June 28, 2013

Recipe: Caponata (Sicilian Stewed Eggplant)

Caponata is a Sicilian dish of chopped eggplant and various vegetable pals stewed in a sweet-and-sour sauce accented by briny bites of capers, earthy oregano, and spicy red pepper flakes. The result is a slightly saucy, hearty, tangy mix of tender vegetable goodness that has practically endless possibilities. Think of Caponata as Ratatouille's sassy, versatile culinary cousin. Some of my favorite uses include:

Bruschetta: Grill or toast slices of crusty bread, rub with garlic, and top with Caponata and a drizzle of olive oil (shown in photo above).

Sandwich Filling: I like to use Caponata almost sloppy-joe-style, stuffed into a warm crusty roll along with a spoonful (or two, or three...) of vegan bechamel  for a messily delicious and decadent sandwich.

Sauce or Relish: You can use Caponata as a hearty, textured sauce for short pasta (such as penne or orrechiete) or spoon it over any number of protein entrees (we're talking tempeh, tofu, veggie burgers or sausages).

Stew: Caponata is hearty enough to serve as your main course. I love topping a bowl of Creamy Polenta with a heaping portion of the stew.

You may have noticed that I've posted several Sicilian-inspired recipes lately - a Roasted Cauliflower Salad and Tempeh-Stuffed Peppers - and that is because I've fallen hard for Sicilian cuisine. I am like a lovesick puppy for its boldly-flavored, simply-prepared, vegetable-centric fare.

makes 5 cups

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large eggplant, diced into 1/4-inch cubes (about 1 lb eggplant, no need to peel it)
salt to taste
1 small onion, diced
3 stalks celery, diced (about 3/4 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes (including juices)
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed well and chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet (or dutch oven) over medium high heat (oil should shimmer but not smoke). Add eggplant, season with a healthy pinch of salt, and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender and lightly golden. Transfer eggplant to a bowl. Reduce heat to medium, add onion and celery to the skillet, and cook for 5 minutes. Add garlic and tomato paste, stirring to coat mixture evenly with the paste. At this point you should be developing beautiful "brown bits" on the bottom of your skillet, so deglaze the skillet with the red wine vinegar, scraping the bits up. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices, followed by the reserved eggplant, capers, sugar, oregano, and red pepper flakes.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, until caponata has thickened and the vegetables are tender but not completely soft. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Remove from heat, transfer to a storage container, and cool completely before refrigerating for 6 hours to overnight. You can skip the refrigeration step, but like any stew, the flavors will be better developed the day after you make it. Serve room-temperature as bruschetta or relish; serve warmed as sandwich filling,  pasta sauce, or stew. This makes a large batch, but you can keep the caponata refrigerated for 5 days and use throughout the week in various meals (see suggestions above).

June 17, 2013

Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Mousse with Smoked Salt

Let's cut to the chase. This chocolate mousse is a no-nonsense, slap-you-in-the-face, decadent dessert. I know some people prefer their mousse all whipped and airy, but I much prefer a denser, silky texture with a concentrated chocolate flavor. This is a mousse that knocks your chocolate cravings dead in just a few bites.

The recipe is wonderfully simple - 10 minutes and you're done - but the result is spectacular thanks to one ingredient: smoked salt. Sprinkling shards of campfire-scented salt over the top of the mousse creates the sweet-and-salty combination that we all know and love, but also adds a surprising element of umami to the dessert. And while I think another finishing salt (grey salt, for example) would be delicious too, that smoke-fueled hit of indescribable umami really makes the mousse special.

Smoked salt is becoming more common - Whole Foods and World Market have inexpensive options, and I've seen smoked salt in run-of-the-mill grocery stores as well. You can also check out local specialty food shops, co-ops, and farmers' markets for a plethora of flavored salts. If possible, smell the salt before you purchase it. The smoked scent should be really, really intense - like you just stuck your nose into the middle of a campfire or a pan of bacon. I was lucky enough to stumble onto the Applewood Smoked Salt from Rockridge Orchards (a local farm at our farmers' market), and it is AMAZING. If you're in the Seattle area, I highly recommend picking up a jar the next time you're at the U-District Farmers' Market.

Vegan Chocolate Mousse with Smoked Salt
adapted from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World
serves 12

Note: The mousse comes together in all of 10 minutes, but you'll want to chill it for at least an hour before serving, so plan accordingly. 

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips (one standard bag o' chips)
14 ounces soft tofu (one water-packed container)
2 tablespoons plain non-dairy milk
2 tablespoons agave nectar
2 teaspoons hazelnut extract (may substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla if you prefer)
high-quality smoked salt (I use Applewood Smoked Salt from Rockridge Farms)

In a food processor or blender, puree the tofu, milk, agave nectar, and extract until completely smooth, scraping down the sides a few times as necessary. Set aside and turn your attention to all that delicious chocolate. To melt the chocolate, you have a few options: a traditional double boiler, a DIY double boiler, or a microwave. All three techniques will give you silky smooth melted chocolate in just a few minutes, so check out the video links and choose the best option for your kitchen set-up. Once melted, remove chocolate from heat and cool for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the 5 minutes is up, pour chocolate into the tofu mixture and puree until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed to create a uniform chocolate mousse. Portion the mousse into 12 small custard cups/glasses/ramekins - I find that a container around 2-4 ounces in size is just about right. At this point, you may think that the portions are far too tiny, but fear not - this mousse is crazy rich and will satisfy the most passionate of chocolate-lovers in a few perfect bites. Transfer mousse to refrigerator and chill for at least 1 hour. When ready to serve, sprinkle top of mousse with a couple pinches of smoked salt per portion. Enjoy!