lemon thyme

Some restaurants tend to make meat the focus of the main dish and skimp with regards to vegetable portions. How many times have you seen a huge steak served on a massive dish with a tiny portion of vegetables: something like a few minuscule cubes of carrot; a single, near microscopic broccoli floret or a lone spear of asparagus? Really the vegetables are there just for decoration.

sautéed zucchini and yellow squash

sautéed zucchini and yellow squash

When you ask for additional vegetables, or, if they’re not on the menu, request that the chef prepares a dish with veggies, the wait-staff look at you as if you come from another planet. And once again, inevitably, when the vegetable plate arrives, the portion is just as absurdly little. (And I’m not even talking about the flavor here, as most often these mini-veggies only taste like butter.) It is funny as I have always thought that vegetables were cheaper (and healthier) than meat to serve, so they’d likely improve the bottom line of any restaurant. What’s up with that?

I’m pulling your metaphorical leg here a bit, as I know the reason for this. We’re trained to ignore veggies and focus on fattening foods, especially when we dine out. How sad.

Actually this dreadful paucity of veggies happened to me the other day when we went to Zuni with friends. I was not very excited about the main course offerings, so instead, I ordered appetizers and wanted some vegetables to go with them. The waiter promptly offered to have the chef prepare a ‘special’ side of veggies for me. On the face of it that sounds really excellent, don’t you think? Well, this chef-inspired dish turned out to have maybe a half-dozen small pieces of mixed veggies, probably 4 to 6 oz total, if not less. That’ll teach me to special order.

Needless to say, when we’re home, the vegetable portions tend to be a trifle bigger, and I love it. I served this zucchini and yellow squash sauté as a side to go with halibut en papilote. It matched well with the dish, I ate a lot and enjoyed every minute of it.

sautéed zucchini and yellow squash

2 Italian zucchini, cubed small
2 yellow squash, cubed small
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, minced
Black pepper
Kosher salt
Chili flakes
2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
½ tsp minced lemon thyme

Heat up olive oil in a skillet, sweat shallot then add garlic. In goes the zucchini, yellow squash, salt, pepper, chili flakes, parsley and thyme. Toss around for about 4 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and voilà!

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This recipe is very aromatic and satisfying for a cool evening. The grilled eggplant gives the dish a lovely smoky flavor. All the herbs, fresh fennel and root veggies provide a supple elegance.

I’ve taken it from the Ottolenghi book, “Plenty,” with only minor modifications. Really tasty.

lentils with grilled eggplant

aromatic lentils with grilled eggplant

lentils with grilled eggplant

3 Japanese eggplant
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Salt and black pepper
1 cup black lentils
3 carrots
2 celery stalks
1 bay leaf
2 stalks fennel with some bulb
Small bunch lemon thyme
½ white onion
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Sour cream for garnish

Set grill on highest temperature. Grill eggplant until soft and skin starts to char, turning occasionally, about ten minutes, Remove from heat, cover with plastic and let rest for 5 minutes. Remove stems and skin. Mash eggplant with a fork.

Pre-heat oven to 275F.

Rinse lentils and remove any stones or debris. Place in saucepan with one carrot, half stalk of celery, bay leaf, lemon thyme, onion and plenty of water. Cover and bring to boil then lower heat to simmer. Cook until tender. Remove celery, carrot, bay leaf, thyme and onion. Drain.

Cut fennel and remaining carrots and celery into small dice. I made mine too large. The book recommends about 3/8 of an inch. I mis-read this direction as ¾ inch. At any rate, think small. Toss with cherry tomato halves, some olive oil, the sugar, some salt then roast in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes until tender but not mushy.

Mix roasted veggies with warm lentils. Add more olive oil, black pepper and salt to taste. Top with grilled eggplant and then a dollop or two of sour cream.

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Heavenly Housewife has been singing the praises of Yotam Ottolenghi lately. She’s even taken an Ottolenghi cooking class in London after waiting forever to get in. Yes, that’s how popular this chef has become in the UK. She posted some delicious treats from the class and then, good heavens, she made some of his salads! That’s a sure sign that she truly adores this chef. I wish we were in London taking Yotam’s classes together. Wouldn’t that be fun? London, Heavenly, Steven, Yotam and me: who could ask for anything more?

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

Last week while browsing in some colorful Mission Neighborhood shops before it was time for our table at Locanda, I spotted a gorgeous cookbook graced by this eggplant dish. It looked like an objet d’art, a jewel! As you might already guess, the book was Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi. The American version is published by Chronicle Books LLC, right here in San Francisco, very cool! It is packed with a whole lot of exciting vegetarian dishes. I like it so well, that I’ve already prepared four of them, so more to come. The photography in the book is mind-blowing. Our compliments to the photographer, Jonathan Lovekin, and to Yotam Ottolenghi, of course.

I had to adapt the recipe because I didn’t have all the ingredients. Pomegranates are not in season right now, so I used small drops of pomegranate molasses instead. The sauce calls for buttermilk and Greek yogurt, but I used labneh, since we had some already. I prepared my own za’atar, as we have all the individual ingredients in our pantry. The lemon thyme, I’m thrilled to say, comes from my own community garden plot. This is the first recipe that calls for it that I’ve made since planting that lovely herb.

Lastly, the recipe calls for roasting the eggplant at 200F for 35-40 minutes. I think that must be an error. Surely it was supposed to be 200C. The publisher must have forgotten to convert to Fahrenheit. It should have been at least 400F. I waited about 35 minutes before cranking up the heat and only then did my eggplant really start to brown and cook.

Otherwise, this dish was sublime. Thanks, Heavenly Housewife, for introducing Yotam Ottolenghi’s cooking to our table!

Yotam Ottolenghi-style roasted eggplant with labneh, za’atar and pomegranate molasses

For the eggplant:

3 medium to large Italian eggplant, cut in half the long way, stems on
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh lemon thyme, minced; plus several sprigs lemon thyme
½ tsp pomegranate molasses
Black pepper to taste
Pinch Aleppo pepper
Kosher salt
2 tsp za’atar*

For labneh sauce:

2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
3 tbsp extra virgin arbequina olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup labneh
½ cup water or more

*For the za’atar :

3 tbsp sumac
1 tsp dried Greek oregano
1 tbsp pan dry-roasted sesame seeds, cooled to room temperature and ground
Pinch savory
½ tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Pre heat oven to 400F.

Place eggplant halves, cut side up, on a baking dish. Use a sharp knife to make incisions in eggplant flesh in the shape of diamonds/ lozenges without piecing the skin. Brush halves with equal amounts of olive oil. Repeat until all olive oil is absorbed. Add salt, peppers and minced thyme. Tuck some of the seasonings in the little crevices of the eggplant. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes, or until flesh is soft. Broil eggplant for few minutes towards the end, just to give them some color. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile prepare za’atar by mixing all ingredients together, set aside.

Place labneh in a bowl. Whisk in ½ cup of water, olive oil, salt and mashed garlic. The sauce should be fairly thin. Add more water here if needed. Set aside.

Arrange eggplant halves on a serving platter. Spoon over some labneh sauce, top with a few drops of pomegranate molasses, sprinkle za’atar over that, followed by a few flowers of lemon thyme

Store leftover za’atar in a tight container in the refrigerator for up to a month. Sprinkle it liberally on salads, rice, humus, yogurt.

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