Tomato Pesto Gratin

Tomato Pesto GratinTomato Pesto Gratin may seem like a summer dish if ever there was one, but the beauty of it is that it brings the familiar flavors of your farmer’s market bounty into your kitchen in the dead of winter. Last weekend, I was toiling around the kitchen after a week-long bout of bronchitis, anxious to cook and eat all the vegetables I could find. Having just spent seven full days with a stuffed nose and congested chest, I wanted bold flavors I could actually taste and enjoy. Side note: I’ll never take my taste buds for granted again. Digging through the crisper, I thought I’d make some omelettes, maybe with some red peppers and spinach, but therein, I spied five plum tomatoes that I had managed to forget about during our brief plague.
Tomato Pesto GratinI know, I know, tomatoes don’t belong in the refrigerator, but when illness set in, there was no common sense exercised about what belonged where, for how long, or why. We’re lucky the cats were fed and, occasionally, the dishwasher ran. Quickly, the idea for bruschetta came to mind, but with temperatures dipping well into the negative numbers, a cold salad alongside some eggs and toast, wasn’t all that appealing. But baked tomatoes were my quick next thought, and a damn good one at that. We had them again this weekend and I’m taking the leftovers for work on Monday alongside a salad and a hunk of crusty sourdough that we got this weekend at a new bakery in our neighborhood. I’m already looking forward to it!
Tomato Pesto GratinBecause I wanted these to be sweet, tender, and concentrated in tomato flavor, I seeded the tomatoes and then roasted them for 10 minutes without any of the filling. A little known fact about me is that I actually really dislike the taste of raw tomatoes, unless they’re in something like bruschetta or salsa where they’re broken down a bit by some kind of acid – lemon or lime, vinegar – and then mixed up with a ton of flavors I love – onion, cilantro or basil, lots and lots of garlic…yum!


Tomato Pesto Gratin

Once the tomatoes are halfway to jammy (that’s a technical phrase), I took them out of the oven and filled them with a tablespoon of homemade pesto I had in my freezer from last summer and then topped each little mound with a small amount of shredded  mozzarella and panko bread crumbs. They cook for another 20 minutes or until the tops become brown and crisp and the cheese and oil from the pesto are both bubbling away.

Tomato Pesto GratinThese are beyond delicious and such an easy any meal, any day of the week, kind of recipe. We had them with eggs – and may or may not have dipped our sourdough toast in all of the oil and juice – but these would be good along side a steak, grilled chicken, fish, as much as they’re a meal all their own with a hearty salad. Tomato Pesto Gratin is my favorite side dish of the New Year so far and I fully expect to fall back on it time and time again between now and actual summer. Between now and July, I plan to eat my fill and then some!

Tomato Pesto Gratin
Yields 5 servings

Ingredients
5 plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder, divided
Salt & pepper
3/4 cup of pesto (mine was cold, so it made it easy to scoop rounded tablespoons into the tomato halves)
1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup of panko bread crumbs

Directions
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Slice tomatoes in half and scoop out seeds and center flesh. You can toss this or use it in a soup, salsa, or as part of a light pasta sauce at another time. In a bowl, add the tomatoes and then douse with two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss to coat and then arrange in a baking dish that is about an inch taller than the height of the tomatoes. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the garlic powder over the tomatoes and add salt and pepper. Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Remove the tomatoes from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°F. Fill each tomato half with a tablespoon of the pesto and top with approximately the same amount of shredded mozzarella cheese. Spoon 2 tablespoons of panko bread crumbs over each tomato half and top all of the pieces with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder. Return to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes or until the panko is lightly browned and crisp.

Eggplant & Bruschetta Napoleons

Eggplant NapoleonsYou know what is hard work, friends? Wedding planning! And, more so, wedding planning that includes creating all of the decor & various adornments alongside making most of the food. Phew! Luckily, it’s fun and creative work and all for a very dear friend, so it balances out.

