Many clients are eager, especially as part of New Year’s resolutions, to cut their carbs consumption. And yet they still crave a hearty, warming meal–like lasagna. Now, if you have clients who love eggplant–and all the great ingredients that eggplant complements–you can’t go wrong with this faux “lasagna.”

Eggplant is such a versatile vegetable. Fry them, bake them, roast them, marinate them… the list goes on and on. And you find them in so many cultures around the world, which adds even more to their versatility and the range of flavor profiles you can create.

Here’s a dish that features sliced, roasted eggplant; roasted, peeled red and yellow peppers; homemade tomato sauce, rich with spicy Italian chicken sausage and mushrooms; and lots of garlic mixed into the ricotta, Parmesan, egg mixture. Oh, and let’s not forget the panko mixed with grated Parmesan that tops it all off.

All of these ingredients are layered into a deep 9 by 9-inch ceramic baking dish and baked at high heat for about half an hour. It comes out of the oven brown and bubbling from the cheese. Cut into it and you have layers of sublime flavors all complementing each other. Your clients can pair it with a salad and serve it with a crisp white wine. And, you can freeze it before baking or freeze well wrapped baked slices.

Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus 2 teaspoons for the baking dish and to drizzle on the casserole
2 large eggplants, sliced lengthwise, about ½ inch thick
3 bell peppers (any color but green, which is too bitter)
2 fresh spicy Italian chicken sausages
4 ounces Cremini mushrooms, sliced
3 cups marinara sauce
15 ounces ricotta
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese plus ¼ cup reserved for topping
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup panko crumbs

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 450°.

2. Place eggplant slices on two half sheet baking pans and brush lightly on both sides with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast for about 25 minutes, turning slices over halfway. The eggplant slices should be golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

3. While the eggplant is roasting, roast the peppers on your stove top or alongside the eggplant until all sides are blackened. Remove and place in a brown paper bag with the top rolled up to steam the skins off the peppers. Wait about 10 minutes and remove the peppers and peel the skins off. Slice in half and remove the core and seeds. Then slice into segments and set aside.

4. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. Slice through the sausage casings and add the meat to the skillet. Break it up and sauté until browned. Set aside and add the mushroom slices. Let them brown. Add the sausage meat and the mushrooms to the marina sauce.

4. In a medium bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, garlic, Parmesan cheese, herbs, salt, and pepper.

5. To put the casserole together, brush an 8-inch baking dish with olive oil. Then layer half of the eggplant on the bottom of the dish. Follow that with half of the marina sauce and a layer of the peppers. Spread with half of the ricotta mixture. Repeat these layers and end with the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle the top with the ¼ cup reserved Parmesan cheese and the panko crumbs. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the casserole is bubbling and golden brown. Let cool about 10 minutes before serving.

What’s your favorite low-carb riff on lasagna? What ingredients do you feature?

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Last week the annual Consumer Electronics Show hit Las Vegas and among the gadgets being touted were hyped up electronics for the kitchen. Eater wrote about several. Some were worth drooling over–like LG’s Harvester, a fridge-adjacent cabinet that controls light, water, and temperatures and even allows you to grow herbs indoors. Some were curious, like the $229 “Smartypans,” a “smart” frying pan that tracks the nutritional value of the food you’re cooking in the pan. Huh. And then there were the “what were they thinking” gadgets such as a smart trash can that seals and replaces your full plastic bag automatically but needs weekly charging and pricey trash bags, and a smart voice-activated faucet. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

All this is to say that as kitchens–and homes, of course–are growing increasingly automated, there’s a lot that personal chefs need to keep on top of when working at client homes.

If you conduct–as you should–an assessment when meeting with a new client, this category is something you need to add as a review item.

Consider just some of the things in your own home that may be controlled by apps or devices:

  • Indoor lights
  • Outdoor lights
  • Smoke detectors
  • Fans
  • Thermostats
  • Refrigerators
  • Slow cookers
  • Blenders
  • Microwave ovens
  • Doorbells
  • Door locks
  • Light bulbs

And these may be controlled by a hub, like Apple HomePod, Google Nest, or Amazon Echo (aka Alexa).

If you aren’t informed about your client’s automated appliances and home devices you could find yourself unable to see your way out the door (literally if the lights are off and you can’t just flip a switch to turn them on or figuratively if you can’t unlock the door). What if something you’re cooking begins to smoke? A Nest smoke detector, for instance, can give you a heads up that it senses smoke and will release an alarm. If you have the app you can dismiss it. If you don’t, you’re in for a lot of noise.

You may not be able to turn on a house or stove top fan if you need it, adjust the home’s temperature, or use the client’s kitchen scale. What do you do when a light goes out?

I’m sure you can come up with more examples based on how you work in a kitchen and within a given client’s home. What makes the most sense is to discuss with them what e-connected appliances and devices are in the house, figure out how it impacts you while you’re there, and how to control them–especially if your client isn’t home while you’re there. Do you need to download the relevant apps and log into their account? Can they be temporarily disconnected from the apps and used manually?

And don’t forget to have them apprise you of when they add a new e-controlled device to the home or change something.

You don’t want to be left in the dark.

Have you experienced any e-controlled device issues at client’s homes? How do you manage working in an automated home?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

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Don’t waste time feeling anything like pity for those of us who live in Southern California and “endure” its  winters. While the rest of the country is digging out of snow over the next few months, we shiver when the temps drop into the low 60s. But it does at least mean we can all agree on one thing: the magical qualities of a steaming bowl of soup. Warming, comforting soup that’s also deliciously healthy with winter veggies.

