Black Beans Cowboy Style

Black beans and rice. Tasty, certainly. Economical, yes. But kid-friendly? I hedged my bets and went for it recently, inspired by my husband reminiscing about how much he enjoyed us making this dish in our pre-kid days.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this is a perfect dish for this time of year since so many of the ingredients are at the height of freshness in the waning days of summer. Onions, garlic, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes…all fresh and in our refrigerator right now. Of course, come fall or winter those same ingredients are quite easy to pick up at any grocery store, the exception being fresh tomatoes…but even then, a can of whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, can be substituted with very little of the quality compromised.

Can't wait to dig in to black beans, cowboy style

Can’t wait to dig in to black beans, cowboy style

Plus, this dish can easily be prepared as vegetarian/vegan with one simple swap and the omission of the optional garnishes.

Normally our girls raise their eyebrows (something at which they are surprisingly good) at any ingredients that touch one another, so I was a little nervous when we plated dinner since every veggie had cooked down with the others into a lovely, rich amalgam of south-of-the-border goodness…but to our surprise and delight they not only gobbled up the beans but MIXED them with the rice and sour cream and cheese garnishes as well as the roasted chicken we served alongside into big personalized casseroles. SUCCESS!

Raising eyebrows, one dish at a time

Raising eyebrows, one dish at a time

This is also an easy dish. The only trick, if there is one, is to let it simmer on low for a good long time — an hour or more — until all the flavors meld nicely together. Keep an eye on it and stir it frequently during that time so the beans don’t burn. If it’s looking a little dry, just add more stock or beer – quantities in this dish are very forgiving.

Perhaps the best part about this dish is its versatility. We had it the next day in chicken and black bean quesadillas which the girls gobbled up with the same excitement. With the addition of even more stock and a whiz in the blender it would make a nice black bean soup too (garnish with a little diced avocado and a dollop of sour cream).

Rice and beans with a side of roast chicken breast

Rice and beans with a side of roast chicken breast

Like your beans spicy? Add a diced, pickled jalapeño while it simmers, or some chilpotle peppers in adobo sauce. Make it mildly spicy by substituting a problano pepper for the green bell pepper. And definitely serve some hot sauce on the side.

Now, in my mind it’s the beer that brings the “cowboy” to this black bean dish (or cowgirl…hey, I enjoy a good beer too!). Otherwise maybe we’d call them “ranchero style” or something. The long simmering cooks out most alcohol but if cooking with beer isn’t your thing, use more stock or even water as a substitute. We normally use an ale (we used Sierra Nevada Pale Ale this time) but you could also use a rich but neutral lager, like Anchor Steam, if you want. Or try something dark, like a stout, if you like more subtle and bitter undertones. Just make sure that whatever you use has some body to it – skip the light beers for this dish.

Black beans and beer...perfect together

Black beans and beer…perfect together

Black Beans Cowboy Style

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced (use up to a full pepper, depending on your taste…or add some diced problano or jalapeño for heat)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 very ripe tomatoes, chopped (no need to peel and seed unless that’s your thing)
2 15.5 ounce cans black beans, drained and well rinsed (or one large can…you’re looking for about 30 ounces of beans)
2 bay leaves
1 cup chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if you want a vegan/vegetarian dish)
1 cup beer (ale or lager)
3-4 cups cooked white rice (basmatti or another long- or medium-grain, fragrant rice) for serving….FYI: 2 cups uncooked rice will provide approximately 4 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish
Sour cream for garnish
Shredded cheddar cheese for garnish
Hot sauce to taste

Begin by heating oil over medium heat in a large dutch oven. Add onions and cook to soften – 2-3 minutes. Add carrot and bell pepper and cook for another 2-3 minutes being careful to soften but not to burn the veggies. Add the garlic, salt, cumin, cinnamon, oregano and stir over medium heat for another minute, until garlic softens and the spices are fragrant. Add the tomatoes and stir well, cooking for another minute. Add the black beans, bay leaves, and chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.

When the tomatoes have begun to break down and the beans have incorporated with the other ingredients, add the beer and continue to simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally to keep the beans from burning to the bottom of the dutch oven.