Still, with so much going on, feeding oneself can feel like such a chore. While I am fortunate enough to get Bear-made meals each and every week, not just tough ones, I still long to get into the kitchen and cook – I just might not have my usual stamina once I get there. Here’s where this quick dish comes in!

Eggplant & Bruschetta NapoleonsEggplant & bruschetta napoleons are an easy summer dinner because there’s not a lot required of them and they can be made in pieces throughout the day; or even, in part, the day before if you’re anticipating a jam-packed tomorrow. What’s more is that you can tailor them to your tastes and your time commitments. Do you want to grill the eggplant slices instead of frying them? You can do that. Would you rather use your stovetop grill pan instead of trudging out to the patio or backyard? Done and done. Want to just roast them off in the oven and walk away for a bit? Still delish. When I made these recently, I topped the napoleons with an easy balsamic reduction. If that feels like too much for a busy weeknight, a light dash of extra balsamic on top will work fine too. I will say, though, that the added bit of sweetness from the syrupy balsamic reduction changes the flavor of the whole dish in a fantastic way.

Eggplant & Bruschetta NapoleonsWith a green side salad – I’m thinking some light, lemon-y dressed arugala – eggplant & bruschetta napoleons are a delicious and satisfying meal that will make you feel gloriously rewarded for all of your hard work. Also, tomorrow’s leftovers make an awesome second round of this exact meal or an amazequake eggplant and bruschetta sub for lunch. Try it on crusty Italian or French bread with a little homemade basil mayo for the ultimate sandwich.

Eggplant & Bruschetta Napoleons
Yields 2-3 servings

Ingredients
5 plum tomatoes
1/4 cup of diced red onion
6 leaves of thinly sliced basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of sugar
Salt & pepper
3/4 cups of balsamic vinegar, divided
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan or grill
1 large eggplant
1 16-ounce log of fresh mozzarella
Italian-style bread crumbs (optional)
2 eggs (optional)

Directions
Salt & drain your eggplant. Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Slice eggplant in 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch slices and place on baking sheet. Lightly sprinkle with salt and allow to sit a half hour. After time has passed, flip the eggplant slices and do the same to the other side for about 15 minutes. The paper towels will be damp with excess moisture and the bitterness sometimes associated with eggplant. Remove eggplant from paper towel and set aside.

Next, make the bruschetta. Seed plum tomatoes then chop and add to a mixing bowl. Add diced red onion, garlic cloves, basil, garlic powder, sugar, salt, pepper, 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Mix thoroughly and set aside. Allow to sit at least 2 hours before eating. If waiting to serve this, store in refrigerator. Bruschetta can be made up to two days in advance.

Prepare the eggplant to your desired liking. You can brush it (and your grill or grill pan) with olive oil and grill each side. If you go this route, cook it to the point where it has nice char, but still has some body to it. You don’t want it to be a mushy mess (technical term). Same goes for roasting. If you’re frying the eggplant, scramble two eggs in a bowl and then dip each slice in it until submerged, shake off excess egg, and dip both sides in seasoned bread crumbs. In a frying pan, heat olive oil over medium high heat and fry each slice of eggplant approximately 4 minutes on each side until done. Keep your cooked eggplant slices hot in the oven at its lowest level of heat; for mine, that  is 170°F.

While your eggplant is frying or grilling, pour 1/2 a cup of balsamic vinegar into a small pot and bring to a boil over high heat – watch this closely, as it can reduce entirely and burn quickly. Once boiling, knock the heat back to medium and cook about 5-7 minutes or until it becomes a thick syrup. When it reaches this consistency, immediately remove it from the heat.

When your eggplant is finished cooking and your balsamic reduction is ready, prepare your napoleons. Put down a wide slice of eggplant for the base and top it with a 1/2-inch thick slice of fresh mozzarella. Follow that with another slice of eggplant and another of mozzarella, then top your stack with a hearty helping of bruschetta. Drizzle balsamic reduction on top.

