Fried zucchini and eggplant sandwiches

2016 Food Blog August-0626What is it about summer and fried food? It doesn’t make sense. Why would we want, on the hottest of afternoons, foods at nuclear temperatures encased inside hot, thick, sometimes greasy breading that, should we make them ourselves, require rivulets of sweat and a pot of shimmering, toe-endangering oil? Is it the hazy memory of a thousand state and county fairs of collective childhood, studded with corn dogs and funnel cake and battered oreos? Is it the only kind of seafood we would eat for lunch as kids, and thus required for a beach day? Is it just that green tomatoes are only really worth eating when they are lovingly smothered by a cornmeal crust?

2016 Food Blog August-05902016 Food Blog August-0606I’ve done this height-of-summer-frying thing before, and here I am again, dunking breaded vegetables in hot oil to create a sandwich inspired by Disneyland and babaganoush (there’s an unexpected pairing, eh?), that ticks all the flavor marks including that deep, primal urge for crisp coated, meltingly soft centered fried food, on a sun-streaming, fan-screaming kind of week.

2016 Food Blog August--22016 Food Blog August-0613I said Disneyland and babaganoush, and that truly is how the sandwich was imagined. A few months ago on a trip to that happiest of places, I ordered a fried green tomato sandwich. It was good – the tomatoes were tangy and sharp, and the sandwich format made creamy, fatty remoulade a requirement – but I thought it could be more. Instead of just the green tomatoes, there could be zucchini. There could be eggplant. There could be, rather than a mayonnaise based sauce, something with yogurt, with herbs, with lemon. There could be tahini.

2016 Food Blog August-With the addition of that idea of sesame, I was suddenly in babaganoush territory, that lovely roasted eggplant dip, soft and pulpy and aromatic.* From there, all links to green tomatoes were cleanly severed, and I was daydreaming Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor combinations.

2016 Food Blog August-0616The sandwich we ended up with – the one that ticks every box (or perhaps every taste bud) – has the crunch-into-barely-resistant-softness of panko-coated fried vegetables, a tangy, rich spread of yogurt and tahini lightened with lemon and a mixture of herbs, and a shower of tangy crumbled goat cheese. It has pickled onions for a sour astringency, and the sticky sweet coup de grace of a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. You don’t want too much of it, but this wouldn’t be the same sandwich if you left it off. The bread is lightly toasted, and the breading for the vegetables carries a light dusting of cayenne pepper for a suggestion of heat. What’s more, you can eat the leftovers – if there are any – without the sandwich: stacked up kindling style and sprinkled and drizzled with the extras, the vegetables shine even more brightly. I had them for lunch this way the day after our sandwiches, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo or two before I plunged in.

2016 Food Blog August-0617A few notes: the pomegranate molasses can certainly be purchased if you don’t want to make it yourself – look for a Middle Eastern grocery store – but it’s pretty easy (and much cheaper) to make if you don’t mind taking the time. You will probably wind up with extra, which could be drizzled over everything from salad to grilled poultry to ice cream. Because it takes a while, to speed up the dinner prep you could make the molasses the day before, and store it in a glass jar in the fridge, where it will thicken considerably overnight. A minute or two before you are ready to assemble the sandwiches, immerse your jar of pomegranate molasses in a bowl of very hot water. It will warm and liquefy enough to be pourable again. As for the bread, we ended up with ciabatta rolls, but I think something seeded might also be nice for these sandwiches – perhaps these shaped like hot dog buns instead of full loaves. In any case if you use a roll or a bun instead of sliced bread, you’ll want to dig out the soft center so there’s room in the middle to stack up plenty of the vegetable slices.

2016 Food Blog August-06202016 Food Blog August-0622* I realize not all babaganoush contains tahini, but the ones I’ve liked do, along with lemon, and some herbs, and a shower of pomegranate seeds.

2016 Food Blog August-0628

Fried Zucchini and Eggplant Sandwiches
Quantities listed are for two sandwiches, but are easily doubled
About 45 minutes
Pomegranate molasses:
1 cup pomegranate juice (I like the POM brand)
Tahini yogurt spread:
2 tablespoons tahini paste
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) greek yogurt
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt, to taste
Sandwich:
1 cup vegetable oil
2 zucchini, cut into long planks
1 Chinese or Japanese eggplant, cut into long planks
¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt + more for post-frying sprinkling
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons pickled onions or to taste
2 sandwich rolls of your choice about 6-8 inches in length; we used ciabatta

 

