Recipe: Eggplant Parmigiana

Standard

I’m always hesitant to attempt Italian dishes because my mom cooks them so well. But last weekend, after our long 17-mile bike ride, Todd and I decided that we really wanted eggplant parmigiana. Unfortunately, we’d never tried to make it before. After doing some online research and soliciting guidance from both of our moms, we managed to put together our own recipe. The eggplant parm (and the beef/veal meatballs we made on the side) both tasted pretty delicious, if I do say so myself. Keep reading for the eggplant parm recipe, and share your own variations if you’ve also cooked this Italian staple (which was the earliest version of a parmigiana, according to Wikipedia).

Eggplant Parm

Ingredients
~2 six-inch eggplants
~Salt
~Breadcrumb
~Flour
~2 eggs
~Olive oil
~1 sweet onion (chopped)
~At least 3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
~27 oz. can of tomato puree
~27 oz. can of crushed tomatoes (or real tomatoes)
~A pinch of sugar
~1 cup parsley (chopped)
~2 bags of shredded, whole-milk mozzarella cheese
~A large pot for the sauce, a frying pan, three smaller bowls, and at least one tin baking tray

Preparation Steps
About two hours before you plan to start cooking your eggplant, slice them into thin, round pieces and salt them generously. Lay them flat over a few layers of paper towels and then cover them with another paper towel. On top of them, place something heavy like a cutting board or a book. This will help release moisture from the eggplant, which will keep it from getting soggy during cooking and will help rid it of any bitter flavor.

Salted Eggplant

Cooking Steps
~In a large pot on the stove, sauté the onions and garlic for a few minutes before adding tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, and parsley. Let this simmer throughout the remaining steps.
~Gently wash the eggplant with water to remove some of the salt.
~Break two eggs into one small bowl; pour flour into another and breadcrumbs into the final bowl.
~Dip the eggplant slices first in the egg, then in the flour, then in the breadcrumb.
~Once all of the slices have been coated, fry them in oil over the stove until they are browned on both sides.
~Scoop a layer of sauce into the bottom of a baking tin. Spread eggplant slices on top of the sauce, and then layer a generous helping of cheese on top of them. Continue this process until you have used up all of the eggplant. (Ours ended up being three layers; if you have a ton of eggplant, you might want to just use two baking tins instead of one. If you have extra sauce left over like we did, you can use it for meatballs!)
~Bake on 400 for at least 10 minutes to melt the cheese. (The longer you bake, the more the cheese will brown. I think Todd and I kept ours in for about 20 minutes.)

Baked eggplant

Growing My Green Thumb: Learning about Orchids

Standard

Did you know that there exist four times more orchid species than mammal species? I had no idea until I decided to do some research on orchids and how to best care for them now that I’m taking my love for gardening to work in the form of a little potted orchid. Sitting between my Corgi calendar and my Tiffany-inspired note set, it provides me with a sense of calm. I’ve decided to name it “Fuzzy” in honor of an inside joke I had with my former coworker (we previously attended BookCon together), who has moved on to a new job.

Orchid at Work

The first step in measuring an orchid’s health is to look at the color of its leaves, according to one care guide. If they are bright green, then the flower is getting the right amount of light. (Note: Orchids should never be placed in direct sunlight because it can burn them.) Unfortunately, I’ve learned that it’s also important for orchids to experience temperature fluctuations the encourage their flowers to open and mild levels of humidity, neither of which are present in my office. Despite that, my orchid seems to be doing fine for now.

Next, I looked up watering. The instructions that came with my orchid said to give it 1.5 tablespoons of water per day, but the care guide says that orchids really only need to be watered once per week in cooler temperatures. I’ve been giving a little water nearly every day, but not if the soil still looks moist, which I think is generally a decent rule of thumb to follow. Knowing that it doesn’t need to be watered frequently gives me hope that it might survive the weekend and still be alive on Monday when I return to work.