Meanwhile, cook the rice if you’re serving this over rice.

The beans are done when the cooking liquid is reduced and is thick and flavorful, but the beans still have a slightly soupy consistency — approximately one total hour of cooking time. You can continue to cook the beans even longer over very low heat, but make sure to add more liquid as needed (you’ll have some beer left in the bottle…unless it “disappeared” somehow as you tended the pot). Cooking this dish for up to two hours is fine as long as it doesn’t get dry. The beans will get quite soft and the flavors will meld nicely in that amount of time, and if you’ve used jalapeños or problano peppers, the heat will be well incorporated into the entire dish.

Serve the beans over rice, sprinkled with parsley. Pass the shredded cheese, sour cream and hot sauce separately.

Great as a meal in and of itself, or as a large “side” complemented with little grilled meat (think chicken, or a couple of sticky BBQ ribs).

Serves: 6 – 8

Trying everything on her plate

Trying everything on her plate

Almost beans and rice get seal of approval

Almost done…black beans and rice get seal of approval

Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. I loved this most recent batch of beans. The cinnamon came through nicely with a subtle hint of flavor that didn’t overpower. The tomatoes from the farm share worked nicely with the other veggies, and the carrots added a really nice, sweet component. My husband wanted a bit more…something. Heat/spice/depth. The addition of a pickled jalapeño would have been perfect, or I could have added a spoonful of the adobo sauce in the fridge, and maybe some stout instead of the ale. But both he and I ate every last bite!
Kid rating: five stars. It amazed me to see clean plates both times the beans made an appearance at the table. The fact that this wasn’t too spicy worked well for both girls, and I was thrilled they consumed so many veggies in this one dish. Daughter 1 even went so far as to call this dish “delicioso!” So there you have it…dinner and a foreign language lesson all in one.

The BLP: Bacon, Lettuce & Peach Sandwich with Honey Drizzle

I just renewed my license to improvise.

No, not really, but lunch today was a non-traditional take on a sandwich that is the epitome of summer: The BLT. Not that there is anything wrong with a good ol’ traditional bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, especially when the tomato is just a little too ripe and cut, perhaps, just a little too thick. Tomatoes, after all, are practically falling from the vine this time of year in New Jersey and in my opinion could be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner without me ever growing tired of them.

But you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you limited yourself to tomatoes every time bacon and lettuce entered the sandwich equation. There are some other fun, seasonal riffs on this deli menu staple that should be shared — and the BLP is one of them.

This is a sweet/savory sandwich that makes me think of brunch, or a ladies’ tea (if proper ladies don’t mind peach juice dripping down their chins). Eat this sandwich with you pinkie extended, if you dare — the peaches will thank you. There are still some great farmer’s market peaches out there waiting to be snapped up before the all-to-short growing season is over. If you’ve got a bushel — or even just a spare peach — try this sandwich before the season is over.

Peaches, bacon, arugula: the sandwich comes together

Peaches, bacon, arugula: the sandwich comes together

Bacon, Lettuce & Peach Sandwiches with Honey Drizzle

4 slices sandwich bread, toasted
A good, fruity olive oil
6 slices bacon, cooked
1 large or 2 medium ripe peaches, sliced
1 large handful of washed and dried arugula leaves (or 4 large bib lettuce leaves)
Local honey (lavender honey if you’ve got it, but clover honey will do just fine)
Salt and pepper to taste

Drizzle one side of each slice of toast with a scant amount of olive oil. Layer two of the slices of toast with equal amounts of (in this order) the peaches, a drizzle of honey, a sprinkle of salt and pepper to taste, three slices of bacon, and seven or eight small arugula leaves (or two bib lettuce leaves). Top each sandwich with one of the remaining toast slices. Cut and serve.