I’m working on a story for the San Diego Union-Tribune on healthy winter soups and have my recipe line up ready. Somewhat similar to one of these recipes is one I came up with a few years ago when I was gifted with a huge bag of baby spinach, already cleaned and prepped and looking for a purpose. I had just made spanakopita so that was out. There’s only so much spinach salad one person can eat, so that wasn’t going to do it. And back then San Diego was about to get hit with another storm so a cold salad didn’t appeal to me anyway.

I already had the remains (meaning the breast meat) of a rotisserie chicken I had bought at Costco. (Existential question: Does anyone really enjoy a market rotisserie chicken beyond the convenience factor?) I had feta cheese and a just wrinkling jalapeño pepper I needed to use, a huge head of garlic, a quart of vegetable stock and an onion, fresh herbs and Meyer lemons in my garden, and purple prairie barley in the pantry. As I scoured my kitchen and garden I figured, okay, I had the makings of a big pot of soup.

Now you can, of course, add other vegetables to this. Mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, or winter squash would all be nice. You could leave out the chicken for a vegetarian soup or add sausage or other proteins to make it even more hearty. Couscous or rice would work instead of barley. Basically, add whatever your clients will love most. But what you really want to keep in–besides the spinach, of course–is the lemon juice. It’s the magical ingredient that makes this soup special. It turns a very nice conventional soup into something bright and interesting. And makes it the perfect go-to for a chilly cloudy weekend. And it freezes beautifully for clients to store.

Lemony Spinach Soup with Chicken and Barley
Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, minced
1 pound baby spinach, thoroughly washed, dried, and chopped
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
Juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces shredded chicken or other protein (optional)
6 ounces barley
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
crumbled feta for garnish

Directions

1. Heat a large Dutch oven and add olive oil. Add the garlic and onion. Sauté until golden. Add the pepper and sauté another 30 seconds.

2. Add the spinach in batches, stirring until it cooks down.

3. Add the stock and water, stirring to mix. Then add the chicken and barley. Bring to a boil, then reduced to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 40 minutes or until the barley is tender.

4. Add the herbs and lemon juice. Stir. Let cook another 5 to 10 minutes.

5. Serve with feta.

What winter soups are you preparing for clients–or your own family? What are your favorite riffs on ingredients?

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Fennel Gratin

Filed under: Recipes,Vegetarian , Tags: , — Author: Caron Golden , January 6, 2020

Fennel is the coolest vegetable. It’s a bulb and an herb, thanks to its feathery green fronds. The bulb and stems can be eaten raw (think thin slices for a sweet crunchy salad) or cooked–braised, sautéed, roasted, or featured in a soup. It has its own unique anise flavor but is welcoming to all sorts of other flavors. And–at least in Southern California, where I live–it’s a perennial plant.

But, sadly, it’s a much overlooked vegetable. Let’s change that for your clients, especially this time of year when we all want to focus on vegetables, but also are keen for warming food!

For years I’ve used fennel for fresh salads but I’ve also sliced the bulbs in half lengthwise, brushed the surface with olive oil and then sprinkled grated cheese and bread crumbs on top before baking. It’s a side dish I got from my mom.

But, inspired by an eggplant gratin dish I enjoy making, I thought I’d do something similar with fennel. I had two super large bulbs that still had some fronds attached. I separated those and minced them. I then trimmed the fennel top and then cored the bulbs before quartering them. With the oven primed for roasting, the bulb quarters and sliced stems went onto a foil-lined baking sheet (along with some garlic cloves for me to snack on), got drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt before going into the oven for roasting for about half an hour.

Then I made a modified sauce with milk, gruyere and parmesan cheeses, green onions for flavor and color, and garlic. I don’t love sauces that drown the main ingredient, but having just enough to bathe and flavor can be delightful. This does it. The onions and garlic were sautéed in olive oil to which I added the minced fronds and fresh thyme from my garden. I mixed them in a bowl with the milk, cheeses, and some salt and pepper.

Once the fennel bulbs came out of the oven, I placed them into a ceramic baking dish I’d brushed with olive oil. I tucked the cheesy oniony mixture over and around them. On top I sprinkled a topping made of panko crumbs and more cheese. Finally, I drizzled olive oil.

Into the oven it all went, back at 400° F for about 25 minutes until it was all brown and bubbly. You know you have something when you take a bite and involuntarily sigh and smile.

Fennel Gratin
Serves 4

Ingredients
2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt
6 green onions, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon fennel fronds, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
½ cup milk
½ cup grated gruyere cheese
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For topping:
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup gruyere cheese
½ cup panko crumbs
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400° F degrees.

Place fennel bulb quarters on a foil-lined sheet pan. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roast for 30 minutes until soft and just becoming brown.

While the fennel is roasting, sauté the green onions and garlic in olive oil (about a tablespoon or more). Don’t brown them. You just want them soft. Add the minced fennel fronts and thyme and cook for another minute. Set aside.

Remove the roasted fennel from the oven and place quarters in a baking dish coasted with olive oil.

In a medium bowl, mix together green onion and garlic mixture with milk, cheeses, salt and pepper.
Spread over the fennel in the baking dish.

To make the topping, combine the cheeses with the panko and evenly spread over the fennel bulbs and green onion and garlic cheese mixture. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake uncovered at 400° F degrees for 25 minutes until brown and bubbly.

Are you a fennel fan? If so, how do you like to prepare it?

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