Follow me on Twitter

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Think Like A Chef - Gluten Free Eggplant, Zucchini, & Roasted Tomato Lasagna

The first dish to make with our newly roasted tomatoes was an eggplant, zucchini, and roasted tomato lasagna.

Now, I was given a lot of advice on this dish.  Using noodles, not using noodles, grate the vegetables, don’t grate the vegetables, and so on.  In the end, I decided to make this the way Colicchio intended.  Why?  Well, for one, I have never made lasagna before.

No, really.  In 24 years of cooking various recipes, I have always avoided pasta and left that to Cathy.  So, I thought “Why not master the ‘normal’ way of making lasagna, and then play next time.”

Now, to make this gluten free, I couldn’t use regular lasagna noodles, but I still had a couple of choices.  In my local supermarkets, I found two choices: De Boles which is no boil lasagna, and another brand that was brown rice pasta.  I chose De Boles, as I am not a huge fan of brown rice pasta.

The ricotta I chose was made with part skim in order to conserve calories.  The hard part of lowering the fat content, however, came from the Parmesan Reggiano.  (The King of Cheeses, as Mario would say…)  I needed a cup.  A cup of Parmesan Reggiano is over 1,000 calories.  I mean, even if I got 10 servings, it would add 100 calories, almost all from fat.  I ended up cutting it with a lower fat Parmesan.

The first step was to slice the eggplant, salt the slices, and let them drain.  For those of you who haven’t worked with eggplant, this seems to be done for two reasons.  First, apparently eggplant can soak up a lot of liquid, so salting helps prevent that.  Also, as it leaches its liquid, it cuts down on the bitterness that eggplant can have.

Now, while that was…leaching…I was draining ½ cup ricotta, cutting the zucchini into 1 ½ inch pieces, doing the same to a small onion and a red bell pepper, slicing a clove of garlic, chopping the roasted tomato, getting the leached eggplant cut that into the same 1 ½ strips, and getting about ½ cup of the reserved tomato juice…

Oooops.  I got rid of the juice, remember?  (If not, read here.)  So, unfortunately, I had to go out and buy tomato juice.   

Time to cook.

In a pan over medium heat, I added the onion and garlic.  I let that cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes, and then added the bell pepper, and cooked that for a couple of minutes.  Then I added the eggplant and zucchini along with a bay leaf, salt and pepper, and cooked that for five minutes.  Then I added the leaves from two sprigs of basil, along with the roasted tomatoes, and three tablespoons of the (store bought) tomato juice, and cooked for another 2 minutes.  Then I took it off the heat.  I must say, it smelled and tasted delicious. So far, so good.

Now I had to layer the dish.  Remember, this is essentially a sauceless lasagna.  Into the bottom of the lasagna pan went some olive oil and the first layer of pasta.  On top of the pasta went some Parmesan.  Then half of the eggplant mixture, next, half of the ricotta was dotted on top of that, then more parmesan, then another layer of pasta, and repeat.  Then the whole thing went into a 350 degree oven that had been preheated.

Twenty minutes later, I poured the rest of the tomato juice on top of the noodles and cooked for 25 more minutes.

At the end of the cooking time, I took the lasagna out and I thought, “Wow, this smells great…but…the noodles seem to be…uncooked?  And, the ricotta doesn’t look like it melted at all.  Hmmm.”  I cut a small piece and bit into it.  From across the room, I heard Cathy say, “Honey…lasagna isn’t supposed to be crunchy.”

I can honestly say that I have been cooking in one form or another for 24 years.  Sometimes just dabbling, sometimes serious, or now where I am actually trying to learn how to cook than using a recipe.  This is the first time I ever had to throw away a dish.

Ok, I need to try this again.  Time to get some advice and think like a chef…

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Think Like A Chef - Roasted Tomatoes And Garlic

A few years ago, before more responsibility at work coupled with the end of online poker, I wasn’t too bad a poker player.  I mean, I was never going to win The World Series of Poker or anything, but I was good enough to make it into the WPT tournament at Foxwoods one year. 

One of my big failings as a poker player was that I often didn’t listen to my gut.  Countless times in my short poker career, I knew my pocket tens were beat when someone would put me all in, yet I couldn’t stop myself from pulling the trigger, thus losing my chips and my hopes of winning the tournament.

And I believe this is what kept me from making a completely successful dish in the latest recipe in Tom Colicciho’s book “Think Like A Chef.”

The recipe is roasted tomatoes and garlic.  Remember, the idea of this entire chapter is to start with a couple of ingredients, and make multiple dishes with the same ingredients.  This recipe is supposed to leave me with three distinct parts.  Roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, and roasted tomato juice.

I bought twenty beautiful tomatoes from Whole Foods. 

I removed the stems and cored them, while the oven was preheating to 350 degrees.  As I’ve said before, I don’t have great knife skills so it took me a while to get the technique down, but the latter half looked pretty good.  Then I cut them in half and placed them in a large bowl with garlic peeled from two full heads of garlic, and ½ cup of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Next, I placed the tomato halves on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, cut side down.  Ok, makes sense so far.

