Eggplant Bruschetta with Heirloom Tomatoes and Fresh Chevre

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I love summer fruits and vegetables, so I am ecstatic that I am now cleared by my doctor to carry heavy bags of produce from the farmers’ market to my house. I made a trip last weekend to the South of the James market and I went a little overboard with vegetable purchases. Everything wonderful is in season right now!

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The haul:

  • Goats R Us roasted red pepper chèvre (so flavorful!)
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Jalapenos
  • Green bell peppers
  • White peaches
  • Zucchini
  • Yellow crookneck squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Cucumbers

I made a ton of great seasonal meals last week, and doing a lot of meal prep (washing, chopping, blanching, etc.) on Sunday helped me out so I could get healthy home cooked meals on the table around a busy schedule. The roasted red pepper chèvre and eggplant inspired me to throw together a quick and easy appetizer on Sunday afternoon.

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This is a flavorful, summery dish that you can put together in about fifteen minutes, which is great for those impromptu summer porch sitting sessions. You know what I’m talking about. When a conversation with friends that starts with “What are you doing tonight?” and “I don’t know, what are you doing?” ends with two friends and a bottle of wine on your patio.

I used oval-shaped eggplant slices in place of baguette slices to make this summer “bruschetta” a bit lighter (and gluten-free, if you’re into that kind of thing). I guess technically that makes it not bruschetta, but I don’t bother with technicalities on sunny summer weekends. If you’re unlike me and you’re getting hung up on the semantics, have another glass of wine and throw some quotation marks around the word “bruschetta.”

Eggplant Bruschetta with Heirloom Tomatoes and Fresh Chèvre

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Ingredients:

  • 1 Chinese eggplant
  • 2 small heirloom tomatoes (I used Green Zebra and a red-green variety I couldn’t identify)
  • 1 oz. fresh chèvre goat cheese (I used roasted red pepper)
  • 1 small handful of fresh basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Slice the eggplant on a diagonal to make oval-shaped slices, about a 1/4 inch thick.
  2. Heat a grill pan, indoor counter top grill, or outdoor grill. Brush eggplant slices with olive oil, then grill for a few minutes on each side, until eggplant is tender and grill marks appear. Do not overcook or eggplant will get mushy; you want the slices to still be firm enough to hold the toppings.
  3. While eggplant is cooking, slice tomatoes. Stack and roll basil leaves, then slice into a chiffonade.
  4. Remove eggplant slices from grill and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  5. Spread each eggplant slice with chèvre, then top with a tomato slice and basil. Season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

So are you curious what we made with all of the rest of that produce? Here is last week’s meal plan. At the end of the week, when there is still produce left over, I chop it all and throw it in a stir-fry or on homemade pizza.

Breakfast: Blanchard’s Dark As Dark iced coffee, Peach Oatmeal Bars

Lunch: Mediterranean salad with baby greens, cucumber, tomato, olive, and hummus

Dinner:

Noodleless Zucchini Lasagna and baby greens salad

BBQ Tempeh, Green Beans Almondine, and Herb Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Tomatillo Gazpacho with Fresh Corn Salad (recipe coming soon!) and Black Bean Quesadillas

Yukon Gold White Bean Basil Burgers and Roasted Yellow Summer Squash with Sage Pecan Pesto

 

What tasty seasonal recipes are on your meal plan for this week?

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How to Compose a Seasonal Salad, Featuring Fresh Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Feta

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A commitment to seasonal cooking often requires a certain degree of improvisation. If you want to be the type of cook who can wander through a farmers’ market, purchase the best that the season has to offer, and then plan meals around your market haul later, it helps to have a few generic meal recipes in your back pocket that lend themselves to seasonal substitutions. I have thrown together a salad like the one pictured above dozens of times in many configurations, by substituting what I have on hand for the basic components and then pulling all the flavors together with a dressing. This version featured local arugula, spicy roasted chickpeas and tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese, and a lemon herb vinaigrette.

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If you have been eating fresh tomatoes all season, I recommend that you try roasting them to deepen and sweeten the flavors. These roasted tomatoes were like candy, offering the sweet component of my salad.