Serves: 2

This is one sweet and savory sandwich - peaches, bacon and arugula

This is one sweet and savory sandwich – peaches, bacon and arugula

Parent rating: Three-and-a-half stars. My husband found this sandwich just a bit too precious, but I really liked the contrast between the peaches and the peppery arugula, intermingled with bacon. I experimented a bit with a pinch of cinnamon on the peaches and recommend it as well, but that really takes this from the lunch table to the brunch table. Kick it up by GRILLING the peaches and maybe adding a crumble of blue cheese and you’ve got something in a whole different stratosphere. I think I’ll try that next time, and maybe even as an open face sandwich. That just screams brunch.
Kid rating: Sorry, loyal readers, but the kids didn’t get to try this one…at least not yet! My prediction is that they would love a peach sandwich. They would really love a peach and bacon sandwich. They would not, however, be happy with the addition of arugula or lettuce. Which would make this ‘wich a “BP” I suppose. Hmmmm. If you make it for your kiddos, let me know how it goes!

The Donut Sundae: Bring on the Weekend

This is not a recipe so much as it is permission to have a little fun. Draw outside the lines. Embrace the element of surprise at the end of the day — which is always necessary when you have preschoolers in the house.

The surprise in this case is that I not only said “yes” to the donut sundae, but suggested it to our girls as they were pondering dessert during one of our remaining vacation evenings.

Digging in

Digging in

The donut sundae is a glorious thing and begins, really, following a morning walk on the boardwalk to Brown’s Restaurant. You may have your own Brown’s, wherever you vacation or maybe even in your city or town. And, if it’s just a Dunkin’ Donuts…well, that’s OK too.

People begin lining up for donuts at Brown’s starting at 6:00 am. If you get there after 8:00 am, as we did, expect to wait in a line to choose from their six different donut flavors. But it’s an enjoyable wait, with kids scampering around and trading notes on their favorite donuts (and how many they are going to eat), the surf crashing on the beach, and on windy days, a couple of kites flying in the morning breeze.

Buy a dozen. Maybe even a dozen and a half. Sneak at least one for the walk home (be careful, they are hot but SOOOOO good). And enjoy another one or two with coffee on the deck (and maybe one of those peaches from the farmer’s market) before heading out to the beach.

At the very end of the day you may find one or two donuts left, the collateral damage of the proverbial “eyes bigger than my stomach” syndrome. Or maybe you decided to order a couple of every flavor, just to try, and have one or two left over. Time for the donut sundae! In truth, it was my first bite of a plain donut, walking back down the boardwalk in the morning, that led me to imagine the divine pairing of cold, milky ice cream with a crisp, hot bite of fried dough. Yum.

All things in moderation. You only need a small wedge of donut and a scoop of ice cream for this kid-pleasing end to the day. After all, I don’t want my sprouts to be any stouter than they need to be! Our dessert included:

Donut Sundaes

Donut quarters – plain works quite well
A scoop or two of your favorite ice cream(s)

One of the tricks to the donut sundae is to find a cute bowl or glass in which to serve it — something “fancy.” There were a couple of fluted shot glasses in our beach house that were perfect, able to hold only a quarter of a donut and some ice cream. Easy to finish that way and it keeps the calories in check.

You don’t need whipped cream for these, but even that would be nice. Or a cherry. Or a layer of diced peaches macerated in a little sugar (oh, I so have to try that next summer!).

Have fun with these, and with your kids too. Summer will be over before we know it!

Serves: as many kiddies — and grown ups — as you have donuts and ice cream to feed.

A sweet way to end the evening

A sweet way to end the evening

Kid rating: five stars. Donuts AND ice cream — you can’t go wrong.
Parent rating: five stars for the fun factor alone, plus these are tasty as long as your donuts aren’t too stale! If you’re making a grown up version, try adding a splash of liquor (triple sec is a perennial beach favorite) over the donut before piling on the ice cream. Actually, this version would also be great with the afore-mentioned sugar-macerated diced peaches and some premium vanilla ice cream. YUM.

Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

I am a pressure-cooker risotto convert. Actually, advocate or evangelist might be a better description. Risotto wasn’t even in our regular menu rotation before I started cooking with a pressure cooker and now we make it several times a month, easily. I even packed the pressure cooker for our trip to the shore.

