (Canadian) thanksgiving weekend, the pictures of this meal remind me that there will again be balance in my life and serenity in eating. I might not have time to make and photograph a whole new kitchen extravaganza, but I have these saved memories of meals I have not yet shared. It may not be turkey, but it speaks loudly of the slow and simple life.

I have so much to be thankful for, even just in the past few days. A surprise visit from my mom and an impromptu trip to Canada, finishing my first marathon, and a week that’s already looking better than the last. My glass is truly full, and with my mom around, tonight so will be my plate.

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