My basic formula for a seasonal salad is this:

  • Greens – tender greens like arugula, spinach, and spring mix are my favorites, but I occasionally change it up with romaine, kale, or cabbage
  • Something sweet – dried or fresh fruit, tomatoes, and carrots are good choices
  • Something crunchy – fresh vegetables work well, as do nuts and seeds
  • Something fatty – creamy ingredients like cheese and cream-based dressings are good; so are oily ingredients like olives and marinated artichokes, and avocado is always a welcome addition
  • Something acidic – vinegar and citrus based dressings are great for cutting through the fatty ingredient
  • Protein (optional) – to make my salad a complete a meal, I add a protein component like legumes, tofu, tempeh, or quinoa
  • Something salty or spicy (optional) – salt and spice are great for balancing a sweet component and these flavors are usually covered in the protein component, fatty component, or dressing.

One component can deliver a lot of these flavors and textures. For example in this salad, the chickpeas offer the protein, crunch, and spice, while the feta offers the fat and salty flavors. As summer turns to fall, it’s fun to experiment with different ingredients and preparations to modify the final product. My guess is that the deep, hearty flavors of the spicy roasted chickpeas will start to take over, as cucumbers and fresh tomatoes become a distant memory.

Scroll below the recipe to find another one of my tricks for preparing meals with local, seasonal ingredients, even when life gets hectic.

Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Feta

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Ingredients:

  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (or sub chili powder)
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups arugula
  • 4 ounces fresh feta in water, drained and crumbled
  • Salad dressing to taste (try this Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette)

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Toss the sliced tomatoes in 1 Tbsp olive oil, then spread out the slices in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the cumin, paprika, cayenne, and salt into the remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil. Add chickpeas and toss to coat. Pour chickpeas out into a single layer on the same baking sheet as the tomatoes.
  4. Bake tomatoes and chickpeas at 400 degrees F for 30-40 minutes.
  5. In a large bowl, combine arugula, feta, and dressing. Add roasted tomatoes and chickpeas and gently toss to mix. Serve immediately.

Another one of my keys to quick seasonal food preparation is to pick up all my local ingredients in one place by using Relay Foods online grocery shopping, now available in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. If you have never used Relay Foods before, please enjoy $30 off your $50+ order by clicking the coupon on the left side of this page. Then please let me know how you liked it!

Recipe for a Blue Ridge Birthday

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My birthday this year fell on a Tuesday, so I had the privilege of celebrating my birthday for a whole week, while I prepared for a weekend birthday trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Thank you, family and friends, for letting me get away with that one. Special thanks to my parents who actually kicked off the celebration a week early, with a trip to see the Garrison Keillor Radio Romance Tour at Maymont, and a gift of some seriously sweet cycling gear for my special day.

We lucked out with gorgeous weather and beautiful scenery all weekend, so I want to share some of the photos that I snapped with my phone. We ended up packing a ton of activities into each day and eating very late, so most of the food photos are nothing to get too excited about. However I will share a few food pictures, starting with my Tuesday birthday dinner. After work, I spent two hours in the kitchen and on the grill, preparing a perfect vegetarian midsummer feast.

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We enjoyed local No Bull gourmet veggie burgers with local tomatoes over fresh spinach, Eating Bird Food’s raw cauliflower tabbouleh, and local corn on the cob with smoked paprika and parsley butter. Kyle asked to take me out to dinner for my birthday, but I really wanted to spend it in the kitchen making the exact birthday dinner that I craved – is that weird? Kyle thought so, but when he took a few bites of this food, he stopped arguing, relaxed, and really enjoyed it!

A few days later, we packed the car and headed to Charlottesville, where we stayed in an apartment we found on AirBnB with my sister and her boyfriend. We arrived late and had a relaxing dinner at Mono Loco, complete with margaritas and cans of Tecate. I had the vegetarian special, a spicy mushroom tamale, which was great fuel for the next day.

