lebanese-style stuffed baby eggplants

The city is finally shedding its white crust. Our luminous winter cover is turning to brown slush, as snow melts into blinding, sunlit puddles. After spending last Monday, Wednesday and Thursday working from home (or battling treacherous sidewalks hunting for coffee and wifi), I was craving company and food more nuanced than snowbound snacks of popcorn, toast, and leftovers.

Thankfully, Mark was on the way, offering not only companionship, but a car to chauffeur me around on my quest for baby eggplants.

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for some time; waiting, I guess, for the right opportunity to try it. Saturday seemed as good a day as any to host my first dinner guests since moving to Hyattsville in January. (I guess most weekends have had me out exploring the city, or more recently, surviving “Snowpocalypse 2010.” But as spring approaches, it’s high time I picked up the dinner party pace.)

The day provided the perfect foundation on which to build a good meal: A lazy morning, good coffee, an exercise day off, and a kitchen confidant/soux chef rolled into one. We set out around noon to explore the collection of international markets near my neighborhood.

Things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. The traffic was horrendous: I’m not sure if Marylanders were still dealing with these foreign driving conditions, or that people were venturing out to restock their shelves. Then, after sitting through about 10 cycles of green lights near our destination (where baby eggplants were not to be found), I had to make an unexpected trip home to troubleshoot something work-related. Disappointment threatened.  Frustration encroached on my formerly good mood.

When we set out again it was already two o’clock and I still didn’t have my main ingredient. Mark had been on the phone with the local grocery chains, only to be met with busy signals and reports of large eggplants. I started scheming Plan B. But Oh how I’d coveted those eggplants!

We weren’t ready to give up quite yet. Recently equipped with smart phones, Mark could drive while I perused the nearby grocery options. A Halal Meat Market showed up on my map, and I clicked their phone number. I was met with cheerful answers to my questions: Yes, they had ground lamb. What about eggplants? “Yes, we got a vegetable delivery just today,” came the reply. “I’m looking for the small ones, not the big ones…” I began. “The Indian eggplants, yes.” The voice sounded confident enough.

We fought more traffic to the little shop, aromas of patchouli and spice wafting out the jingling front door. Sure enough, there beside the limes and chili peppers a box overflowed with deep purple globes no bigger than a child’s fist. The proprietor had spoken the truth. I immediately squashed Plan B, and left with a warm samosa and plenty of time to make dessert.

The dish was a hit: Stuffed with raw rice, ground lamb, onions, garlic, pine nuts and allspice, a simmering tomato sauce slowly cooks the vegetables into tender purple dumplings. On the plate, garnished with saffron yogurt, goat feta, and parsley, each one bursts with robust and game-y flavors. I followed the eggplants with a lemon pie (post forthcoming), making the meal into a well-rounded foray not only into international flavors, but back into cooking and entertaining.

I can’t wait to do it all over again soon.

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quinoa tabbouleh

I debated calling this next series of posts “The Unemployment Project, Part I (etc).” Since I’m not sure how long this is going to last, however, I figured I’d spare you from an ever-lengthening string of Roman numerals. Until my employment prospects crystallize, I’ve decided to give this neglected website of mine some love: Get ready to eat.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve had to adjust lately to this strange new thing called free time.  Sure, there have been weekend road trips to weddings and triathlons and concerts. There have gatherings with friends and leisurely walks. But the consuming projects and imperatives, not so much.

It’s like returning to an older verison of myself. There are going to be days where I’ll have to dig through those familiar storerooms of strength.

That said, things haven’t been so bad.

I shot photos for Edible Finger Lakes magazine on Monday (wait! I’m supposed to be a writer!), and got to meet the ringleader of Central New York’s Slow Food Chapter. Dipping into a different medium however, shooting his kitchen, meeting his bees, and marvelling at his asparagus plants was inspiring. And the invitation to pick fresh mint, marjoram and lavender whenever I need to? Priceless.

Tuesday was a frustrating day spent trying to secure certification to work in this country. But this is a food blog, not a rant, so I’ll spare you the story. Three things helped redeem that day: Wegman’s air-conditioning and rotisserie chickens, and this tabbouleh salad.