  • Begin with the pomegranate molasses, as this takes the longest: pour the pomegranate juice into a small pot and boil over medium heat until you have only about 2 tablespoons left; 20-25 minutes. The juice will have a slightly thicker viscosity, and you’ll know it’s seconds from being done when the whole thing seems to be a frantic stack of bubbles. Set it aside to cool – it will thicken into a syrup. (You can also refrigerate overnight – see note above.)
  • While the pomegranate juice reduces, make the tahini yogurt spread. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini and yogurt with the lemon zest and juice. Add the herbs and the salt, whisk again to thoroughly combine, and taste for seasoning. Adjust quantities of salt and lemon juice as desired. Set aside.
  • For the sandwich filling, set up a three-part breading station: you will need three plates or shallow bowls. Pie plates work very well. On the first plate/bowl, combine the flour with the salt and cayenne, mixing well with a fork or a small whisk. Spread out the flour mixture in an even layer across the plate. In the second plate/bowl, crack the eggs and beat well to combine. In the third plate/bowl, dump 2 cups of the panko and spread out in an even layer.
  • In a large, deep skillet with straight sides, heat the oil to about 350F. While it warms up, bread the vegetables. First coat each slice of eggplant and zucchini in a light layer of flour. Then transfer to the egg and coat again, being sure all dry flour is covered. Finally, press lightly into the panko on both sides. Set each slice on a separate plate or a wire cooling rack until the oil is ready. Set another wire rack over a baking tray and place in an oven set for 300F. This is to keep the finished slices warm and crisp while the rest are frying.
  • When the oil hits 350F, begin adding the vegetable slices. Carefully place them into the oil individually, only adding four or five at a time to avoid crowding the skillet – the more you put in there, the lower the oil temperature gets, which can lead to a greasy end product. Fry over medium to medium-high heat until the panko coating is nicely browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. As the slices are finished frying, sprinkle them lightly with salt and add them to the wire rack set-up in the warm oven until you are ready to assemble and serve. Repeat until all slices are fried.
  • Split the sandwich rolls lengthwise and dig out most of the interior, leaving a thin layer of crust on all sides (you can keep the hunks you dug out for bread crumbs). Lightly toast the remaining crust in the oven with your fried vegetables or in a toaster oven, just until it is warm and slightly crisp on the outside.
  • To assemble, smear a tablespoon or two of tahini yogurt spread on each side of the sandwich rolls. Stack a few slices of vegetables onto the bottom of the roll, being sure you have both zucchini and eggplant on your sandwich. Strew on a few slices of pickled onion, about 2 tablespoons of crumbled goat cheese, and drizzle over about a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Clamp on the top of the roll, cut the sandwich in half with a serrated knife for easier eating, and serve immediately.

 

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos

Food Blog February 2015-0342I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn this, but I am one of those people who makes a meal plan. Every week, before we head to the grocery store, I write out a shopping list. I like to know what we’ll be eating most nights ahead of time, to be sure the pantry is adequately stocked, but also to prevent a lot of impulse buys or take-out emergencies (also I just love making lists. You probably aren’t surprised by that either). When I put the meal plan together, I usually ask N. for some input. Sometimes it’s because I need a little inspiration, sometimes it’s because I want to make sure he’s getting a meal or two he’s excited about, and sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s just because I want him to feel like he has some say about what happens in our kitchen.

Food Blog February 2015-0322This considerate move doesn’t always play out as helpfully as expected, however. Most weeks, without even looking at the list or at the meals I’ve proposed, he immediately says “tacos.” Nothing else gets this kind of instantaneous, definitive response. Tacos. Sometimes, when he says this, we’ve just had tacos. Sometimes, when I query him further, he doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about the suggestion he’s just made. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for tacos (I mean, we JUST had them) and so I nod and smile and write down something else instead.

Food Blog February 2015-0324Finally, though, I got curious, and yesterday I asked him why he suggests tacos so frequently. Does he really like them that much? What is it about a taco that he finds so compelling? Turns out it’s not the food, exactly, but the name. Be warned, people. This is what happens when you fall for a words person. He really likes the sound of the word “taco.”  It is, he claims, an interesting sounding word. You can put emphasis on each of the syllables in turn, you can change the pronunciation of the vowel, you can draw out the length of each part of the word, all with different sounds and results. He then proceeded to say “taco” four or five times. It is, I must admit, a fun word to say. I’ll wait while you try it a few times…

Food Blog February 2015-0328As much fun as the word is, N. noted that he likes the dish as well, and it got me thinking about the constituent parts – what makes a taco a taco? As I see it, tacos break down into three major components: the shell, the “meat,” and the sauce. Of course you can – and often should – add cheese and lettuce and other garnishes, but I think you have to have at least these three parts. Once you have these critical components, you can take your tacos in a variety of directions.

