Stirring the Pot: Spring — Such Bounty, Such Joy

Ah, spring! Shorts, tank tops, sandals … and vegetables! The arrival of fresh greens, deep reds, and sensual purples beg for creative juices to flow. A gathering of asparagus sautéed in a sheen of roasted walnut oil and a splash of soy sauce. A bowl of cherry tomatoes with ribbons of basil or tiny tarragon leaves, a generous pour of fruity olive oil, and a handful of crumbled feta cheese. Swollen eggplants scooped out, their innards chopped and mixed with ground beef and rice only to be stuffed back into the eggplant shell and baked in pomegranate sauce … such bounty! Such joy!

Whenever I see a gleaming pile of vegetables at the farmers’ market, I begin to accessorize.

"Sometimes, the thought of such variety is overwhelming and I crave less fuss, less bother, but still want all that veggie goodness," says Cohen. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

“Sometimes, the thought of such variety is overwhelming and I crave less fuss, less bother, but still want all that veggie goodness,” says Cohen. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

To highlight each ingredient, I might prepare a deconstructed salad, starting by lining a large serving dish with romaine lettuce leaves. Pile on tomatoes with feta, next to a bunch of marinated mushrooms, and then perhaps citrusy roasted beets, carrots glazed in red-pepper jelly, sleek pan-fried baby eggplants, and a few dollops of hummus to round things out. It’s a crowd pleaser because folks can take what they want.

Sometimes, the thought of such variety is overwhelming and I crave less fuss, less bother, but still want all that veggie goodness. When that mood strikes, it’s time for the “everyone in the pool” technique. Onions, garlic, peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash make their way into a big pot where they learn to soften and get along. Turn east, add red curry paste and coconut milk, and cook up some jasmine rice for a Thai treat. Turn west, make a béchamel sauce, and assemble a white lasagna.

In food, in fashion, in life, we are always making choices, assembling, reassembling, collecting, discarding. It seems to me that it all boils down to the same desire: to find expression and joy, to discover who we are and how we want to comport ourselves in the world, and to connect to others. It is in all that we do — the big things and the little.

Like a timeless black Chanel suit, you build on your base, bound only by your mood and your temperament (and all too often, unfortunately, your finances). A fashion-forward friend of mine sticks to blacks, grays, and the occasional lilac. When she adds a maroon infinity scarf one day or a pair of dangling silver earrings with tiny pieces of violet glass the next, she has made that everyday uniform unique. She has made it her own. She has created loveliness in the world.

For me, it’s that pinch of ground nutmeg in the béchamel sauce. And then sharing it with the people I love.


Vegetable Lasagna with Béchamel

Chop the vegetables in uniform size. By chopping them finely, the veggies will cook quickly and allow the diner to get more variety in each forkful.

Vegetable ingredients:
1/2 cup olive oil (divided — see instructions)
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (to sweat the onion)
1 red pepper, diced
1/2 cup carrots, finely chopped
3-5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 medium eggplant, chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 small zucchini or yellow squash, chopped
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1-2 tablespoons Greek seasoning

Béchamel sauce ingredients:
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
5 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste

Lasagna ingredients:
9 lasagna noodles (no-boil work well)
1 1/2 cups combination of any or all Parmesan, Romano, and Asiago cheeses, grated
3/4 cups Parmesan

Vegetable instructions:
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. Add onion, salt, red pepper, and carrots and sauté until softened (about three minutes). Add garlic and stir to avoid burning. Add sweet potato, eggplant, and the additional oil — eggplant is a very thirsty vegetable. Pour in soy sauce. Stir and cover, lowering heat for ten minutes to let vegetables soften. Add zucchini or squash, tomatoes, and Greek seasoning. Continue to cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally until all vegetables are softened. Set aside.

Béchamel sauce instructions:
Melt butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in flour for two minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat, whisking often, for about 15 minutes, until sauce thickens. Add nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Remove from heat.

Lasagna instructions:
Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a 13-by-9-inch lasagna pan. Spoon one cup of béchamel sauce over the bottom of the pan. Arrange three no-boil noodles on top. Spoon a third of the vegetable mixture over the noodles, and cover them with 1 1/2 cups of sauce. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup cheese. Repeat a layer of noodles, vegetables, and sauce. Top with three lasagna noodles, sprinkle with 3/4 cup parmesan and the rest of the béchamel sauce. Cover pan with foil. Bake 35 minutes.

Let lasagna sit for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Stuffed Vegetables in Pomegranate Glaze

Mix ’n’ match. See what looks “stuffable” at the farmers’ market.

5 small eggplants
5-8 small zucchini
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef or ground turkey
1/2 cup rice, uncooked
1/4 cup mint leaves, finely chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dried fruits (prunes, apricots, or figs)
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons honey
2 cups pomegranate or cranberry juice

Using an apple corer or a spoon, scoop out the interior of the eggplant from the base, leaving stems intact. Cut off the bottom ends of the zucchini and hollow them out with the apple corer. Chop interiors and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

To prepare the filling, mix onion, beef or turkey, rice, mint, seasonings, and eggplant and zucchini interiors in a bowl, integrating well.

Coat a large casserole dish with the olive oil. Spread dried fruit on top of olive oil. Using your fingers, stuff the eggplant and the zucchini with the meat mixture, being careful not to overstuff, as the mixture needs room to expand. Form little meatballs with any remaining mixture and tuck into the open spaces in the dish.

Combine pomegranate molasses, honey, and juice in a bowl and mix well. Pour over stuffed vegetables.

Bake, covered, for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove cover. If sauce is too thin, continue to bake uncovered to desired consistency.

Ruthie Cohen
Ruthie Cohen moved from New Jersey to Bloomington in November 2011. Every day she marvels at her good fortune to be living in this gem of a town. When she is not devising recipes in her kitchen and feeding her friends, Ruthie practices and teaches yoga at Ekah and Bloomington Yoga Collective.