Biking 17 Miles along Shore Parkway

Standard

Now that I’ve overcome my fear of biking, I really wanted to get in a good bike ride this past weekend, before an autumn chill settles in. So, Todd and I decided to take a ride along the Shore Parkway bike path. The bikeway follows the Belt Parkway, which travels east from Brooklyn into Queens. We found a parking spot only one block away from the trail’s start (west of Plumb Beach, near Emmons Avenue). Then, we donned our helmets, took a preparatory gulp from our water bottles, and embarked on our nearly 17-mile roundtrip.

Unfortunately, about a mile or so into the ride, we realized that part of the bikeway had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and had never been fixed. An entire swath of the pathway was covered in sand too deep to ride our bikes through. Some of the more confident cyclists had taken to the highway and pedaled alongside the cars; others navigated down the curb and through a nearby parking lot. We followed the majority: we simply dismounted and walked our bikes to the other side. Ready for some continuous cycling, we started off again, only to hit another sand trap a few minutes later.

Walking my bike through the sand.

Luckily the trail improved after that, and we hit our first real hill cresting up to the bridge over Gerritsen Inlet. According to the Marine Park Civic Organization:

Gerritsen Creek was a freshwater stream that once extended about twice as far inland as it does today. Around 1920 the creek north of Avenue U was converted into an underground storm drain. Yet it continues to supply the salt marsh with fresh water, which helps the marsh support a wide range of organisms. Broad expanses of fertile salt marsh, meadows adorned with wildflowers, sandy dunes held in place by beach plants, and jungle-like thickets of shrubs and vines nominate the landscape of Marine Park. Myrtle warblers, grasshopper sparrows, cotton-tailed rabbits, ring-necked pheasants, horseshoe crabs, and oyster toad fish are a small sampling of the animals that inhabit these plant communities and live in or around Gerritsen Creek.

We were barely two miles into the trip, but my legs already burned with effort. I decided it would be a great place to stop, rest, and take a photo of the Marine Parkway Bridge, which leads the way into Rockaway.

Shore Parkway Bike Path

The trip into Queens felt long, with a wrong turn near the entrance into Rockaway and a pit stop to call Todd’s mom and let her know how many eggplants we would need for the eggplant parmagiana we planned to cook for dinner. We took a bathroom break at Canarsie Pier, where couples stared out at the water and more than one person was napping on a bench.

For the remainder of the ride, the road undulated like a camel’s back, with long ascents that taxed our strength (usually leading to a bridge) and then downhills that gave us a much-needed break from pedaling. As we progressed along the bikeway, it widened to three (sometimes four) wide lines, with smooth pavement beneath our tires. Less than one mile from the end of the parkway, we crossed from Brooklyn into Queens.

Shore Parkway Bike Path

We started the return trip expecting to feel winded and exhausted, but the ride passed quickly, probably because our muscles had already warmed up to the exercise. Before we knew it, we had to dismount our bikes and walk back across the two sand piles. When we reached the spot where we had commenced, we both looked at each other and promised to return. And maybe on our next adventure, we’ll begin even earlier along the parkway, near the Verrazano Bridge; then, we’ll get to pass through Coney Island and Brighton Beach as we cycle through the boroughs.

Shore Parkway Bike Path

Very Berry (but Very Perishable) Jam

Standard

With summer’s end approaching, I’m trying harder than usual to use (or figure out how to store and save) all of the different herbs I’ve been growing in my garden. I decided to try my hand at making a mixed berry and thyme jam, using a super easy recipe I found on the Food Network website as my inspiration. I did modify it a little: I added raspberries alongside the blueberries and strawberries, I replaced the maple syrup with honey, and I swapped out the orange juice for organic tart cherry juice.

Though the jam tastes delicious, I don’t think I’d recommend the recipe simply because it cost more money to go out and buy all of the fruit (which yielded three jars of jam) than it would have cost to buy a similar amount of prepackaged jam. On the plus side, my homemade jam has no preservatives; on the downside, that means it only lasts about a month before it goes bad.

But in case you do want to make this jam (or a similar jam), I’ll walk you through it a bit. First, I picked my thyme leaves. I made the mistake of not chopping them beforehand, so now my jam has some twiggy bits in it. I highly recommend chopping your leaves first!