The next direction was…”pour any olive oil left in the bowl over them.”

Now…I’m thinking, “Well wait a minute.  If I do that, won’t the juices mix with the olive oil?  What if instead of doing that, I put the rack on the sheets, don’t pour the olive oil on the tomatoes, so the juice I have is free and clear of the olive oil?”

I then proceeded to pour the olive oil on top of the tomatoes.

Twenty minutes in, I peeled the tomatoes, and poured the tomato juice off into a bowl...which was full of olive oil.  That can’t be right.  So I poured it out, and continued the roasting process.  Not a heck of a lot of juice was left, and what was there had olive oil in it.

So at the end of the day, what did I have other than a great smelling house?

Roasted tomatoes?  Check!

Roasted garlic?  Check!

Roasted tomato juice?  Not so much.

What could I have done differently?

Well, I could have gone with my original idea of the resting rack.  Or I could have reserved the juices, put it in the fridge, let the oil rise to the top and removed it.  Not sure if that would work, but it’s a possibility.

So, was it completely successful?  No.

But two out of three ain’t bad.  (Sorry for the short advertisement...)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Gluten Free and Aruba 2013

I think I can safely say that the gluten free trend is strong in Aruba!

First, at least two of the supermarkets carry gluten free items.  I walked into Super Foods, and they had a small gluten free area carrying items like Schar pasta, among other things.  I also saw an advertisement for Ling and Sons, which apparently carries items made by Glutino as well as others.  So buying your own food has become easier.

The second thing, is three of the six restaurants we went to for dinner offered me gluten free bread with my dinner!  That was very cool!

New restaurants we went to:

Matthew’s Beachside Restaurant:  This is a very nice restaurant that sits on the edge of the beach, though not in the sand.  Although they did not have a gluten free menu, the waiter did speak to the chef about which items I could and could not have.  The entrée I had was a grouper dish.  In order to make it gluten free, they substituted melted butter for their creole sauce.  The grouper was very flavorful and quite moist.  I particularly liked the simple side of vegetables they served as a side dish, as they were crunchy but not undercooked, as can sometimes be the case.

Gostoso Restaurante:  This charming little restaurant is behind the downtown area.  The outside looks…like someplace you might be worried about eating in.  However, they had gotten great reviews, so Cathy and I ventured inside.  Wow!  Am I glad we did!  The owner was there, and he talked to us for a while.  He read off a list of specials that all sounded great.  Again, they were able to guide me to gluten free items.  My entrée was a seafood medley that was in a sauce.  Unfortunately, the owner spoke fast so I missed what the sauce was.  In any case, the dish contained lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, grouper and calamari.  Now Cathy is not a calamari fan.  This is because, if calamari is overcooked, it can become rubbery.  However, this calamari was cooked perfectly.  It was very tender.  The sauce was good and did not overpower the seafood, instead it complemented it.  I have to say, this was one of the best meals I have had on the island, and I highly recommend this restaurant.

Yemanja Woodfired Grill:  For anyone who must be gluten free, this is a great place to go.  They actually have a huge gluten free menu.  In comparing the regular menu and the gluten free menu, it looks like many of their regular items are gluten free.  That being said, you should still ask for the gluten free menu.

As for the food, I had a wonderful fish chowder.  Cathy got the same thing from the regular menu.  She tried mine and she could detect only a slight difference.  It was thick and creamy…exactly what a New Englander likes in chowder.


As for the entrée…well…I didn’t like what I ordered, which was a smoked duck breast.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was cooked perfectly with most of the fat rendered off.  The presentation was simple but nice.  I just felt it was too smoked, so it overpowered the meat.  That being said, Cathy and one of our other travel companions happened to order items that were gluten free and they were both delicious, so I would have no problem going back, and you shouldn’t think twice about going there.

Marandi:  Marandi is near the airport, and they have had a couple of different owners.  The current owners also own a restaurant called Que Pasa.  They do not have a gluten free menu, but the wait staff have a list of all of the foods they have that are gluten free.

I received some gluten free bread.  This bread was shaped like a muffin with a very crunchy top, and the bread had herbs in it, which made it very flavorful.  You should ask for separate butter though so you won’t have to deal with cross contamination.

Cathy and I both got the fish soup, which was naturally gluten free.  It was a tomato based soup with a slight hint of curry.  It gave the soup a nice flavor, and it really woke up my pallet.


My entrée was corvina, which is a fish from Panama.  Big, flaky, moist with nicely seared skin and some chopped nuts on top which added texture to the dish, which was a delight.

It is nice to see that restaurants in Aruba are catering more and more to those of us who must be gluten free.  What once was somewhat difficult has become relatively easy.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Think Like A Chef - Breakthrough #2

Due to circumstances, I was unable to make the planned dinner of eggplant, zucchini, and roasted tomato lasagna.  However, I was still in the mood to cook, and I wanted to make something Italian.