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The next morning, after a quick stop at Bodo’s Bagels, we headed west to the Blue Ridge Parkway and did one of our favorite hikes, Humpback Rocks. It was my sister Meghan’s first hike, and she did great! At the top, we were rewarded with a beautiful view on a fairly clear day. The boys were very adventurous and climbed higher than I had ever been before. Fast friends, Kyle and Jake joked around and posed for pictures at 3,000 feet. It was 75 degrees and sunny the whole weekend, which made this top-of-the-world moment even better.

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One of the most exciting moments of the weekend occurred on the way back down from Humpback Rocks, when we saw a black bear beside the trail! I have been patiently waiting to see a bear while on a hike for two years, and I finally got my wish on my birthday weekend! I never would have thought that it would be on one of the most popular hikes in the area, Humpback Rocks. Wild!

After our tough climb and quick descent back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we simply had to indulge in one of our favorite post-hike rituals, pizza and beer at Blue Mountain Brewery. It seems like every time we go to Blue Mountain Brewery, we run into our friends Brittany and Isaac, and this trip was no exception. We should probably just plan a trip out there together and carpool from Richmond to save on gas!

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Can you see the hops in the foreground? They’re getting so tall this time of year! We spent a lot of time at the brewery as Meghan and I caught up while Kyle and Jake played lawn games. We headed back to Charlottesville for showers, and when we realized it was too late in the afternoon for a winery visit, we headed back out to Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company for more beer tasting and appetizers, including some awesome hummus, giant pretzels, and Kyle’s favorite fried pickles. Oh, and of course we took couples photos at sunset, before Meg and Jake had to hit the road.

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The next morning, Kyle and I slept in late, checked out of our apartment, and headed to downtown Charlottesville for breakfast. The selection at Café Cubano on the downtown mall was perfect for carb-loading with reckless abandon in preparation for our next hike. No, we didn’t really need this many carbohydrates, but that hike made a good excuse for us to indulge. The coffee here is fantastic and I highly recommend it. If you go for the French toast, as I did, pay the extra few bucks to get the fresh fruit topping. You won’t regret it!

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After a filling breakfast, we drove out west again to Skyline Drive and tackled Turk Mountain. There were a lot of rocks along the trail which worked out my ankles the whole way up.

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You can reach a clearing with a view without having to do any serious rock scrambling, but for the very best view, you have to scramble over several vertical rock faces to get to the summit.

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Pretty nice view, if you ask me. . .

The vista at the top was one of the best we have ever seen, and we spent a good twenty minutes on a large flat rock at the very top, resting and taking in the view. After our second hiking adventure of the weekend, we meandered down Skyline Drive and headed back towards Richmond, with a stop in Charlottesville for a relaxing late lunch (or early dinner) at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Sometimes it is hard to plan a great weekend in that part of Virginia, just because there are so many options for fun activities and delicious food and drink. We could have done dozens of other things and had a great time, but looking back now on that weekend, I wouldn’t change a thing.

For more adventures, check out my Travel page.

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It’s the Little Things About Richmond Dining

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Richmond has a lot to offer people who are into food. If you were to ask a few of your RVA foodie friends, “what are your top must-do things in the Richmond dining scene?” or “what Richmond restaurants and dishes would you recommend to visitors?” you would probably get a variety of answers. We are fortunate to have so many great options in our little city. However, the same few things would jump out as repeat popular suggestions. Every city has its claims to fame, its signature dishes, its local haunts, and its “I’m kind of a big deal” restaurants.

For every popular signature dining experience in Richmond, there are dozens of overlooked gems all around us. When I think, and I mean really think hard, about my favorite things about Richmond dining, I come up with some really quirky little things. I guess I am aware of all the meals and restaurants here that would impress a visitor, and I have recommended them several times, but as a local Richmonder, those aren’t the experiences that make me love my city’s food scene. I like the signature stops along your typical Richmond foodie tour that elicit “ooh”s and “ahh”s, but I am absolutely enamored with the funny little things that keep me coming back for more.

For me, it’s the little things that count. The things that may go unnoticed, but that after several visits to a place, you come to expect, and maybe even look forward to. These are the things that I usually keep to myself, thinking that outsiders just wouldn’t understand. And maybe they wouldn’t, because there is nothing grand about them. But they are the little things about Richmond restaurants that make me smile, and although these are tiny aspects of the dining experience, I would be devastated if they ever went away.

