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September 03, 1997|ABBY MANDEL | Mandel's latest book is "Celebrating the Midwestern Table" (Doubleday & Co., 1996)

Buffet Building Blocks These robust vegetable dishes work well together in a vegetable buffet with a selection of cheeses, a salad of mixed greens and warm crusty bread. Each also pairs well with grilled or roasted fish or meats.

Although the vegetables (zucchini and red bell peppers) and fruits (tomatoes and eggplant) used in these recipes are available year-round at supermarkets, they are at their prime in late summer and early fall--in other words, their time is now.

SICILIAN CAPONATA WITH BASIL

1 large eggplant, peeled (optional), cut into 1-inch dice

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 sweet onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 stalks celery, strings removed with vegetable peeler, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup torn basil leaves

4 green cracked olives, flesh cut in small dice

3 tablespoons drained capers

3 tablespoons tomato paste

Red pepper flakes

Peel the eggplant if the skin seems thick and coarse. Serve the caponata chilled, at room temperature or slightly warmed as a side dish with lamb, beef, chicken or cold cuts.

Put eggplant in colander and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Put colander in sink and weigh down eggplant with heavy object, such as plate with can on top, for 30 minutes. Rinse eggplant with cold water and blot dry in cloth towel.

Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add garlic and onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add remaining 1 teaspoon salt, rinsed eggplant, red bell pepper and celery and stir well. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until eggplant just starts to soften, about 5 minutes.

Combine vinegar, water, basil, olives, capers, tomato paste and red pepper flakes to taste in small dish, then add to skillet. Heat through, stirring well. Remove from heat and adjust seasoning. (Note: Caponata can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 5 days.)

Makes 5 cups. Each 1/2-cup serving:

48 calories; 550 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.57 gram fiber.

MEXICAN ZUCCHINI IN TORTILLAS

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 small onion, thinly sliced

4 slender zucchini, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup tomato sauce

1/2 can chipotle chile, minced

1/3 cup cilantro, minced

3 ounces Chihuahua or Jack cheese, chopped

12 flour or corn tortillas

Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add garlic, onion, zucchini and salt. Cook, stirring often, until mixture is hot but not limp, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Combine tomato sauce, chile and cilantro and add to skillet, tossing until well mixed.

Transfer to 6-cup baking dish. Sprinkle surface with cheese. (Note: Recipe can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated overnight.)

Bake at 375 degrees until cheese is browned and juices bubbling, about 30 minutes. Serve hot wrapped in warm tortillas.

6 servings. Each serving:

222 calories; 635 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 30 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.77 gram fiber.

TOMATOES PROVENCALE

TOMATOES

3 tomatoes, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup basil leaves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

BREAD CRUMBS

1/2 tablespoon oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs

Pinch salt

TOMATOES

Arrange tomato slices in single layer on work surface.

Process oil, basil, salt, pepper and garlic in food processor or blender until basil is minced. Spoon evenly over tomatoes and spread with finger. Put tomato slices overlapping slightly in shallow gratin dish.

Bake at 400 degrees until just warmed through, about 6 minutes. (Note: Recipe can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

BREAD CRUMBS

Heat oil in small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add garlic, bread crumbs and salt and cook until crumbs are brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. Store cooled crumbs tightly wrapped at room temperature.

Sprinkle crumbs over tomato slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

4 servings. Each serving:

140 calories; 239 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.65 gram fiber.

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