Panzanella Salad

Panzanella SaladMy two go-to meals any time of year, but especially in the summer, are, in many ways, variations of the same thing – antipasto and panzanella salad. Growing up, antipasto was a weekend staple whenever company was coming and usually consisted of fresh mozzarella, soppressatta, olives, eggplant caponata, pepperoni, and provolone so sharp it’d make my nose run. Oh, and bread. So much delicious, chewy, Italian bread in long braided loaves covered in sesame seeds.

With summer nearly upon us and the reminder that sweet, juicy tomatoes do exist (buying tomatoes in the winter is so depressing, isn’t it?), panzanella takes many of the same flavors of antipasto and dresses them up in an easy one-bowl lunch or dinner that is totally satisfying and filled with fresh, delicious, good-for-you ingredients. When I posted a quick snapshot on Instagram last week of panzanella in the works, a follower asked for the recipe and while I will, of course, give you one here, the truth is that it changes every time! But that’s what makes it so easy and so perfect for summer when fresh veggies are all over the place.

Panzanella SaladWhile this version has tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion as the stars, I’ve also used combinations in the past that include fresh zucchini, grilled eggplant, and red peppers, among others. If you’re not familiar with panzanella, tomatoes are always a staple alongside toasty cubes of a rustic bread, such as Italian bread, ciabatta, or French bread, which soaks up the juices from the vegetables and the vinaigrette only to soften and become little, tasty bites that just explode summer when you bite into them. I like to toss my bread in a frying pan that has olive oil and garlic in it as it toasts and dries out, but you can also do it on a baking sheet in the oven or grill two halves of a loaf and cube it after it’s cooled. There’s a lot of flexibility here.

Adding mozzarella cheese, freshly torn basil, and other goodies, such as soppressata, could be seen as gilding the panzanella lily, but it also bulks up the salad and makes it feel a little bit more special, especially when serving it to guests. Though rustic and easy to prepare, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with this meal. In fact, the leftovers may even turn your workday around when you have the remains for lunch, though I do recommend also packing a roll of breath mints in that case considering the abundance of garlic. Panzanella holds up and never disappoints. It’s a keeper and an easy, versatile summer meal.

Panzanella Salad
Yields 4-6 servings

Ingredients
1 loaf of Italian or French bread
2 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
Olive oil
1 Tablespoon of butter
Salt & pepper
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
6-8 leaves of basil, torn or thinly sliced
12 ounces of fresh mozzarella
6 ounces of soppressata, cubed
1/2 of a large cucumber, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
1/4 cup of red onion, thinly sliced
Balsamic vinegar

Directions
First, cut the entire loaf of bread into 1-inch cubes. In a large frying pan with deep sides, melt the tablespoon of butter into approximately 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat and add the thinly sliced garlic. Allow the garlic to gently cook for 1-2 minutes before adding the bread and tossing it in the oil and butter mixture. Allow the bread to toast, flipping cubes over and tossing it every 2 minutes or so. If pan seems very dry, drizzle in a little bit more olive oil. Cook until all cubes are toasted and the exterior of each is crisp. For a whole loaf of Italian bread, this will take about 10-12 minutes.

While the bread is toasting, slice the vegetables and basil and cube the mozzarella cheese and soppressata; set aside. When the bread is finished cooking, add it along with the toasted slices of garlic into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool down for about 5 minutes. At this time, you can walk away and assemble the salad later on or finish making it. Add the sliced ingredients to the bread and lightly salt and pepper. Next, drizzle the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss together thoroughly to combine. I usually start by adding about two tablespoons of vinegar, tossing, and seeing where I’m at after. Remember, your vegetables will release moisture upon contact with the warm bread and then even more so with the acidity of the vinegar, so add a touch more vinegar if you’d like, but this will soften more and more as it sits.

When you eat the panzanella is entirely up to you and your preferred texture. I eat it all kinds of ways, but I prefer it about a half hour after everything is incorporated and macerated. The bread still has some crisp texture then and I like that bite, but it is also delicious once everything has really softened together and the bread is moist with all of the flavors. Depending on what you prefer, allow the salad to sit on the counter for a bit and then serve it or store in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight, before enjoying.