Food Blog February 2015-0335Perhaps because N. is so fond of them – whether it’s the word or the dish itself – I quickly tire of the standard ground-meat-with-cheese-and-things compilation, and look for other options. We’ve had grilled zucchini tacos with crumbled queso fresco and lime, dozens of incarnations of fish tacos (my favorite always involves a corn relish and plenty of smashed avocado), tofu tacos overloaded with pepperjack cheese, and I’m working on a potato taco inspired by an amazing version at – of all places – the Getty Museum cafeteria. This time around, though, I wanted something a little more outside the box (or should I say outside the shell? No, you’re right, I probably shouldn’t. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen). I’m not sure where the combination came from (if I’m honest, probably Pinterest), but I decided on a tumble of roasted cauliflower and chick peas, liberally spiced with a ras al hanout-esque blend and drizzled with a sauce of tahini and yogurt, tangy with lemon and flecked with parsley.

Food Blog February 2015-0332What resulted was not N.’s favorite taco ever (though I doubt it will stop him from requesting them), but I am finding, a day or two later, that I’m mildly obsessed with them, especially the sauce. It wasn’t fancy, but there was something quietly brilliant about how the yogurt and parsley lightened up the earthiness of the tahini. Roasted vegetables, though I will almost never say no to a bowl of them, can feel a little heavy. Blanketed with this sauce, they are bright and buoyant, and the creamy spread is just as fitting against the soft unctuousness of the cauliflower as it is against the toasted crunch of the chick peas.

Food Blog February 2015-0336This is one of those recipes where the list of spices looks daunting, and by all means, if your spice cabinet is not as ridiculous overflowing full as mine is, go easy on yourself and use a pre-mixed blend. I won’t judge. Ras al hanout is a North African combination of spices, one of those lovely warm mixtures incorporating options American dishes usually reserve for desserts. Really, though, any mixture of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern spices would be lovely here – choose your favorite and apply accordingly.

Food Blog February 2015-0338Once you’ve got the spices sorted, this dish is a multi-tasker’s dream. The cauliflower and chick peas need a good chunk of time in the oven at high heat, and while they are roasting you have plenty of time to whip up the sauce, warm the taco shells according to your favorite method, and even concoct a side dish (we ended up with sautéed cubes of butternut squash folded into a bit of cooked quinoa and a shower of green onions). By the time the filling finishes roasting, all you have left to do is scoop and serve, and if you’ve been reasonably efficient it has probably taken you just under an hour.Food Blog February 2015-0342*Note: you’ve probably noticed by now, and may be horrified by the omission, that these tacos don’t include a cheese component. With the yogurt and the deep earthy roasted flavors of the vegetables, I found I didn’t miss it. If you can’t do without, however, I suggest a few crumbles of feta to fill the void.

 

Roasted Cauliflower and Chick Pea Tacos
Makes 10-12 tacos

For the tacos:

½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coarse salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
15 ounce can chick peas, drained and dried
1 cup loosely packed baby spinach leaves
taco shells
For the sauce:
½ cup tahini
½ cup plain greek yogurt
½ cup flat-leaf parsley
2-3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, or a combination
1 teaspoon honey
½ cup water, to thin
salt and pepper, to taste

 

  • Line two baking trays with aluminum foil and place them in the oven. Preheat oven, trays and all, to 450F.
  • In a small bowl, combine all of the spices and the salt, stirring to be sure they are well-blended. Add the olive oil and stir or whisk to combine.
  • In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with about ⅔ of the spiced olive oil mixture, then spread on one of the preheated baking trays in a single layer (if possible).
  • In the same bowl, toss the chick peas with the remaining olive oil and spice mixture, then spread onto the other baking tray.
  • Stow both baking trays in the oven and roast at 450F for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the tray of chick peas, shake them around a bit to deter sticking, and set aside. They should be toasty and crunchy. Shake and stir the tray of cauliflower pieces to promote even browning, then return just the cauliflower tray to the oven and roast for another 10-15 minutes, until both sides of most pieces are nicely browned.
  • While vegetables are roasting, combine the tahini, yogurt, parsley, honey, and lemon juice in a food processor and whir to create a thick paste. With the food processor running, dribble in the ½ cup of water slowly to transform the paste into a sauce. You may not need the entire ½ cup – thin to your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then set aside and prepare your chosen form of taco shells according to your preferences.
  • When the cauliflower is nicely browned and tender, toss it with the chick peas and stuff the mixture into taco shells with a few spinach leaves for freshness. Top with tahini yogurt sauce and serve immediately.