My thought process went something like this:  “I’ll make chicken parm with a side of pasta.  But, I really only try to eat pasta once a week, so I’ll make spaghetti squash…which I have never even tasted before.  Sounds good.  Except I eat chicken at least three times a week.  So, instead I’ll make meatballs.  No…I try to eat red meat only once a week.  I know!  I’ll make turkey meatballs!  Which I have never made either.  This should be interesting.”

Now, I’ve never made meatballs of any kind before, but I’ve watched enough cooking shows to have an idea of what I needed to buy, so I went to the store and bought some ingredients.  First I bought some gluten free bread crumbs with Italian seasoning. 

Aleia's makes very good gluten free products.

Next, I had to decide what kind of cheese.  Now here was the dilemma.  First, I had to choose between Parmesan and Pecorino Romano.  Also, how bad would this taste if I substitute either of these cheeses for the low fat version I can get from that little green plastic bottle?  In the end, because this was my first time making these, I went with real cheese and I went with the Pecorino Romano.  I also bought some parsley, and of course ground turkey.

This led to another dilemma.  Do I get the 93% fat free or the 99% fat free ground turkey?  Personally, I think that meat has to have a little bit of fat to it, so I went with the 93% fat free.

Next, I bought a spaghetti squash, which to my surprise had a harder exterior than butternut squash, and finally some RAO’s marinara sauce.  I went with RAO’s because I didn’t feel I had time to make a sauce from scratch, and RAO’s was rated one of the best jarred sauces a couple of years ago.

My plan of attack was to put the sauce in a pot, heat it up, make the turkey meatballs, and then drop them in the sauce.  This led to yet another interesting decision.  There is a lot of controversy on the right way to make meatballs of any kind.  Look on the internet.  Some people drop them in the sauce raw, some people brown them, then put them in the sauce, some people bake them first, and so on.  Ultimately, I decided to go the Anne Burrell route:  Brown them, bake them, then put them in the sauce.

To make them, first I sweated some onion.  I don’t like raw onion in my turkey meatballs or regular meatballs, even though they are made that way sometimes.   After sweating them for a few minutes, I added minced garlic cloves, continued to cook for a minute or two and then took them off the heat.  I put the ground turkey in a bowl, followed by two eggs, about 2/3 cup of bread crumbs, 2/3 cup of Pecorino Romano, some parsley, some salt, and mixed it up with my hands.  (This of course led to the first of 50 or so hand washings!)  Then I added the onion garlic mixture to the bowl and remixed.  Then I added some water to the mixture in an attempt to keep the turkey balls moist. (Thanks, Anne Burrell, for the tip!) 

Next I heated up some olive oil, and made a very small patty just to check for seasoning.  It needed a tiny bit more salt.

Next I made the turkey meatballs, making sure not to pack them too tightly so they wouldn’t be tough. 

Raw turkey meatballs.  Not perfectly round but...

I then browned them in two batches, and then baked them for twenty minutes at 350 degrees.  I went with twenty minutes because they were decent sized.  After twenty minutes, into the sauce they went.

Now I had to make the spaghetti squash.  Having never made spaghetti squash (or even tasted it for that matter) I watched some YouTube videos on it to see how to prepare it.  I chose the one by Michael Chirello.  In the video, he cut the squash open with a cleaver.  What a show off!  I’ll just take my chef’s knife and….ahem…I’ll just take my chef’s knife and…what is this thing made out of?  Concrete??

So, I used a cleaver, just like that great chef Michael Chiarello, who would never show off by using a cleaver…

In any case, after much struggle, I opened it, put some olive oil on each half, seasoned it with salt and pepper, put the flesh side down, and cooked it for 40 minutes.  Then I took it out of the oven and let it cool.  Then I scrapped it with a large spoon.  Wow!  That’s pretty cool!  It looks like…spaghetti!  I tasted it, and it was a little bland so I sprinkled it lightly with sea salt.

To serve, I took a pan, heated some of the sauce that was in the pot, and then I put the spaghetti squash into the pan. cool is that?

Then I put the it in the bowls.  Then I took the turkey balls out of the sauce and put them in the bowl and put a little more sauce on top.  Then I sprinkled some more pecorino Romano, and then some parsley.

The finished dish.  I wish I hadn't covered up the meatballs so much.

I have to say, the whole meal was quite good.  The turkey meatballs were not tough at all, and very moist.  At the same time, the spaghetti squash had a lot of body to it, and stood up well to the sauce, so it gave a nice texture difference from the turkey meatballs.

I will say that this meal was higher in fat content than I usually like.  I think I would like to try it next time by using one less egg, and maybe trying to find a good quality low fat cheese.  That being said, this was a filling, flavorful meal, that I would make again.  I think Chef Colicchio would say I've made good progress.