Tabbouleh (ta-boo-lee) is a Middle-Eastern dish that showcases fresh herbs. If you don’t like to be hit over the head with parsley, simply use the lesser amount.

It’s also traditionally made with coarsely-ground bulgur wheat, but since my life is basically one big steamy love affair with quinoa, I decided to try mixing it up a little. More protein and ancient grains never hurt anybody.

It’s funny how one little conversation with my mother about her parsley plant led to subsequent days of fresh, tangy leftover salad. Not a bad way to start off this new, as yet unnamed season in my life.

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za’atar from afar

Since I last posted, I don’t  really have much to say for myself,  food-wise. Late nights in the lab learning advanced digital editing software, long meetings trying to plan the production of a satire magazine, early-morning swims and hours studying Media Law result in meals of bananas and hummus-cucumber roll ups.  Save for a chocolate cake made with last summer’s frozen zucchini (will post on that one, soon) and a pretty ordinary Mexican Pizza, I haven’t been cooking up any show-stoppers lately.

And that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s these times when I’m glad I wrote blog posts months ago and stored them up, like little jars of oats, for a bleaker tomorrow. It’s also interesting how some things you think are toss aways come back and speak squarely to the present.

On a stifling day last summer I made an Israeli salad in a kitchen that had sumac, a spice I’d never cooked with. Now, nine months later, I’m going to Israel. I put the pictures  on the back shelf to share with you sometime when it seemed right, and now here it is, newly appropriate.

It’s called Za’atar Salad, and is a dish often deemed Israeli but eaten all over the Middle East. If any of you have seen the film The Visitor, Mouna makes this salad for Walter when he first joins her for dinner. It’s the most sensual salad-making scene I’ve seen in a long time — the way she juices the lemons by hand over the bowl of glistening primary colors.

I leave a week today for Jerusalem, a place that has existed largely in my imagination. It’s the place where my faith has its roots. I am imagining it will feel strangely familiar, almost enveloping. I know it will seem alien, too, separate and distinct from this North American Christianity I have been nurtured in. Sites might seem like felt board scenes or picture Bible pages writ large.

A Barn Birth. A Good Samaritan. A road in Damascus. Anger in a temple-turned-marketplace. A goblet of wine and some bread. A betrayal and an ear, cut away from a cheek. One man’s death, and a cold stone tomb. All these stories swirling in the dust, suddenly louder than words.

It will likely be touristy, politically charged, mystical and commercial all wrapped up like a gyro, and yet I can’t wait.

My companions will be thirteen other students and three of the chaplains from Syracuse University’s interfaith chapel. Like this salad, we will be a colorful mix of personalities and stories, flecked with the new flavors of a place we might not have been able to visit in another time. Muslims, Jews and Christians we will share our stories and play their colors off  each other.

As this simple salad did, maybe we’ll show each other a new way of experiencing the ingredients of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And so while I prepared rather poorly  for Lent this year (yoga followed by free pancakes at IHOP), a visit to the Holy Land seems like a good way to kick-start my journey toward the joy of Easter. I think it would be so easy to feel pressure regarding a trip like this, especially if you’re a person who derives part of their spiritual identity from the place. You know, pressure to see the right things, feel profound emotions, that kind of thing.

I think I’ll just try to take it all in—slowly, and making sure to chew after every bite.

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the people’s three-lentil soup

Since September, stories of the economy seem to have been dominating the news scene. Bail-outs, foreclosures, and mass layoffs paved the way for a bit of a doomsday new year, even with the welcome change in political powers that be.

There comes a time, however, for whining to beget action.  After all the dystopic superlatives have been said (sky-high unemployment rate, all-time lows in stock market confidence), a person still has to eat.  Perhaps it’s callow of me to bend a very real tragedy into a post on soup, but as a recent survey of eating patterns in Canada shows, some people see hope in bowl too.

The survey* revealed that many Canadians at least want more home cooking on their plates. Of those surveyed, 88% said they will try to choose the dining room over the restaurant booth in future meal decisions. As if that wasn’t enough to make this prairie girl proud, the survey also found that men are becoming more involved in food preparation and planning.

Despite how things may seem, there are people throwing creativity at widespread malaise. There are groups quietly cheering on the sidelines of grumble. There are people turning back to older, simpler ways: making their own morning latte, eating together, or planting a garden.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family who kept their meal times sacred. While I will be the first to champion a meal out at a great restaurant, for everyday eating, I prefer my meals around a familiar table.