This list is far from comprehensive, and it’s written in no particular order. I’m sure that just as soon as I hit “Publish,” I will think of ten more. It’s difficult to stop myself, but if I didn’t, this post would never be completed. Because I am sure that I’ve left some out, I would love to hear your favorite little things about Richmond or your own city’s dining scene in the comments! So without further ado, these are a few of my favorite things. . .

  • The way the butter that accompanies the bread at Can Can Brasserie is filled to the brim of each butter container, then scraped flat across the top to form a perfectly flat buttery surface
  • The salty, briny capers in the vegetarian paella at Kuba Kuba
  • The lovely ladies room at Urban Farmhouse Market and Cafe. No really, I have often thought that I would live in that bathroom if I could. TMI?
  • The seasonal vegetable plate at Parkside Cafe, featuring local vegetables bought across the street at the farmers’ market and cooked to perfection within hours of purchase
  • The mismatched salt and pepper shakers at the Black Sheep; each table has a different set and each set is quite interesting
  • The graham cracker center of a Key Lime popsicle and the vanilla wafer center of a Banana Pudd’n popsicle from King of Pops.
  • The slate cheese platters at Secco, with the name of each cheese written in chalk right below it
  • The combination of creative sauces drizzled on every taco served by the Boka Truck
  • The black and white films silently projected on the wall at Stella’s
  • The pickle of the day at Citizen, which is often unusual, sometimes hard to identify, and always delicious
  • The delicate and precise latte art at Lamplighter Roasting Company, which always reminds me of the very first time I was ever served a latte with fern-shaped foam (magical!)
  • The crispy crunch and the melt-in-your-mouth center of each bite of tandoori cauliflower at Balliceaux
  • The booth screens on the high backed booths at Ipanema Cafe, which always make me feel like I should confess my sins to fellow diners (which could also be blamed on the happy hour wine deal)

What are your favorite “little things” about your local dining scene?

Spiced Red Lentil Chickpea Cakes

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I have tasted a whole (helluva) lot of beers lately. I think I tried ten different spring seasonal beers over the last two weeks before settling on the one I would use for my pairing for the spring vegetarian beer dinner. Last week I hosted a fundraising event for Team in Training at Legend Brewing Co. in Richmond, and as the sun set, I stayed warm with a bourbon barrel brown ale. Then of course we had the beer dinner last weekend, featuring six different beers paired with six vegetarian dishes (more on that later). And then there were the extra side beers sampled before, during and after the dinner: New Belgium Dig pale ale, Legend Maibock, and Kyle’s homebrewed chile chocolate milk stout from last year.

For this beer dinner, I took a different approach for my pairing, choosing my beer before dreaming up my dish. In the past I have selected the dish first, then I have chosen a beer to match. In the winter, I tried three different versions of my BBQ jackfruit before settling on the winning recipe, then picked a beer pairing at the last minute. This time around, I focused all my taste testing on the beer. Eventually, one favorite emerged: a collaboration beer from Stillwater Artisanal Ales and The Brewer’s Art, a farmhouse ale called Debutante. Both breweries are from my hometown, Baltimore, MD. The talented brewer from Brewer’s Art, Rob Perry, bicycles with my Dad for Team in Training in Baltimore. I have met Rob a few times at the finish line of the Seagull Century, where he always brings a stash of craft beers to share post-race.

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Debutante made a lot of sense to me since it is seasonally appropriate, deliciously complex without being overpowering, and it is at least partially conceived by the masterminds at Brewer’s Art, who are big supporters of Team in Training. With my first TNT event just one week away, this was an easy decision. For some reason, the subtle spice and slightly sweet qualities of this saison led me to Indian flavors for my dish. I packed almost as many ingredients into my recipe as I did beers into my refrigerator over the last couple of weeks. My vegetarian chickpea cakes featured red lentils (which my palate and I think are the perfect complement to saison), chickpeas, cauliflower, carrots, cumin, coriander, and cilantro. These were thrown together at the last minute, meaning that I served them to twelve other people in my home, five minutes after the very first time I ever made them. A swig of maibock calmed my nerves as twelve forks cut in to twelve cakes for twelve first bites.

