What should I make for dinner?
Ugh. The million dollar question. I enjoy cooking most of the time, once the recipe and ingredients are laid out in front of me. But thinking and searching for recipes and dinner ideas, and gathering supplies for said recipes, is a constant struggle. A privileged problem, but a problem just the same. I can't be the only one. I would bet that even chefs are annoyed by the search for sustenance from time to time.
At the beginning of a new season, I'm full of excitement, busting out all my tried and true recipes that have been forgotten for months. Comfort foods in Fall, barbecue in Spring. But that passion doesn't last long. Within a few weeks, I'm back staring at an empty fridge and scrolling through Pinterest, wondering yet again, what should I bloody make for dinner?
When in doubt, open a book. Cookbooks, in this case. The OG of recipe inspiration. This winter I started checking out cookbooks from the library and making as many recipes as I can from them in the three weeks before their due date. Some books fail hard (I'm looking at you, one-basil-leaf-in-the-pasta-sauce Tucci) but others have multiple wins and multiple renewals as a result. The Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman is a perfect example of the latter. Everything I tried became an instant favourite. Because this book isn't a new release, I was lucky to be able to renew it several times and cook from it for a couple of months.
Overall, I love the book. All of the recipes I tried were good, if not excellent, and her write-ups for each recipe were written beautifully, with humour and insight, just like her blog. I found myself reading them all, even if I wasn't interested in the recipe. My only complaint is the layout of the book. Many of the recipes require you to turn the page, which can be annoying, not to mention messy, if you need to flip back and forth to consult the ingredients list. There were so many great recipes that I would definitely have purchased this book if it wasn't for the layout.
Here are all the recipes I tried...
Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette: This blew me away. It's one of the most delicious things I've made in a long time and if you're confident with pie crust, really quite simple. I made it several times this Winter, including a family Boxing Day lunch. Lucky for you, this one is on the Smitten Kitchen blog.
Balsamic and Beer-Braised Short Ribs: This one didn't last long in the memory, and thus I can't think of much to tell you. I remember thinking they were just OK, but can't remember what I did or didn't like specifically. So not much help, sorry. I made them in my slow cooker, mainly because I don't have a dutch oven big enough for 5 pounds of ribs, so this may have affected the taste, I'm not sure.
Parsnip Puree: I made this to pair with the short ribs, as recommended, and they stole the show. This recipe will change your mind about parsnips. At least it did for me. It's a tasty alternative to mashed potatoes and just as easy.
Gnocci in Tomato Broth: If gnocci is on a menu, I'm almost guaranteed to order it. You could put money on it. Naturally, I've tried making it from scratch before, and it was a sticky, dense disaster. With my new-found faith in Miss Deb, I decided to give it another shot. Guys, it was potato pasta perfection! Light, pillowy clouds that melt in your mouth. Note: we decidedly did not like the tomato broth sauce that she paired it with, but that's just our preference and easy to substitute with any of your favourite sauces.
Pizza Dough: I have intense feelings about this one. First I made the "rushed" version and it was decent. It didn't blow me away, but pretty good for a quick weeknight meal and enough to make me want to try again. Next I tried the "leisurely" method, which turned out perfectly. I was declared the pizza-making queen and promptly deleted my pizza delivery app. However, the story doesn't end there. My subsequent two attempts were epic failures in stretching and sticking. The last time I made it, I threw it straight in the garbage, pan and all! Dough and I have never been friends and pizza was not helping our relationship by any means. But that one perfect pizza will haunt me until I figure it out, and rest assured when I do, I'll share it here with you. In the meantime, if you have a tried and true method, please share!
Finally, the featured recipe, Roasted Eggplant with Yogurt-Tahini Sauce and Crispy Chickpeas. Of all the recipes I tried from this book, this one gets the most original and surprising award. I find that eggplant often becomes mushy and bland when roasted, so I had my doubts, but the combination of flavours and textures here is spot on. It also looks very impressive on the plate. Perfect to show off at a dinner party. And here's the kicker: it's super simple to make! It's one of those perfectly-timed dishes -- the eggplant and chickpeas cook in the oven at the same time and you can make the yogurt sauce while they're cooking. For a vegetarian, this is probably a perfect stand-alone meal, but this meat-eating couple found it challenging to beef-up, so to speak. Deb recommended topping it with ground lamb, which I tried, but didn't love. I also tried it with roasted chicken legs one night, which was quite nice. I feel like a rack of lamb would be divine. But then you get into over-complicating a really simple meal, y'know? I'll keep working on it and get back to you. In the meantime, try it this week and let me know how it goes!
Roasted Eggplant with Yogurt-Tahini Sauce and Cumin-Crisped Chickpeas
1 15-oz (425g) can chickpeas, drained and dried
5 tbsp olive oil, divided
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin*
3 lbs small eggplants, stems removed and halved lengthwise
1/3 cup (45g) tahini paste
2/3 cup (150g) greek yogurt
3 tbsp (45mL) lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water
parsley for garnish
- Preheat oven to 425.
- Toss the chickpeas with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 tsp salt, pepper and cumin. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet.
- On a separate baking sheet, brush another tablespoon of olive oil. Place eggplants, cut side up, on baking sheet. Brush the cut sides with tiny amount of more oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Place both chickpeas and eggplants in oven (chickpeas on top rack) and roast for 30-40 minutes, flipping eggplants halfway through. Test to make sure eggplant is tender all the way through with a fork.
- Meanwhile, whisk together all sauce ingredients minus water and parsley in a small bowl. Add water, one tablespoon at a time, until sauce is smooth, with a thick but pourable consistency.
- To serve, arrange eggplants, cut side up, on a large platter. Dollop each piece generously with sauce. Sprinkle with crisped chickpeas and parsley.
*The cumin isn't totally necessary, in my opinion. It's not noticeable once covered with the tahini sauce. You could try increasing the amount, but I haven't tried that myself yet.