While chatting with a chef friend of mine the other day, we both agreed that food trends emerge from our political climate and emotional state. When uncertainty looms, we gravitate to flavor-driven comfort foods for solace, along with simplicity in ingredients, preparation and clean-up so not to add stress to the mix.
Creative and easy appetizers, one-pot wonders, sheet pan dinners, skillet meals, entrée salads, soups and stews, along with scrumptious no-bake desserts are soul soothers that will all make us feel a little less edgy and a lot more content. So have at it for a happy, healthy, prosperous and effortless New Year.
Assorted dried fruits like apricots, dates and figs rolled in creamy goat cheese and crushed toasted walnuts, or dipped in tahini (sesame paste) and seasoned salt make simple, tasty, chewy and healthy snacks or appetizers. Baked pita crackers as well as root chips, including taro, yucca and beet paired with assorted hummus and eggplant dips are a nice change-up from chips and salsa, while crab, shrimp or salmon salads stuffed in celery stalks or mini peppers give a satisfying crunch and oomph of omega-3’s to perk up the palate before the main event.
Sheet the Breeze
Like a one-person show, sheet pan dinners are simple and well-rounded meals. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, or slather with a high flash point oil (grape seed, canola), then roughly divide the pan into thirds — one for a lean protein, another for a vegetable, and a last one for a starch. Chicken quarters or breasts can be coated with seasoned breadcrumbs, or marinated in a sassy vinaigrette; skirt or flat iron steak in a red wine and herb marinade, while a firm white fish or wild-caught salmon can be wrapped in puff pastry or smothered in a lemon caper sauce.
For vegans, sliced panko-breaded Japanese eggplant or balsamic-glazed Portobellos can be subbed for the main protein dish. Fill the rest of the pan with any combination of fingerling or miniature “creamer” potatoes, baby carrots, asparagus spears, ruby red beets, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts or cauliflower florets. Drizzle generously with olive oil, sea salt and a blend of seasonings like herbes de Provence — and voila!
A Melting Pot
Marvelous and comforting, one-pot meals like Tagines are savory slow-cooked Moroccan stews of chicken, lamb, beef or fish blended with assorted vegetables, dried fruits, preserved lemons, and exotic herbs simmered in a cooking vessel that bears the same name.
Rustic ragùs are traditional Italian meat-based sauces of minced chicken, lamb, pork, veal, duck or offal (organ meats) braised in a wine, cream or tomato sauce for hours until it reduces to a thick hearty stew, then typically served over pasta. Other Italian contributions include creamy risottos (baked versions eliminate the back-breaking methodology of standing and stirring for 30 minutes), baked ziti, pasta e fazool (pasta and bean soup), and savory frittatas of all manners.
From France we get a savory stew called bouillabaisse—a fine kettle of fish with leeks and potatoes creating a divine flavorful broth. The aromatic paella from Spain with fluffy saffron-scented rice chock full of sea goodies from lobster and scallops to clams and squid is a fiesta in a large skillet. Vegetarians contribute mac-and-cheese casseroles, lentil stews, stir fries and a comforting fried eggplant with tomato basil topping (recipe below, thank me later).
Your Just Desserts
No-bake delights will keep both you and your kitchen cool, and your sweet tooth satiated. Overly ripe bananas, mangoes or pears, as well as high-starch, fat-friendly vegetables like avocados and sweet potatoes can be instantly transformed into indulgences by blending with whipped coconut cream, or luscious, gut-friendly Greek yoghurt, and a splash of Grand Marnier (pick your poison). Spoon into martini glasses for an easy and elegant dessert.
Ladyfingers are so versatile you can whip up short-cut desserts that taste like the long versions, including tiramisu, English berry trifle, and strawberry shortcake, or eat them straight-up with a dusting of Confectioner’ sugar, cinnamon or cardamom.
Recipe: Fried Eggplant with Tomato Basil Topping
• Ingredients: 2 medium-sized eggplants (sliced elongated, 1/4-inch thick), 4 eggs, beaten, 12-ounces Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, Canola oil for frying, 28-ounce can/jar chopped tomatoes, 3-tablespoons olive oil, fresh basil; 2 large garlic cloves, diced; 1/2-teaspoon honey
• Method: In a heavy skillet on medium heat, add canola oil 1/4-inch deep. Dip eggplant slices into beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. Fry until golden brown, about 4 minutes, turning once. Drain on paper towel.
For the sauce, sauté chopped garlic in olive oil. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and honey. Simmer ten minutes.
Layer eggplant slices on a platter and top with sauce. Sprinkle with basil leaves, and grated Parmesan cheese (if desired). Serve with your favorite pasta. (Serves 6)