Okra and Eggplant Cobbler

Food often reminds me that I’m a Yankee living in the south.

Where I come from, chicken cutlets and eggplant are about the only reasons to break out the breadcrumbs and pans of oil. And with my focus on a healthier way of eating, I don’t even fry those favorites anymore.

But when your partner-in-cuisine-crime is as Southern as sweet tea, which I don’t drink, sometimes you have to cave and pay homage to your surroundings.

I mean, I made fried pork chops for dinner last night. I didn’t eat them, but I still made them. Doesn’t that count?

At the farmers’ markets right now it’s hard to avoid okra. I love it, and I really can’t pass it up. It’s a gorgeous green color and it reminds me of a witch’s nails or nose. You know how much I love Halloween, right? RightProblem is, okra is usually fried in these parts. It’s delicious that way, don’t get me wrong. It’s just not my favorite way to treat fresh produce.

Stewing is another popular way to treat okra in the south. As you know, if you’re a loyal reader, I don’t do anything the simple way. My way of stewing okra is to add lots of spices.

To keep me happy and turn okra into something that’s reminiscent of my partner-in-cuisine-crime’s childhood, I created an Okra and Eggplant Cobbler.I stewed the eggplant and okra with tomatoes and gave them a cornbread crust.

Here’s what you need:

For the filling:

  • 1 pound of okra
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 small onion cut into thin half-moons
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp. onion powder

For the cornbread crust:

  • 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal (preferable stone-ground whole-grain)
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk (I made my own: a hair under 1/3 cup of whole milk + 1 tsp. vinegar)

Here’s how you do it:

Cut the okra into coins on the diagonal. I do it about a half-inch thick.Cut the eggplant into chunks.Set a deep pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil.

When the oil starts to slide around, add the onion. Stir. Add a pinch of salt and some pepper. Stir.Let the onion cook for about 4 minutes or until it softens, then add the okra and the eggplant. Stir. 

Let the mixture cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the can of tomatoes and scrape the bottom of the pan to release any brown bits that have formed. 

Add all the spices and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir. 

Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium. Let it cook for about 10 minutes or until the okra softens.While the tomato mixture cooks, preheat the oven to 400, and start making the crust.

In a bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, garlic powder, salt, and baking powder. Whisk it all together.

Add in the melted butter, egg, and buttermilk. Whisk together. Taste the okra and tomato mixture. Add salt if necessary. If it’s ready to go, pour it into a casserole dish (9×12 or 9×9) and then drop big dollops of the cornbread batter on top. 

Spread out the batter using a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the crust starts to turn golden.

This can be lunch or a side dish.I love the texture of the soft, stewed okra and eggplant with the crusty cornbread. The eggplant satisfies my Italian roots. You don’t know how hard it was for me to not add garlic. I just didn’t think it would work here. 

What I really love about this savory cobbler is that you could put zucchini or squash in the filling with or instead of the eggplant. You could also add diced bell pepper or minced jalapeños for some heat. If you don’t like okra, I feel bad for you, but you could certainly double the eggplant or use zucchini and squash in its place. 

You could also try adding some browned and drained ground beef or turkey to make this a stand alone meal. If you do that, let me know how it works out. Celebrate summer, and the south, by making my cobbler!

Tip: Sprinkle sliced green onion on top of the cornbread batter before baking. You could also add minced jalapeños and shredded cheddar to the batter before baking. 

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Italian Stuffed Peppers 

This time of year, I’m focused on easy meals made with in-season ingredients.

It’s always important to eat what’s fresh, but in the summer that’s much easier to do. And in the scorching heat no one wants to stand over the stove for 2 hours or heat up the house through an oven that’s roasting for 3 hours.

I usually go to the farmers’ market on Saturday and I buy what catches my eye.

I have a friend, Jan, who meets me at the market sometimes and as soon as I buy something she asks me what I’m going to do with it. It’s a great question, but the truth is, I don’t go with a plan. I buy what looks ripe and colorful, and then I design my cooking plans around it.

I’m always drawn to Cubanelle peppers. There’s a stand at my favorite market, which offers tables packed with anything from gorgeously speckled pluots to fiery red Roma tomatoes. I’ll usually find just a few baskets of Cubanelle peppers there and I always have to buy them.This variety of pepper is long, lime green, and usually sweet.It looks like it would be spicy, but it’s not. The walls are relatively thin, too. The flavor is close to the bell pepper. Italians call the Cubanelle a frying pepper. Some supermarkets will sell them as “Italian frying pepper.” While the Cubanelle pepper is wonderful sliced and fried with onions for sausages and peppers (I just drooled onto my iPad screen), I love to stuff it.I’ll get up before work, make the filling, bake the peppers just to soften them, and then stuff the peppers. When I get home, I bake them just long enough to warm them through and melt the cheese on top.