Some people might go for yeast plus yeast on this pairing, but I opted to let the beer be my bun, and I left this chickpea cake naked instead of serving it between bread. Before you accuse me of garbanzo negligence and public chickpea indecency, allow me to explain that I didn’t leave them completely nude. I offered a cucumber mint yogurt sauce for my non-vegan guests. The vegans just had to make do with a large spinach leaf and try not to feel like their tasty cakes were too exposed. I wanted to use arugula (and I think you should too if you try this at home), but none of the farmers at the market that morning had arugula yet, so I went with the spinach instead.

Shall we get to the recipe then?

Spiced Red Lentil Chickpea Cakes

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Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup red lentils
  • 1 cup cauliflower, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 pinches of ground cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg or 1 flax egg (1 Tbsp ground flax meal + 3 Tbsp water)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Vegetable oil

Preparation:

  1. Add red lentils and cauliflower to a medium sized pot. Cover with 2 inches of water. Heat over high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce to low-medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  2. While cauliflower and lentils are cooking, mash chickpeas with a fork or blend in a food processer. In a large bowl, combine chickpeas with carrots, green onions, garlic, and cilantro.
  3. Preheat broiler.
  4. Drain cauliflower and lentils in a fine mesh strainer. Mash cauliflower into the lentils. When the excess cooking liquid has been removed, add to chickpea mixture. Stir to combine.
  5. To chickpea lentil mixture, add spices, bread crumbs, and egg (or flax egg for vegan version). Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Split mixture into six equal portions and form six patties.
  7. Brush a baking sheet with oil. Place red lentil chickpea cakes equal distance apart on baking sheet and brush tops with oil. Cook under broiler for 10 minutes per side.
  8. Serve with optional yogurt sauce: 1/2 cup plain yogurt + 1 tsp lemon juice + 1/4 cup finely chopped cucumber + 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint.

Now only one question remains – who’s going to bring the craft beers to the finish line of the Nike Women’s Half Marathon this weekend?

Protein Power: How to Cook Vegetarian Proteins

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The great mystery of vegetarianism, for those who are new to it, is how to get protein. There are several excellent vegetarian protein sources on the market, but most home cooks do not know how to prepare them. After five years of cooking vegetarian food at home, I have learned a lot of great tricks for preparing tofu, tempeh, seitan, and other protein-packed vegetarian foods. People are always asking me how vegetarians can make sure they get enough protein, and how to prepare these foods at home and I love sharing what I have learned.

So. . . I am thrilled to announce that I will be sharing my tips and tricks in a cooking demonstration at the Ellwood Thompson’s Community Room next month! This cooking demonstration and class will introduce the basics of vegetarian protein and teach you how to prepare foods like tofu and tempeh at home. My goal is to make it a really casual and informative discussion, with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and share tips, plus (bonus!) samples of some of my favorite dishes.

Mark your calendar! “Protein Power: How to Cook Vegetarian Proteins” is on Wednesday, February 13th at 6:00 PM at Ellwood Thompson’s Natural Market. The cost of the class is $7.00 you can register online here.

I hope to see you there!

Lauren on Richmond.com

I’ve been burning the midnight oil a bit lately.

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In Caffeine We Trust

Recently I have had the opportunity to contribute to Richmond.com, a fresh and fun local news source. For years, I have checked Richmond.com daily because they always have the scoop on restaurant news and local events. Richmond.com has always had me covered on fun events for the weekend, honest dining reviews, and behind-the-scenes peeks at local happenings. They have also always had a great collection of humor and lifestyle pieces for entertainment. Does anyone remember the journalistic magic that was “A Shot in the Dark?”

In case you haven’t caught my last few pieces for Richmond.com, here are some links to the most recent ones. I also have some fun articles planned for the next few weeks, so make sure you look out for my new byline: Lauren Downey. Enjoy!

Date Nights with Richmond Flavor

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Tacky Lights Survival Guide

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Holiday Help for the Harried Home Cook

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