Monday, July 12, 2010

Meat-Free Mondays

Mondays are, generally speaking, my least favorite day of the week. It's also the day of the week when I try to eat meat-free — but that isn't why it's my least favorite day. It's the reality check that comes crashing down on you when the alarm goes off and you realize play time is over.

I certainly grew up in a very meat-oriented food culture. I never even knew a vegetarian until I went away to college. I guess if you were a Southerner and a vegetarian, you ate a lot of grits and just the "three" of a "meat and three" (which is a restaurant staple offering the choice of a meat and three kinds of vegetables). In fact, I still chuckle thinking of a wedding I went to in Tallahassee where the bride was a vegetarian. I was behind some good ol' Southern boys in the buffet line and overheard one of them say, "What's this here pole-enta with mushrooms? Where's the meat?!"

Paul McCartney and friends launched Meat Free Monday in the UK in 2006 after a United Nation's report was issued stating that the livestock industry as a whole was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of the transport section put together. His mission was simply to encourage people eat less meat. Eating more vegetables is not only great for your health but is also good for the planet.

I think many people look for little ways to "do their part" for the environment. Some recycle, some drive hybrids, some use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Personally, taking one day in my week to not eat meat is rewarding and a fun challenge. I started with just a meat-free dinner, as that seemed like all I could commit to, but now I really try my best to eat "3-squares" meat free. There are exceptions, like last Monday when I was hungover after the July 4th festivities and ate a big, greasy cheeseburger. But you'll find there really are a lot of alternatives that are "quiet" vegetarian dishes which are so tasty. You don't have to eat tofu. Who doesn't love Italian food, for instance? Lots of vegetarian options there, which are especially delectable during the summer months when the access to fresh, amazing produce is plentiful. Thai, Indian, Chinese food . . . yum! And all with lots of meat-free options. I'm not a purist, so will also eat sustainable seafood.

And while it may take a little mindfulness initially, making just one day a week a meat-free day really is a little thing that can make a big difference. I hope this easy and so, so delicious recipe for an eggplant pasta I made last Monday will inspire you to at least give it a go.

I know what you're thinking. In of itself, the words "eggplant pasta" my not sound very inspiring. I've often been served eggplant that was overcooked and therefore had a weird, mealy texture that wasn't appealing. Maybe you too had the same experience. However with this dish, the Japanese eggplants hold together well and don't get all seedy and mushy. Plus, the marjoram, lemon zest and chiles come together to create this stunning brightness that contrasts with the creamy decadence of the burrata. You certainly won't feel like you're missing anything — except maybe a larger stomach!

Orecchiette with Marinated Eggplant, Burrata and Chiles
from Food and Wine and Best New Chef 2010 Missy Robbins of NYC's A Voce

4 Asian eggplants (1 1/2 lbs total), halved lengthwise
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
Kosher salt
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 large garlic cloves, very thinly shaved
3 marjoram sprigs, plus 1 Tbsp marjoram leaves
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
3/4 lbs orecchiette
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 lb burrata cheese, halved, creamy filling scooped out (you can substitute fresh mozarella or even fresh ricotta if fresh burrata is not available)
Coarsely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 oil-packed red chilies, seeded and cut into thin strips (you can substitute pickled cherry peppers)

Light a grill or preheat a grill pan. Brush the cut side of the halved eggplants with olive oil and season with salt. Grill the eggplants cut side down over moderate heat until lightly charred, about 4 minutes. Turn and continue grilling until just browned and cooked through, about 2 minutes longer. Let cool. Dice the eggplants and transfer to a bowl. Pour the vinegar over the eggplant and toss well.
In a small saucepan, combine the 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp of olive oil with the garlic, marjoram sprigs, crushed red pepper and 2 Tsp kosher salt. Bring the oil to a simmer , then pour it over the eggplant and toss. Let stand for 1 hour. Discard the marjoram sprigs. [Note: The eggplant can be made a day ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator. ]
In a pot of boiling water, cook the orechhiette until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cups of the cooking water.
Add the eggplant to the pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring lightly, until hot, about 30 seconds. Add the pasta and 1/2 the reserved cooking liquid and cook, tossing for about 30 seconds. Remove from the pot and stir in the pecorino and parsley. If too sticky and dry, then add a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid.
Spoon the pasta into bowls. Dot the pasta with the creamy burrata filling. Garnish with the lemon zest, chile strips and marjoram leaves and serve. Make sure each dish gets a good share of the "garnishing" because that is what really creates a "wow" dish. Yields: 4 Servings.

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