And so, in full acceptance of the dismal spirit of the times, I made a big pot of lentil soup and picked up The Grapes of Wrath. Five litres of meaty, multi-colored lentils and some good Depression literature should do it, I thought.

Cheap, loaded with protein, and endlessly adaptable, this soup surpassed my expectations. So many of the lentil soups I’ve tried are mushy and bland. This one is bright and chunky. I whipped up some saffron yogurt too — for a sunny, indulgent reminder that better times will come.

But best of all, sitting around a coffee table on a snowy Saturday evening, I got to share it with people who remember how to delight in the simple things. Enough truly is a feast.

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smokin’ shells

It had to happen eventually. Sometimes life gets in the way of pretty pictures, and these, well, these look like I have these last few weeks of fall semester. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. On the inside, they’re almost perfect. 

And so with this introduction of the worst photos ever to grace this website, I bring you the best kind of indulgence: the kind that surprises you. This one sneaks in the back door and kisses you right on the mouth. With a mouthful of soft cheese and slippery, al dente pasta shells, this dinner proves that the stomach’s is more reliably discerning than the eye.

You know what the problem is with being a food blogger/photographer? There are no smiles, no shining eyes, no expressions to capture. Often food that blew your mind winds up looking like a pile of brown mush, or in this case, a Michelina’s frozen pasta entree. But food also symbolizes moments, and that is what I think these photos of my lunch-time leftovers do best–haphazardly taken after an eight mile run just before rushing to class.


This dish looks a lot better when it first comes out of the oven–the cheese all flecked with brown and the roasted tomatos bubbling up from beneath like a secret. Let’s face it, the microwave just leaves something to be desired when it comes to putting the best food forward.

I think part of the joy in this dish is that I didn’t make it. It was past of the third installment of a (once-every-some-weeks’) cooking group I have with two of my favorite friends: something we affectionately refer to as “estro-cook.” While I was laboring away on the butternuts, my partners in crime were busy working away at this little number. Two weeks later, it emerged from my freezer, masquerading as an Italian getaway. 

Not the kind of food I usually make, this dish left me delighting in the simple things: cheese I don’t care about the fat content of, garlic (ohhh, garlic), the taste of roasted things, and that everyday miracle of stuffing ingredients into a little boat of pasta. What could be better?

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purple protein salad

Now that reading magazines counts as school work, I’m amassing them more quickly than ever. Despite my rather obsessive collection of food magazines, when I saw this salad splashed across the cover of Vegetarian Times, I had no second thoughts about shelling out the five bucks.

Not usually one drawn to potato salads, this one promised something new. As opposed to the dominantly creamy and heavy versions, this one is fresh and light–perfect for the transition from summer to fall.

Another plug for the salad: it got me through at least a week of on-the-go eating that characterizes grad school. It’s delicious at room temperature too, making it an excellent traveler between classes and interviews. Each time I’d open my plastic container and see those amethyst potatoes glistening in olive oil a wave of comfort in the face of mounting stress would wash over me. Cafeteria food just doesn’t have quite the same effect.

I’m not a huge potato lover, but I do love how in this picture you can almost see the growth, as in an oak tree’s rings. Beneath the russet skin, purple flesh tells of nutrient-rich soil. Speckles and veins are revealed by the swift glide of a knife, leaving little chunks ready to be dressed.

Edamame, or young soy beans, are one of the healthiest ways to get your soy. While there is much debate about the health benefits of soy, most researchers agree that soy in it’s “whole food” form is almost indisputably positive.

Miso, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame are considered “traditional” soy foods. Prominent soy researcher Mark Messina recommends no more than two servings of these forms of soy to maintain safe estrogen and phytic acid levels. With soy as with everything, moderation is key.

One thing I do know about these beans is that they’re delicious. They’re meaty and bright green, while being high in good-quality protein. Tossed together with cabbage, garden tomatoes, chickpeas and a simple dressing, they surpass their destiny as mere appetizer to sushi. You can find them in your grocery’s frozen section, conveniently shelled and rearin’ to go.

If you find yourself feeling grey, try this little rainbow feast. Continue reading