Thyme Leaves

Combine the thyme leaves with the fruit in a big bowl and mash up the fruit as best you can. I wanted some big fruit chunks in my jam, so I didn’t worry too much about that step. Add the juice, the honey (or maple syrup), and pour it all into a saucepan. Bring it to a simmer, stir occasionally, and basically just let it sit there until it starts to get thick (though mine never got as thick as I had hoped it would). Once you’re satisfied with it (or get impatient, like I did), pour it into your mason jars and let it sit out to cool for about an hour or two. Then just seal the jars and pop it in the fridge.

Just don’t forget it’s there, because the clock is already ticking!

Berry Jam Jars

Book Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Standard

I don’t often read mystery novels because I can’t seem to find one as surprising and truly mystifying as Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None. But I had a hankering for a good murder mystery a few weeks ago, and then I stumbled across Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Although it didn’t quite live up to my favorite mystery novel of all time, I did really enjoy the intrigue, suspense, and quirky characters that this book offered.

I started reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie while relaxing in a beach chair at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. I only managed to read a couple of chapters before Todd finished bobbing in the wave pool, but I was already hooked. From the novel’s opening, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce wins readers hearts with her geeky love of chemistry and her analytic narrative. Events take a turn for the worse when a dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp in its beak. As if that weren’t enough, Flavia discovers a dead body in the cucumber patch, and her father gets accused of the crime.

But for the young sleuth, the murder is “the most interesting thing” that had happened in her whole life, and the novel follows along as she and her bicycle Gladys speed around the town searching for clues about the identity of the dead man, the long-buried story behind the postage stamp, and the true killer. As the novel progressed, I really enjoyed the strength of Flavia’s character; she walked a perfect line between acting like a detective and acting like any other young girl with two older siblings. Like any 11-year-old, it sometimes took her a little longer than expected to make certain connections that the reader had already deduced, but the wait made it more rewarding when she reached her conclusion. The slow reveal of the truth kept me reading with anticipation, and I felt disappointed when the novel had to end.

I was excited to learn, however, that The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a seven-book series of Flavia de Luce mysteries. (The seventh book is expected to be published in 2015.) A television series based on the books is also in the works for 2015, according to the author’s website. Though I have two knee-high stacks of books I haven’t yet read, I’m already planning to purchase the rest of the books in this series in hopes that they will be just as good. Even if you don’t usually read mystery novels, I’d definitely suggest giving this book a try.

Learning Yoga: Gate Pose

Standard

One of my most joyful yoga experiences came one early morning while practicing a side-bend sequence that I tore out of my monthly Yoga Journal magazine. As I leaned into Gate Pose, or Parighasana, I felt my body loosening and all of the tension flowing from my limbs, and I just couldn’t help my smile and think how lucky I felt to have wonderful people in my life, a happy and welcoming home, and a peaceful spot to practice yoga. So I really wanted to share Gate Pose with you as the next post in my yoga series in hopes that you might share in some of that joy and, even if just for a minute, let your worries slip away and focus on what you’re most thankful for.

Gate Pose: Step 1

Gate Pose “gives us the chance to invite breath into the often-neglected side areas of our body,” according to Yoga U. It engages the core abdominal muscles, lengthens the hip flexors, and helps improve the flexibility of the spine. The first step is to kneel with your back straight and your buttocks lifted off the ground. Slowly stretch your left leg out to the side, pressing the sole of your foot firmly against the floor. Rest your left hand on your leg and keep your right hand straight at your side, getting used to the stretch. Make sure that your left heel is aligned with your right knee.

Gate Pose: Step 2

If you can’t keep your foot flat on the floor while stretching your leg all the way out to the side, one easier variation involves putting a folded blanket or a yoga block underneath your foot. I often use the block method when I’m wary of stretching too far or am not feeling particularly flexible; it’s still a good stretch, but sometimes feels a little safer. Once you feel comfortable in the stretch, turn the palm of your left hand up to face the ceiling and raise your right arm straight up into the air. Keep your body straight and perpendicular to the floor. Breathe deeply in this position.