Here’s what you need:

  • 6 Cubanelle peppers
  • 8 oz of ground white meat turkey
  • 1 14.5 oz can of no salt added diced tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small yellow cooking onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 3 Tbsp. pesto
  • 1 pouch of Uncle Ben’s whole grain brown Ready Rice
  • 3 slices of deli mozzarella or provolone cheese
  • Basil, sliced into ribbons for garnish

Here’s how you do it:

First of all, let me just tell you how much I love this Ready Rice.It is so simple… 90 seconds in the microwave and you have perfect brown rice. No boiling. No waiting. No over-cooked, mushy rice. If you can’t find it, you can substitute a little over a cup of your favorite cooked rice.

Put the oven on 400.

First, use a paring knife to carve a Y into the pepper. Don’t cut all the way through. You’re just opening the cavity. Carefully pull open the sides and remove the seeds and membrane. You want the pepper to stay intact. Don’t cut off the stem! Presentation is important!Line up the seeded peppers in a 9×12 baking dish. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the peppers are somewhat soft. Remove the dish and let the peppers cool while you make the filling.

In a large pan over medium heat, pour in the oil and add the diced onions. Sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and stir. Let the onion cook for 3-4 minutes.

Add the turkey to the pan and break it up with a wooden or metal spoon. Let the turkey cook until you can’t see any pink meat.Add in the garlic. Stir. Let the garlic cook for about a minute, then add the tomatoes. Stir and scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

Microwave the rice according to the package instructions.

Add the spices and pesto to the tomato and turkey mixture. Stir. Add another pinch of salt. Stir.Let the mixture cook for about 7 minutes, then add the cooked rice stir.

Taste it. If it needs more salt, add some.

Now, stuff each pepper. I mean, stuff  them. They should be bursting. You may have a little filling left. Eat it right now. Trust me on this. I don’t care if you’re doing this in the morning before work.

If you are making his ahead, cover the stuffed peppers and refrigerate them till you’re ready to finish them.

If you’re making this at dinner time and want to get the show on the road, put the oven on 350, cover the the pan with foil and put it into the oven. Let the stuffed peppers cook for about 10 minutes (remember everything is still hot since you just made it).

Remove the pan from the oven, remove the foil, and top each pepper with half a slice of the deli cheese. If you have enough and you want to put a whole slice on each pepper go ahead. I won’t judge. Put the uncovered pan back in the oven and bake till the cheese melts, about 7 minutes.

Serve the peppers with a sprinkle of basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano (If you have it. You do, right? Right?).If you’re making the peppers ahead, you’ll want to bake them covered at 350 for about 30 minutes, then add the cheese, and bake them uncovered for an additional 7 minutes.

I give each person 2 peppers, so this technically makes 3 servings. That’s dinner for my partner-in-cuisine-crime and me, and then lunch the next day (2 for one of us or 1 for each with a salad). You can easily stuff more peppers to make more servings. Just be a bit more conservative with the filling. You can also give each person one pepper at dinner and serve it with a salad on the side.

This is a pretty light meal, even if there is rice involved. A light meal means you’ll have room for a cold beer on the patio or a big scoop of ice cream. It’s summertime, remember?

Tip: Substitute the ground turkey for ground sausage or ground beef. I used turkey to save on fat and calories. You could also go vegetarian and use chopped zucchini or eggplant or canned cannellini beans. 

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Guilt-Free Salad Dressings 

For the last year, I’ve been in the midst of a transformation.

I wanted to feel better. I mean that in terms of my physical health and my self esteem.

At this point, I’m down about 60 pounds. I can’t believe it.

A lot went into this journey, but there were two points of focus: diet and exercise.

I didn’t latch onto some fad which required eating 2/3 of a caterpillar and 1/4 of a newt’s eye. I just limited my intake of calories. I also started working out 5-6 days per week.

Instead of depriving myself of my favorite foods and drinks, I either cut back or figured out a way to get the flavor without the calories.

My job doesn’t allow for the daily use of a microwave, so I’ve turned to salads. I once worked with a guy who ate salad without dressing. I just can’t even imagine. Can you?

The truth is that he’s onto something. All the calories in a salad come in the dressing. On top of that, the ingredients in most bottled dressings come with pronunciations that would make a nun blush.

Ranch and French, or Catalina, are my favorite dressings. They’re loaded with calories, so I and to find an alternative. Vinaigrettes get old. 

I used Greek yogurt to create my own twists on those dressings. Greek yogurt is loaded with protein and it’s very low in fat. In fact, a lot of varieties are fat-free.

For the Ranch:

  • 1 7oz. container of Fage Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 lemon
  • 3 Tbsp. milk
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • 2 dashes cayenne (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. smoked paprika

Whisk all ingredients together until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate one hour or overnight.I like Fage here because it’s the thickest of the Greek yogurts at the supermarket.This version of ranch is rich and creamy. It’s great for a dip, too.

It has a kick to it. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, leave out the cayenne. 

Two tablespoons is about 34 calories. Two tablespoons of Hidden Valley ranch is 140 calories. Food for thought. 

