Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Vegetables for breakfast

A fresh tomato and herb frittata with cheese

Most people eating Western diets could use some more vegetables in their day. One meal that is often overlooked as an opportunity for adding a healthy serving of veggies is breakfast. The most important meal of the day can also be the cheapest, healthiest meal, and one that satisfies you easily until lunchtime.

A hearty breakfast will provide you with roughly a third of the food you plan to eat all day. Common breakfast foods like bagels, breakfast cereals and bars, and other pastries pack a lot of carbohydrate, and while some are fortified with vitamins and minerals, they're usually still weak on the other macronutrients. A balanced breakfast has protein, fat, and fiber as well as carbs, and about a third of your caloric needs. Eating enough at breakfast, and particularly foods that keep you feeling full—fat, protein, and fiber are especially satiating for their caloric density—will give you energy and focus to get through the morning.

You can make something ahead, like a frittata that tastes just as good cold as it does hot. You can whip something up from last night's leftovers, or make something fast and fresh. Here are a few ideas.

Beef soup for breakfast
In many parts of the world, it’s common to start the day with a hot bowl of soup. My husband likes to make his own. He warms a cup of beef or chicken stock in a pan on the stove while he juliennes or shreds a little bit of vegetable: some cabbage or another leafy green vegetable, plus a bit of sweet bell pepper or root vegetable. He cooks these in the warm stock while thinly slicing some beef chuck steak. Chuck is his favorite and is one of the cheapest cuts, though if you prefer leaner or higher quality meat, try top round or sirloin. For beef soup he prefers beef stock, but sometimes he gets pork for breakfast, and says that it tastes best with chicken stock. Whichever kind of meat he uses, he slices it thinly and adds the meat to the soup last: it cooks in less than a minute. He eats it with a squeeze of sriracha hot sauce. The amounts of meat and vegetable he uses are not very large, about half of a typical serving. Later in the day he has a smoothie with milk, yogurt, and fruit, complementing the soup by adding fat and carbohydrate to his protein-rich breakfast. Both are full of vitamins and enough fat for their absorption.

Eggs with greens. I haven't gotten into Kevin's soup routine, preferring the comforting familiarity of eggs for breakfast. I share coffee and a smoothie, then take a walk with our dog. After I come home and shower, I’m ready to eat something more substantial. For most of the summer I ate grilled egg and cheese sandwiches. Other times, I make a more composed plate, and then I like to add some greens to my dish. A typical breakfast of eggs and greens starts with a handful of fresh, chopped collards or kale sauteed in butter or bacon fat, though other kinds of greens are also good (I love callaloo), and if I have leftover, cooked greens from the night before, I'll just warm a serving of those in a skillet. Then I move the greens to the side, and fry a couple eggs in the same pan.  When I fix my plate, I put the greens on the bottom, and top them with the eggs. Sometimes, after cooking the greens, I will just make a little hole in the middle, and fry the eggs in the hole. Then I can warm a split sausage in the same pan, and it won’t get coated in egg. A lazy method, yet still makes an appealing breakfast.

Fried eggs over sauteed collards, a split half-link of curry sausage, and a wedge of cantaloupe

Another way I like to eat vegetables with eggs is as huevos rancheros. When I have leftover cornbread and/or chili, I incorporate them into my breakfast. I split a wedge of cornbread, butter and toast it in a toaster oven. You can also fry your cornbread in a skillet. Warm the chili in a small, covered saucepan and when it’s hot, crack the eggs into the chili and poach them, covered, until they’re opaque. Part of the thrill of eggs in chili is cutting through the molten yolks and having them run through the chili, making everything taste very rich. Consider that many French sauces are little more than egg yolk, and this seems less strange.

If I don’t have cornbread, I just eat the chili and eggs: maybe with some grated cheese, chopped avocado, pico de gallo or salsa, or some sriracha. My chili is full of vegetables, including kale, usually, and tomatoes, as well as peppers and sometimes squash or sweet potatoes. If I have cornbread, I serve the eggs over them, either with the chili or fried in a skillet with greens. For a rich meal like this, I like something to cut it: salsa, or a piece of fresh fruit to eat alongside.

Potatoes count as a vegetable, too. Hashed potatoes are tasty, cheap, and filling, and there are other ways to use potatoes in breakfast dishes, like these two recipes for spicy breakfast foods. Sweet potatoes baked or steamed from the night before are also good for breakfast, refried in butter. I like a little pinch of chili powder on them when I eat them this way with eggs. You could make a hearty vegan breakfast of white or sweet potatoes, cooked or refried beans, and sauteed greens.