Gate Pose: Step 3

Finally, arch your right arm over your head and lean your body to the left. It’s important to keep in mind this Yoga Journal recommendation: “The side bend tends to drop the torso toward the floor. Without pushing the left hip back (continue to roll it slightly forward), turn the upper torso away from the floor.” Similarly, Yoga U cautions: “The most common error people come up against while practicing Parighasana is twisting the torso to bend forward instead of strictly to the side. In our enthusiasm to take the pose farther, it’s easy to make this mistake.”

The key is to not bend too far or let your left hand slide too low along your left leg. As you become more flexible, you will be able to take the stretch both further and deeper. As you hold this pose, imagine a spiral of energy traveling from your right hand, down to your left hand, and then back up again. Let out all of the negativity, and welcome back in only positive and grateful thoughts. I hope this pose will help bring you joy, whenever and wherever you practice it.

Recipe: Basil-Parsley Pesto & Bacon Pasta

Standard

After reading about a homemade pesto sauce at Little Sprouts Learning, I felt inspired to try my hand at making this classic Italian staple. Though most traditional recipes call for either basil or parsley, I decided to combine the two because I had ample amounts of both herbs flourishing in my garden. Although I think the recipe could still use a little bit of tweaking, it resulted in a healthy, tasty sauce. But because Todd likes meat, we also decided to add bacon to our pasta. This recipe serves about four people, depending upon how much each of them eat. We found that it was too much for just the two of us, but we didn’t mind because that meant we’d have leftovers to eat another day!

Whole Foods Pasta

Bulk pasta from Whole Foods

Ingredient List
~ 3/4 cup olive oil
~ 2 cups fresh basil
~ 1 1/2 cups parsley
~ 1/3 cup pine nuts (and a cookie sheet if you’re going to toast them in the oven)
~ 1/2 cup Pecorino-Romano cheese
~ 1 lemon
~ 1 lb of pasta (we used rotini)
~ 1 vidalia onion
~ 1 package of sliced baby bella mushrooms
~ 1 package Nature’s Promise hickory-smoked bacon
~ 2 tablespoons tarragon leaves

*A note on the ingredients: You might have to adjust the amounts of herbs versus cheese in the pesto. We had originally started with fewer herbs, but thought the cheese was too overpowering, so we added some more, resulting in approximately the measurements above. In addition, while most pesto recipes call for Parmesan cheese, we used Pecorino-Romano because I don’t really care for Parmesan. Lastly, we used baby bella mushrooms, but I think I would have swapped them out for cremini mushrooms (my favorite!) if they had been at the farmer’s market. So if you can get fresh cremini mushrooms, I’d definitely suggest using those instead.

Nature's Promise hickory-smoked bacon starting to sizzle.

Nature’s Promise hickory-smoked bacon starting to sizzle.

Preparation Steps
~ Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is heating up, clean your basil and parsley leaves and let them dry (or pat them dry).
~ Spread the pine nuts on the cookie sheet and pop in the oven for approximately 10 minutes or until golden brown. Stir occasionally.
~ In a large saucepan, drizzle olive oil and then sautee onions and mushrooms on low to medium heat in order that they will get soft.
~ In a blender, combine the basil, parsley, olive oil, cheese, juice squeezed from a whole lemon, salt and pepper to taste. Add toasted pine nuts once they’ve emerged from the oven and blend.
~ Chop bacon into wide chunks (as seen in the picture below) and fry in a skillet until it starts to get crisp. Around this time, I’d suggest you start boiling the water for the pasta, though I always find it hard to tell exactly how long it’s going to take for the water to boil.
~ While the pasta is cooking, pour bacon grease out of the skillet and then combine the bacon with the onions and mushrooms.
~ Pour pesto into the skillet and let simmer on the lowest heat.
~ Once the pasta is ready, mix 1/2 cup of pasta water into the saucepan. Mix the contents of the saucepan with the pasta and serve.

*A note about serving: When warming this up and eating it for lunch the following day, I mixed into my bowl two teaspoons of sour cream, and that added a nice, soft tang. I would definitely recommend doing that if you have enough for leftovers.

Basil-Parsley Pesto Pasta