For my Creamy Tangy Tomato:

  • 1 7oz. container of Fage Greek Yogurt
  • 1/4 cup V8
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together until smooth. This dressing has an Italian flair with a nice zing from the vinegar.

Freeze the rest of the tomato paste for a later use. Make a Bloody Mary with the rest of the V8. Trust me. You won’t regret it.

I like to keep these dressings in mason jars in the fridge. I portion out 2 tablespoons each morning to take with my salad. 
If you like your dressings to be very loose and pourable, add more liquid: milk in the ranch and V8 in the creamy tangy tomato.

The ranch is great with a buffalo chicken salad. Try the creamy tangy tomato on a salad with chickpeas.

Because these dressings are thick, try tossing the salads with the dressings in a big bowl before serving. Saving calories at lunch means you have more calories to spend later, and by later, I mean dessert.

Tip: Branch out from the typical lettuce salad. I like to use French lentils. They keep their shape and they’re packed with protein.Combine 1 cup French lentils, 1/2 tsp. ground coriander, 1/2 tsp. garlic powder, and 1 1/2 cup water in a pan. Bring to a boil for 3 minutes, reduce to simmer, and cook for 10-15 minutes drain.

In a big bowl, combine the cooked lentils, a handful of cherry tomatoes, half a red onion chopped, 1 cup of thawed frozen peas, and one can of drained and rinsed chickpeas. Add a big pinch of salt and pepper. Stir. 

Divide this salad into 4 containers. Feast on it for lunch Monday-Thursday (eat out on Friday to celebrate the end of the work week).Each morning, I make a vinaigrette to pour on the salad. I like to make a different one each day, because it prevents the salad from getting boring. 

I usually combine 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (substitute pistachio, basil, garlic or lemon oils) with 3/4 tbsp. vinegar (red wine, coconut, apple cider). I add in salt, pepper, and spices (garlic powder or ginger). Some days I use a drop of Dijon mustard or honey. 

You’ll never get tired of salads again!

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Strawberry Citrus Salad

Every Spring my excitement for strawberries overshadows my sorrow for the dwindling citrus season.It’s so weird. I feel like juicy, bright-colored fruit, like citrus, should be celebrated in the summer. And I guess it is, hello lemonade.

Growing up in Florida I took for granted the ability to pluck an orange from the tree whenever I wanted. I mean, I never really thought about most of the fruit being in season in the winter. Then again, winter in Florida basically feels like spring and summer in Florida. But I digress.

The presence of blood oranges, cara cara oranges, and my beloved Meyer lemons is fading in stores, and this year I wanted to send them out in style.

I felt like a seasonal salad was in order. Continue reading

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Strawberry Dark Cocoa Crostata with Basil Whipped Cream

It’s strawberry season! We’ve already polished off the first of many overflowing buckets of berries.

They’re juicy, as sweet as sugar, and perfect enough to eat on their own.

But, it’s so much fun to transform them.

Strawberries and chocolate are a phenomenal pair.

Strawberries and basil are the Laverne and Shirley of the culinary world.

Put the trio together and you’ve got a threesome that’s so naughty it could easily violate indecency laws.I think I could charge $9.99 a minute to let you look at this recipe. Continue reading

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Lucky in Lime Stoutcakes

The mint madness is underway.

If I could, I’d take a shillelagh and knock that “festive” flavor out of the month of March.

I get it. It’s green. I love mint. I really do.

I just ate Thin Mints. But they didn’t make me think of St. Patrick’s Day.

So at a time when Scope traditionally symbolizes the 17th of March, I thought I’d give you another way to celebrate.

Meet my Lucky in Lime Stoutcakes.Chocolate cake infused with Dublin’s own Guinness Stout. Bright green lime curd filling. Lucky Charms-infused whipped cream.The cupcake itself is super light and airy thanks to the beer. Continue reading

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Icy Spicy Coffee Sundae 

It’s February. Love is in the air.

And if you’re single, don’t  close out of this blog just yet.

Love doesn’t have to involve a person… even on Valentine’s Day.

So don’t clip Cupid’s wings or give him an arrow enema just yet.

Think about what you love. Continue reading

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Dark Chocolate Rosemary Brownies with Caramel

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for a merry mess in your kitchen.

Cookie swaps.

Edible gifts.

Snacks for Santa.

Surely you’ve baked something sweet at this point, right?

So far, I could’ve done flour angels on my counters and skied upon the mounds of baking mixes catapulted from an overexcited stand mixer. Continue reading

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Harvest Pasta

This time of year the trees are cooking up a feast for our eyes. It’s exhilarating.

Reds, oranges, yellows mixing with the year’s last shades of green.

With that comes a drop in temperatures. That tends to inspire soups and stews, but I let it feed a desire to use color in my creations. Continue reading

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Pumpkin Spice Latte Panna Cotta

In September we were lucky enough to go to two events at Euphoria in Greenville, South Carolina.  It was the ultimate eater’s paradise. Chefs from the southeast show off their very best.

We went to the brunch and dessert showcases. Continue reading

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