Practically any prepared vegetable leftovers from last night’s dinner, from steamed kale to roasted eggplant, can be thrown into an omelet or scrambled eggs. Warm the fillings in a small saucepan before adding them to a cooked omelet. Fresh chopped tomatoes, avocados, green onions, and fresh herbs, with or without a grating of cheese, make an elegant filling for a breakfast omelet. Have your omelet alone or with fruit or toast, over polenta, or wrapped in a tortilla.

A portable and versatile breakfast dish is the burrito. Stuff it with leftover vegetables, cooked beans, eggs cooked any way, chopped up cooked leftover meat, cooked plain or seasoned rice, and anything else that appeals first thing in the morning.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Greek Moussaka in New England (with Asian Eggplants)


Moussaka is a delicious casserole made with eggplant, tomatoes, and ground meat. If you like lasagna or eggplant parmigiana, but don’t want the noodles or breadcrumbs because you’re cutting out refined flour, carbs, grain, or gluten, you should try this dish. The flavors in this dish combine the Arabian, where I often find lamb and cinnamon in a tomato sauce, and the Greek, with its fresh parsley, oregano, and lemon. I’m so addicted that I just made it last week, and I really hope there’s more eggplant in the share I pick up this afternoon, because I’ve already got the lamb thawing for another batch. I am definitely making moussaka again this week.

Although best known as a Greek dish, moussaka is known throughout the region: in the Balkans, including Greece; the eastern Mediterranean; and the Middle East. Claudia Roden writes in “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” that in the Arab nations where moussaka is made, it’s generally made without the bechamel: the white sauce. The Wikipedia article on moussaka mentions other variations, such as the Turkish, which adds peppers and does not layer the dish. Tyler Florence’s Greek Moussaka recipe, the one I started with, is also made without the bechamel, so this is not a classically Greek moussaka. And since I made it in the United States and Mr. Florence and I are both American cooks, I guess that makes this an American moussaka.

I made enough modifications to warrant re-documenting the recipe here. Although his recipe uses three large, Italian-style eggplants, peeled and fried, I substituted the long, thin Asian eggplant. I don’t bother to peel them: the skins are not unpleasant. Instead of frying the slices, I roasted them in my new cast iron roasting pan with salt and olive oil until they were golden brown. I used my own tomato sauce rather than a can of tomatoes, and didn’t trust a recipe that has me crumble whole lemon slices, pith and all, into the mix, so I juiced my half lemon in.

I served this with green salad and broad beans sauteed in butter. Keep in mind that the serving of moussaka should look fairly generous, because eggplant and tomatoes are both low calorie vegetables and make up the bulk of the dish. I shoot for between a quarter and a third of a pound of meat in a serving.

Moussaka in New England (with Asian Eggplant)
Serves 6-8

5-6 large Asian eggplants (the long, thin kind; may substitute any kind), sliced into ¼” slices and on a bias to make slices that are several inches long
¼ cup or more olive oil
½ tsp salt
2 lbs ground lamb
1 small onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of ½ lemon
7-8 sprigs fresh oregano, marjoram, or a blend, minced
7-8 sprigs fresh parsley, minced
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 quart of ragu or marinara (or plain tomato sauce)
4 oz feta, crumbled
Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated (to taste)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees while you prepare the eggplant slices. Lightly salt (about ¼ tsp) and oil the eggplant and toss the slices in a roasting pan. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, toss, and continue roasting, tossing every 10-20 minutes until they are a deep orange-brown color over most of the surface. Remove from the oven, turn the temperature down to 350 degrees, and set the eggplant aside until you're ready to assemble.

In a large skillet on high heat, brown the ground lamb. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until they are translucent and softened. Add the remaining salt, pepper, cinnamon, fresh herbs, and lemon juice. Stir, then add the tomato sauce. When the sauce is hot, turn off the heat.

In a casserole dish of about 9”x12”x3” dimensions, lay the ingredients by thirds to make the moussaka: a single layer of eggplant slices, then the ground meat and sauce mixture, then a crumble of feta and some grated Romano. Repeat the layers.

Bake the casserole at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Serve hot. (Also tasty eaten by the bite, cold, from the refrigerator.)