The love child of Middle Eastern shakshuka and good old Italian fat-bomb, Eggplant Parm. But healthier, obvs. PS This MUST be served with garlic bread.
What is your first proper food memory? Mine is not the vague memory of being fed by my mother from a melamine plate decorated with fairytale mushrooms and fairies. Nor is it when I theatrically upended a full bowl of spaghetti onto my head. In a restaurant (I had wanted mashed potatoes). My first real food memory is from my grandparent’s garden.
I remember it deeply – almost viscerally – because of the smell: damp red earth steaming in the sudden sun after a rain shower. I must have been about two or three, and we had gone into the orderly mid-summer garden, with its even rows of towering, waving sweetcorn, sprawling scrolls of watermelon vines and squashes, climbing beans of purple, green and cream, to pluck just-ripe tomatoes for our dinner.
My Mimi taught me not to yank the warm, slightly prickly fruit from the plant, but to pinch above where it joins the vine so as to bring the aroma of the plant into the house. I learned from an early age that the aroma that we all love about tomatoes – the earthy, herbaceous, raw green notes prized as a scent in perfume making – is from the stem itself. The humble stem. I learned by her side that tomatoes are best just picked and eaten sliced with a dime store knife, served on a plain china plate, adorned with only a pinch of salt. Later, much later, I elaborated this to a dribble of best olive oil. I think she might have used olive oil for earaches only. This was in Tennessee, after all.
I realise now that in those early years of spending play time in her summer garden and eating meals prepared with little but what she and my grandfather grew and raised (in the summer at least), she sowed the seeds of a lifelong affinity for good food. Real food. And today I wish to pass on my own “rules” for cooking, sharing and eating. They may be obvious, but I hope you think they are worth passing on nonetheless.
5 Food Thoughts
Eat with as many senses as possible. Eat with your lips, your tongue and your teeth of course – feel the food’s roughness or smoothness, how it crunches or squidges; savour the layers of taste in the simplest and most complex of foods. Eat also with your eyes and ears. Notice the curves of the peach; listen to the suck of it as you bite into its yielding flesh, trying not to fire juice everywhere. Slowing down just a little to mind the details is the best way to really appreciate that food nourishes more than just our physical self.
Plant a garden. Or if not a garden, a window box or pots. Sprouting seeds is great too. It is deeply satisfying, and not a little thrilling, to eat what you have nurtured and grown. If you worry about not being green-thumbed, why not tutor yourself about foraging and get out in each season to harvest what nature gives us for free? Despite my upbringing I am not particularly green-fingered, but I do manage to keep a respectable crop of kale and chard year-round. Anything else that manages to grow under my watch is more luck than anything else. But it makes me enormously happy to at least try.
Eat seasonally. One of the big downsides of high-tech food manufacturing is the loss of growing seasons. I’m fairly sure that the absence of seasonal crops (strawberries in November??) makes us appreciate our food less and grumble about it more. Not only do we tend to take for granted that we can get asparagus any time we wish (a crop that normally has a short growing window), but we complain food “doesn’t taste like it used to”. Some young people may never know what a just-picked, sun-ripened tomato tastes like. That’s just sad.
Not only is it usually healthier to eat seasonally and locally, it is inspiring too. Most of what I make here on food to glow is influenced by what I am growing or what others nearby can grow. Not always, but mostly.
Cook together. This isn’t always possible, or desirable, but when we can it’s a potentially very wonderful thing. So much of our time with the young people in our lives is devoted to ferrying them around, monitoring their screen-time, checking their homework. Inviting them into the kitchen to help prepare and serve food is a vital lifeskill that again, like seasonal eating, may be going the way of dinosaurs and DVDs. Once they are grown up, it may be too late. Some of my best memories with my daughter Rachel are of her pitching in on the more mundane kitchen tasks: assembling and weighing ingredients, standing on a chair and stirring a pot (possibly illegal now), and setting the table.
Cooking with a spouse or friend is also a wonderful way to share some quality time. And with these cooking companions, you can crack open a bottle of wine!
Eat together. Want to know more about that cute girl who waved at your son at pick-up time? Share mealtimes together. Seriously, people that I see through my work quite often remark that the best and most revealing conversations with their kids happen at the dinner table. And not only that, but manners and mood improve. It’s like saying to everyone that you value them.
It is well worth making an effort to gather round the table at least a few times a week. Even now that Rachel is 20 and very much her own person, when she is home from uni she pretty much insists that we eat together. She actually gets grumpy if we don’t.
Eating together as a family or as a group of flatmates reinforces the pleasure and value of eating good food. Actually, even a takeaway pizza eaten with manners, napkins and a thrown-together salad can be a nourishing experience. Been there. Done that!
Those are the basics for me. Of course I can be a slob and not pay attention to most of that, but mostly it is part and parcel of who I am these days.
Do you have and food thoughts of your own you would like to share? Don’t be shy. We can all learn from each other.
Eggplant Parmigiana Shakshuka
The love child of Middle Eastern shakshuka and good old Italian fat-bomb, Eggplant Parm. But healthier, obvs. PS This MUST be served with garlic bread. xx
4 tbsp olive oil (plus extra for serving)
2 medium eggplants/aubergines, sliced in rounds *about* 1.5 cm thick
1 red onion, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, bashed and minced
Handful oregano leaves (or you could use basil)
350g ripe tomatoes, chopped (use the juice too)
250g tinned/carton tomatoes
Two handfuls of fresh spinach leaves, optional
1 tbsp good balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
A drizzle of honey or good pinch of sugar – as needed to balance the flavours
150-200g ricotta cheese
3-4 organic eggs (more if there’s room in the pan or you are using yolks only)
50g hard Italian cheese (Parmesan and the other main cheeses typically used are made with calf’s rennet so not suitable for vegetarians), optional
Extra oregano + basil for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/400F.
2. Slick the eggplant slices with some of the oil and place on trays. Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until soft and lightly golden in patches. Remove from the oven to cool a bit then cut up into smaller pieces.
3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil and add the onions. Saute on a low, just barely murmuring heat until softened – about five minutes. Add the peppers, garlic and oregano and slightly increase the flame. Cook until softened then add the tomatoes. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then add the balsamic vinegar.
4. Transfer the sauce to a food processor or blender (I use my wonderful, wouldn’t-be-without-it Optimum 9400 Froothie power blender) and pulse until you have a slightly textured but mainly smooth sauce. Taste and adjust with salt, pepper and honey/sugar if you like.
5. Add the cooked eggplant and spinach to the saute pan, pour in the sauce and dot on most of the ricotta cheese, stirring just to amalgamate. Get the sauce bubbling then make four indentations and add each egg. TIP: I crack eggs into individual ramekins or shallow teacups then slide each in. Top with the remaining ricotta cheese and sprinkle over the hard grated cheese. Cover with a lid or foil and cook for up to eight minutes – or until the egg is done to your liking. I read somewhere to separate the yolk from the white, mixing the white into the sauce to thicken it and just adding the yolk to the top. That kind of makes sense and I might do that next time to give a more even cooking to the eggs: the yolk cooks quicker than the white.
6. Serve immediately with mandatory garlic bread. Enjoy!
Note: suitable for a soft food diet if the eggplants is blended into the sauce, or the skin removed from the eggplant pieces.
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