After all, what is not to like about risotto? Creamy, cheesy, and able to leap high buildings in a single bound (and by that I mean you can add just about any veggie or protein flavor combination with equally-stellar results), it’s a dinner-time super hero.

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

If you don’t have a pressure cooker, don’t be discouraged. There are several great — and easy — risotto recipes out there with techniques that prove you don’t need to constantly stir the rice pot to get good results. I recommend starting with the version for Basic Risotto on the Cook’s Illustrated web site if you have a subscription. As I’ve previously hinted, this is our go-to web site for reliable and proven recipes — the subscription is definitely worth it for a serious cook. Another great recipe for Laid-Back Risotto comes from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site, translating a Mario Batali recipe that features spring asparagus.

Personally, it was the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Pressure-Cooker Parmesan Risotto that started us down the pressure-cooker risotto path. The advantage to using the pressure cooker is that dinner can be on the table in 15 minutes, start to finish, and that is a lifesaver on a busy weeknight…or in our recent case, an evening at the shore where we didn’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen. It’s reliable and easy and, in our house, frequently requested as well.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of our favorite versions uses fresh (preferred) or frozen corn, but we have also used the techniques below to make:
– Butternut squash risotto (add cubes of butternut squash early, with the onions)
– Fresh baby spinach risotto (add baby spinach at the last moment)
– Ham and pea risotto
– Seared shrimp and scallop risotto (sear shrimp and/or sea scallops separately and incorporate at last moment)

Super hero indeed!

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer's market

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer’s market

A quick note about the white wine used to deglaze the pan and start the steaming process for the rice: use something dry that you’d normally drink. If you’re having wine with dinner, this is a great excuse to open the bottle early. But often enough I don’t feel like opening a full bottle of wine for this recipe alone, in which case I use the vermouth that is nearly always open in our liquor cabinet and doesn’t turn as easily as a regular bottle of wine. I prefer Noilly Prat Original Dry vermouth for this recipe. Vermouth is a fortified wine that incorporates other botanical flavors. The herbs and spices in Noilly Prat are mild and work well with risotto. There are some other wonderful vermouth’s out there that make a mean martini, but which I wouldn’t use for risotto because they are too full-flavored. Experiment a little to see what you like if you go this route.

Here is how we made this week’s batch, using Jersey Fresh produce we picked up at the farmer’s market:

Pressure-Cooker Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
4 cups chicken broth (homemade if you have it)
Approximately 3 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from 3 ears of the freshest corn you can get (or use frozen corn…I do in the winter)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated mild cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (optional…works well with some but not all flavor combos)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, basil, or sorrel, finely minced (or combination of herbs…a little thyme might be nice depending on what you’re adding)

Begin by heating the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in the pressure cooker (or pot on the stove top if you’re making a traditional version of risotto). Add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the rice and stir, allowing rice to sauté slightly for about 1 minute. The outer layer of the rice grains will take on a slightly translucent look – this is what you want. When all the rice gains looks uniformly translucent and ever so slightly browned, add the white wine or vermouth.

When the wine is nearly evaporated, add 3 cups of chicken stock and put the lid on the pressure cooker. Bring your pressure cooker to high pressure and cook risotto for 4 minutes before releasing the pressure. For a non-pressure cooker version, keep adding warmed chicken stock to your pot as needed until rice is cooked through.

Carefully remove the lid and stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente.

Add the corn, allow to cook for 1 minute, and remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese (a non-traditional addition, but something my kids really like that rounds out the creaminess), the lemon zest if using, and the remaining 1 tablespoon unsalted butter.

Stir in the herbs — or sprinkle over the top — and serve.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Fresh corn risotto

Fresh corn risotto

Kid rating: five stars – sometimes four-and-a-half depending on the various things I add. This is a reliable staple on our dinner table that both girls enjoy and request.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. We tend to like stronger flavors than the girls, and I’ve been known to dish their portions and then “spice up” our portions with some spicy sausage or some veggies that might not be on the good list on any given week (for instance, peas). But this version, with fresh corn and sometimes some added cooked chicken, is a favorite for everyone.

