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Glam up the greens

In the international food world, vegetables have always been taken for granted and were usually an afterthought. They were always given a “second class” status after meat and seafood and milk based proteins. Today there is a widespread appeal of the farm to table movement as increasing number of people are turning vegetarian or vegan and chefs are featuring seasonal local produce with innovative cooking techniques in top notch restaurants. Vegetables have officially graduated from something we “have” to eat to something we “want” to eat

In India, there is a segregation between local everyday “sabzi” or the common man’s “aloo pyaz” versus the so called “exotic vegetables” which pop up on menu cards and supermarket labels ever so often. I find it rather hilarious…I mean it’s not like we are talking about caviar here!

I have been cooking a lot with our local basic veggies and it is amazing how a humble potato, onion or eggplant can be transformed into a gourmet dish where the vegetable is the so called hero. You just need a few simple dry ingredients and you have a beautiful makeover. Oh and I’m not referring to salads!

There is a lot to learn from the cuisine of the Mediterranean region. Despite being meat and seafood lovers, they give equal importance to their vegetables and really know how to turn them into wholesome satisfying dishes. I have also picked up plenty of recipes from my husband’s family in Southern Italy. If you thought pasta was only about red, green and white sauce, you are very mistaken. Daily home meals feature dishes like pasta with pumpkin, pasta with eggplant or a pea risotto. The vegetable is cooked and blended into a sauce, seasoned well with salt, pepper and some herbs and combined with pasta or rice to make a well balanced nutritious vegetarian meal.

Roasting or baking vegetable in the oven is a healthy and convenient way of cooking. All the nutrition is preserved and you don’t have to hover around the stove all the while. Moreover, the kitchen is filled with a warm and inviting aroma.

Roast Pumpkin Hummus

Here’s an interesting way to serve old wine in a new bottle. Reinvent the conventional hummus with the addition of a vegetable while also making it a well-rounded nutritious dish. You can replace pumpkin with cooked beetroots, carrots or peas at your next party.

What you need:

1 cup chickpeas (boiled)

1 cup pumpkin, cut into cubes

Few sprigs of fresh thyme

1 tbsp tahini (optional)

2 garlic cloves

½ tsp cumin powder

Juice of ½ lemon

Chilly flakes

Salt and fresh pepper

Garnish with toasted pistachio

​Putting it all together:

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.

2. Toss the pumpkin in some olive oil and thyme and season.

3. Roast in the oven for half hour or till done.

4. In a blender, blend together the boiled chickpeas, pumpkin, tahini, garlic, cumin, chilly flakes and salt and pepper.

5. Add lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of water till you get the right consistency.

6. Garnish with toasted nuts and seeds.

7. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil just before serving.

Here are some of my favourite eggplant dishes which really glam up a “baingan” beyond “baingan bharta”. The tender moist flesh of the eggplant is full of flavour and blends in beautifully with some tomato puree and cheese.

An excellent vegetarian main course and a sure shot crowd pleaser. This is a variation of the traditional Italian “melanzane parmigiana” where the eggplants are thinly sliced and pan fried before baking. This would actually make a great vegetarian “roast” for a Sunday lunch or even Christmas Eve dinner !!

Serve the eggplant with some quinoa, barley or couscous on the side, a crunchy fresh salad and crusty bread to mop up the gooey crusty remains in the dish.

What you need:

1 large eggplant

1 ball of mozzarella

400 gms tomato puree

2 cloves garlic, minced

Fresh basil and thyme

½ cup breadcrumbs

½ cup parmesan

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Dry oregano

Chilly flakes (optional)

Putting it all together:

1. In a saucepan, heat some olive oil.

2. Add the mince garlic and cook for a minute.

3. Add the tomato puree, salt and pepper, some fresh basil and thyme, oregano and chilly flakes, if using.

4. Add a splash of water and allow to cook covered on medium heat for about 10-15 mins.

5. Heat the oven to 180C.

6. Cut slits down the eggplant to as far as possible, without cutting all the way through. Rub olive oil inside the slits and season well inside.

7. Add a slice of mozzarella inside each slit with a basil leaf.

8. Pour the tomato sauce in a baking dish and place the eggplant in the center.

9. Drizzle with some olive oil and season on top.

10. Cover the whole dish with foil and bake for one hour.After an hour, the eggplant should be cooked. 11. Remove foil, top with breadcrumbs and parmesan and bake uncovered for another 15 mins till the crumbs and golden and crisp.Remove from oven allow to rest for 5-10 mins.

12. Garnish with fresh basil and serve.

The “aloo” is a loyal friend who always comes to the home cook’s rescue when the fridge is empty and devoid of fresh vegetables. If you go brain dead while planning a menu, potatoes are the usual “go to” ingredient. Don’t we all love our comforting “aloo ki subzi” in our favourite style. Well this seems to be a common feeling around the world as rarely will you a find a country or culture which does not feature potatoes in its culinary creations.

So what do you do when life gives you a sack of potatoes? You make some French style “Pomme Dauphinoise” or a potato gratin and serve them in elegant mini stacks. You can also make some delish Italian gnocchi and combine it with any sauce. All you need is some potatoes and flour!