Penne with Italian Sausage, Summer Squash, Green Beans, Feta and Olives

This was another fast and easy beach house dinner, pulled together in the short time between coming in from the ocean and heading back out to the boardwalk in the evening (I recommend cooking with sand between your toes at least once in your life – it will do you well). It made good use of the farmer’s market veggies in the crisper as well as the pantry staples we’d brought with us.

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer's market

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market

One pot, one sauté pan, and a cutting board. Prep and clean up were a snap.

Best of all, everyone liked this dish with daughter 1 calling it “yummy.” We even got both girls to try different flavor combinations (the feta with a bite of squash, a green bean with a bit of sausage…).

You could freelance on this recipe quite a bit with equally good results. We added just two links of Italian sweet sausage but this recipe could be made without meat just as easily. Use zucchini instead of summer squash. Put in a red or green bell pepper instead of the purple one I used. Or use an Italian frying pepper instead. Have some broccoli? Throw that it. Don’t like feta? Use goat cheese, or even cubed Parmesan. I think you’ll find it all works.

Full plate, pretty colors

Full plate, pretty colors

Have fun with this one! And then, go out and have some fun after dinner too.

Penne with Italian Sausage, Summer Squash, Green Beans, Feta and Olives

1/2 pound penne pasta
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (I used a purple bell pepper)
2 medium summer squash, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 cup green beans, washed and cut to 2-inch lengths
1 garlic clove, diced
2 sweet Italian sausage links, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
4 ounces feta cheese, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, sliced
1 tablespoon diced parsley

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook penne pasta according to directions.

As penne is cooking, heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat and add onion and bell pepper. Cook 1 – 2 minutes, until slightly softened, and add squash and green beans. Cook, stirring, until squash has begun to soften and brown slightly at the edges and green beans are tender – another 5 minutes. Add garlic and sausage and continue to cook another 3 – 4 minutes.

When pasta is done and drained, add it to the sauté pan with the vegetables and sausage. Mix in the feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and parsley, and serve.

Serves: 4 – 6

An almost-finished dinner

An almost-finished dinner

Kid rating: four-and-a-half stars. Plates were nearly cleaned at the end of the meal and we actually had good dinner table conversation about the ingredients and how they tasted. Daughter 1 talked about the “tang” of the cheese (really!). A win.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. For a quick and easy pasta/veggie dish, this was one of the better ones we’ve had in a while. Maybe it was the way the saltiness of the feta and olives complemented the squash, or how the sausage blended so nicely in with the other elements to create a bit of a sauce for the pasta. Regardless, this one is a keeper.

Steamed Jersey Clams with White Wine, Garlic and Butter

The Jersey shore is known for many things: busy beaches and boardwalk attractions, funnel cake, and Lucy the Elephant among them (I’m not even going to entertain the notoriety of a certain MTV show, ’cause that’s just not my Jersey). But few people walk in to one of the supermarkets located in a Jersey beach town and get bowled over by the quality and selection. Sorry Super Fresh. I love your convenience, but big chain distribution methods mean your corn has been off the stalk longer than Snookie’s been negotiating rights on a new cable program.

Which is why the Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market is such a welcome surprise. Held every Wednesday morning from late June through the first week of September in the parking lot behind the Ocean City Tabernacle Church, the farmer’s market brings the freshest of Jersey Fresh to this seaside town. Table after table piled with peaches, plums, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, famous Jersey corn, cut flowers, fresh-baked pies and baked goods, fabulous pizzas and creamy mozzarella from Tony’s Farm Table, fresh-caught seafood…it’s all at the farmer’s market.

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer's market

Jersey fresh produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market

Ocean City, NJ, farmer's market eggplants and cucumbers

Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market eggplants and cucumbers

Picking produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer's market

Picking produce at the Ocean City, NJ, farmer’s market

The market was both a short walk from our beach house and a welcome diversion on a Wednesday morning that was looking just a little too overcast for the beach. I felt like a kid in a candy store. The kids felt like kids in a pastry store. We walked away with Danish pastries from Blue Dolfin Sweets, sticky buns, string beans, potatoes, corn, basil, apples, plums, a big pint of blackberries (which the girls SHARED – nicely! – on the walk home), and local clams. Oh – and two strawberry lemonades.

Danish pastries from Blue Dolfin Sweets in Marmora, NJ

Danish pastries from Blue Dolfin Sweets in Marmora, NJ

Blackberries - perfect treat for the walk home

Blackberries – perfect treat for the walk home

Fresh cheese and artisanal pizzas from Tony's Farm Table at the Ocean City farmer's market

Fresh cheese and artisanal pizzas from Tony’s Farm Table at the Ocean City farmer’s market

Randall’s Seafood of Pleasantville, NJ, is the fish monger at the market and provided the public service of posting this wonderfully uncomplicated recipe for steaming clams right on the cooler in his stand. I loved the kitsch of it all and of course had to make it and pass this recipe along. And if you go to the Ocean City farmer’s market, definitely stop by his stand early. He sold out of all his fresh fish within the first two hours, which was a good sign as far as I was concerned. Also, he added a couple of clams into my order of two dozen just in case some didn’t open. But they all did. Bonus! Love that kind of customer service.

Steamed local NJ clams: Simple recipe, great results (thanks Randall's Seafood!)

Steamed local NJ clams: Simple recipe, great results (thanks Randall’s Seafood!)

Two dozen fresh New Jersey clams, ready for dinner

Two dozen fresh New Jersey clams, ready for dinner

Steamed Clams with White Wine, Garlic and Butter

Plenty of butter
Plenty of garlic
Not too much dry white wine
Lotsa clams
Parsley, lemon
Beer to drink (Coronas preferred)

Melt butter over medium heat.

Add garlic, 2-3 minutes – don’t burn.

Add wine, increase heat to medium high simmering boil.

Add clams 5 to 7 minutes.

Stir them up.

Add parsley and throw in lemon wedges.

Great over linguine.

Serves: However many you planned to serve! Plan on 6 – 12 clams per person.

She calls them "clamies"

She calls them “clamies”

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

Kid rating: OK, these weren’t for the kids. These were purely for me. Daughter 1 passed on the clams. Daughter 2, however, ate half a dozen and gives them three and a half stars.
Parent rating: Five stars. Happy happy. Again, these were for me! My husband does not care for clams (and that is putting it nicely). I, however, love them. So I was in hog heaven with both the clams and this wonderful, fortuitous recipe. Go Jersey!

Baked Eggplant Parmesan: The Best of Vacation Meals

I packed a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano for our trip to the beach.

There. I admit it. And no, it wasn’t just tucked between the swim suits and sunscreen, but had plenty of company in a big plastic bin with other pantry “essentials” like pasta, peanut butter, bread, fresh mozzarella, chickpeas, rice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some Jersey Fresh produce from Cherry Grove Organic Farm.

When it comes to vacation, the things to which I most look forward are 1) having time to connect with the family and 2) cook with the kids. Most of the meals we plan are quick and easy so that, after a day on the beach, we can get back out and enjoy the boardwalk before dropping in to bed.

I also have a couple of menu options in my hip pocket for the days that aren’t so sunny, when rain drives everyone back inside. So when the clouds rolled in this year, daughter 1 and I set to work on an eggplant Parmesan while my husband put daughter 2 down for a nap.

Our eggplant, showing a little love

Our eggplant, showing a little love

The ingredient list is nice and simple so this recipe is accommodated to vacation-house cooking. You don’t need any fancy equipment either so you should be able to make this in even the most sparsely-outfitted kitchen (which, thankfully, ours was not…making vacation even more enjoyable for me).

We cut a few corners by packing a good jar of marinara sauce but you can always make your own if you have the ingredients and even more time on your hands. We, it turns out, were able to enjoy a good portion of the day at the beach until heavy clouds sent us home in the early afternoon. If you wake up and it’s pouring, go for it and make a marinara of your own, like this one from The Food Network’s Alex Guarnaschelli.

In addition to making good use of the ingredients we brought with us, this recipe calls for baking the breaded eggplant instead of frying it before assembling the eggplant Parmesan. It’s healthier that way, and made me feel a little less guilty about eating the sour cream-drizzled shrimp tacos and french fries from the fish shack for lunch. Every vacation calls for some food excess, but no reason not to rein it in a little when possible.