Potato Dauphinoise Recipe

What you need:

500 gms potatoes

1 tbsp butter

2 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup cream

½ cup grated cheese (cheddar, mozzarella)

Some fresh rosemary or thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Putting it all together:

1. Preheat the oven to 180C.

2. Grease a muffin tin with some oil or butter

3. Peel potatoes and slice into thin slices

4. Combine butter, garlic, cream, salt, pepper and thyme in a saucepan.

5. Cook for a minute till combined and the butter melted. Put asideStack potato slices in the muffin tin half way.

6. Drizzle with half tsp of the cream mixture.

7. Sprinkle a bit of cheese.

8. Top with the remaining potato slices.

9. Drizzle with the remaining cream and top with fresh thyme or rosemary.

10. Cover the tray loosely with foil and bake 30 mins covered.

11. Remove from the oven, sprinkle the remaining cheese and bake open for 10 mins until golden.

12. Allow to rest for 5 mins before removing from the tin.

Gnocchi with Tomatoes and Eggplant

This is a traditional Tuscan recipe for gnocchi (potato dumplings)which I learnt at a cooking school in Florence. It has much less flour than the regular versions hence making it lighter. The semolina adds a nice texture to it. You can pair it with any sauce you like. Here, I have served it in a southern Italian style with fresh tomatoes and eggplants. I also like tossing it with a light pesto thinned down with some good extra virgin olive oil.

What you need for the basic gnocchi:

500 gms potatoes (boiled or steamed)

50 gms flour

20 gms cornflour

15 gms semolina

Salt and pepper to taste

Putting it together:

1. Mash the potatoes very finely.

2. Combine all the powder ingredients.

3. Add the potatoes , salt and pepper and knead into a ball. Take small pieces of the dough. Roll out lengthwise into a cylinder.

4. Keep flouring the surface and your hands. Cut pieces of equal size with a floured knife.

5. Arrange the gnocchi on a floured platter keeping some distance between them to avoid sticking together.

6. Cook the gnocchi in salted boiling hot water (like you cook regular pasta). When ready, they will float on top.

7. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and add directly to the pan with your choice of sauce and other ingredients.

8. If you would like to make the gnocchi ahead of time, you can freeze them.

9. Complete step 4 and freeze the fresh gnocchi on flat trays for up to a couple of weeks. To cook, simply boil the gnocchi directly from the frozen texture (do not thaw). It still tastes amazing!

The Fresh Tomatoes and Eggplant Sauce

What you need:

8 fresh tomatoes

Extra virgin olive oil

6 large garlic cloves

Fresh basil leaves

1 eggplant, diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Dry chilly flakes, if you like

Making the sauce:

Boil the tomatoes for about 10 mins and then rinse with cold water to stop cooking further.

Remove the skin and dice roughly

Heat a pan and add olive oil.

Smash the garlic cloves gently and add to the hot oil until golden. Remove garlic. Add tomatoes, 5-6 basil leaves, seasoning and chilly flakes.

Cook on a low flame for 10-15 mins until you have a thick chunky sauce. Stir occasionally.

In another pan, sauté the diced eggplant in olive oil until browned. Season lightly.

When the sauce is ready, add the cooked eggplants. Save some to add on top later. It is up to you to decide the ratio of sauce to eggplant.

Putting it all together:

1. Boil the gnocchi and add directly to the warm sauce in the pan.

2. Gently toss and spoon onto the serving plates.

3. Top with some more eggplants, grated parmesan cheese, chopped basil leaves and freshly ground pepper.

Cauliflower is the new health food which is creating a storm in the gluten free world. Chefs and food specialists are creating innovative recipes where blended cauliflower replaces rice, grains and flour. I am currently working on a pizza base recipe with cauliflower!

I often roast a whole cauliflower in the oven, marinating it in a variety of flavour and spices. You can then top it up with a yogurt sauce, herbs and nuts and enjoy with some cooked quinoa or millets on the side.

Cauliflower Rice Recipe

Cauliflower “rice” is a great substitute for rice if you want to avoid carbs. Super quick and a very filling dish which can be made with various flavours to suit the rest of the meal. This recipe works well as an accompaniment to an Italian style chicken or fish main course. Add some coriander, tomato paste and jalapenos and you have a Mexican rice to go with your tacos or black beans mix. Toss it with some spring onions, ginger and lemongrass and it will complete an Asian stir fry dinner.

Please note that it is important to not overcook the cauliflower or it will turn into mush. The texture should be crunchy but not raw. There should be no moisture at all in the pan. Cook in an open broad base frying pan on high heat. Ideally, this should be made when you are ready to eat and avoid reheating to preserve the texture.

What you need:

1 cauliflower head, cut into florets

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tbsp butter or olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

½ tsp dried oregano

Chilly flakes (optional)

½ cup parmesan, grated

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Few walnuts, chopped

Putting it all together:

1. Rinse the florets and pat dry thoroughly. Pulse in a food processor or blender till you have the right texture similar to rice(as in the picture).

2. Do not over blend. In a broad surface pan, heat the butter or olive oil.

3. Add the garlic and oregano and sauté for a couple of minutes. If using chilly flakes, add now.

4. Add the minced cauliflower, season well and toss gently.

5. Cook on high heat with the pan open for about 3 mins, tossing around.

6. Taste for seasoning and texture. It should be slightly crunchy but not raw.

7. Take off heat and stir in the parmesan and fresh parsley. Garnish with some chopped walnuts. Serve at room temperature.

8. Do not heat again.

Carrots and beetroot are the other simple veggies which have so much of creative capacity. I love making sauces and soups with these root vegetables. Add some grated beetroot to a raita and watch the colours come alive. I recently made falafels with beetroot and they were the talk of the party.

Toss some carrots in olive oil and honey and roast till tender. Top with some tahini or yogurt and chopped herbs and nuts and it’s such a refreshing healthy dish.

The next time you go searching for the so-called “exotic vegetables”, do drop by your local vegetable vendor and give the usual backyard veggies a chance to shine. You do not need expensive imported ingredients to cook up a tasteful meal. And for all you meat lovers out there…there is a lot more to vegetables than salad and leaves!

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