With several uninterrupted hours, a gin and tonic for mom, and an apple juice for daughter 1, here’s what we were able to accomplish.

Baked Eggplant Parmesan

2 large eggplants
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds of fresh pepper
3 eggs
4 slices stale bread, whizzed in a blender or food processor into bread crumbs — about 1 cup (we used the ends of 2 loaves of sandwich bread, lightly toasted, but you could use prepared bread crumbs or any good, dried-out bread)
1 tablespoon olive oil, used for oiling baking pans
1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese (we had those small, fresh mozzarella balls, which I diced up instead of grating)
24 ounce jar marinara sauce
5-6 basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for serving
Cooked linguine or spaghetti, for serving

Cut eggplant into 1/3-inch rounds, salt slices lightly, and place in a colander to drain for half an hour.

While eggplant is draining, set up your “dredging station.” Place seasoned flour in one medium shallow bowl, the beaten eggs in a second medium shallow bowl, and the bread crumbs and 1/4 cup of the grated Parmesan in a third medium shallow bowl. You may also wish to season your breadcrumbs with minced parsley or oregano (which I would have if I had additional fresh herbs on hand).

Lightly oil two baking sheets with the olive oil and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

After the eggplants have released some of their moisture, pat them dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels. You’re now ready to dredge, and this is the part of the recipe that had daughter 1 saying she was “a machine” when it came to coating eggplants in flour. Starting with the flour, coat an eggplant slice and knock off any excess against the edge of the bowl. Next, dip the eggplant slice into the beaten egg, allowing excess to drip off (the flour will help the egg adhere). Finally, coat the eggplant slice in the breadcrumb/Parmesan mixture, making sure the breadcrumbs fully cover the eggplant. Place the coated eggplant slice on the oiled baking sheet and repeat with remaining eggplant slices.

The dredging machine

The dredging machine

Bake the eggplant slices for approximately 30-40 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly browned. Remove from oven, flip the eggplant slices, and place the baking sheets back in the 375-degree oven for another 30 minutes until the second side is equally browned and crunchy. Remove from oven and increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Mix the remaining 1 cup of grated Parmesan with the grated mozzarella.

To assemble the eggplant Parmesan, begin by spreading 1/2 cup marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ baking pan — our beach house had a nice Pyrex one handy. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce (daughter 1 did a great job), spread with another layer of sauce, and sprinkle with half of the Parmesan/mozzarella mixture (daughter 2, now up from her nap, did the cheese sprinkling…and a little cheese nibbling). Make another layer, starting with the eggplant, then the remaining sauce, and finally the remaining Parmesan/mozzarella mixture.

Assembling the eggplant Parmesan

Assembling the eggplant Parmesan

Some Parmigiano-Reggiano for me, some Parmigiano-Reggiano for you

Some Parmigiano-Reggiano for me, some Parmigiano-Reggiano for you

Place the assembled eggplant Parmesan into the 400-degree oven and bake until the cheese melts and the sauce bubbles —  20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes.

Serve over cooked pasta with a sprinkle of basil chiffonade, or on a split crusty roll if an eggplant parm sandwich is more your style. Don’t forget to tuck in a couple of basil leaves for a little extra flavor hit.

Serves: 8

Dinner is served: eggplant Parmesan

Dinner is served: eggplant Parmesan

Kid rating: Five stars for cooking participation, two-and-a-half stars for consumption. Daughter 1 loved getting into the kitchen with me and was very proud of the dish. She tasted a cooked eggplant round as we were assembling the Parmesan and gave it two thumbs up. But both girls vastly preferred the pasta to the eggplant once it was served. They both tried the dish, and I have faith that they will eat a little more when it comes time for leftovers.
Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. My husband was a little skeptical about baking the eggplant vs. frying, but was pretty impressed with the finished dish. We both added liberal grinds of fresh pepper, and probably would have been pushing five stars if we’d used more fresh herbs in the preparation. All in all, a keeper.