I've been trying to get over a cold for a week now, hence the lack of posting, so now I finally bring you the post I've been promising about bread. Apologies for the delay, and hopefully more to come soon…
Lately, I've been getting more into eating bread. When I moved to Iowa, I rebelled against the sandwich for lunch tradition that I'd adhered to on and off for a good chunk of my life. Living in Ireland, the other main period of my life where I cooked most meals for myself, I occasionally purchased a demi-loaf of French bread from one of the many corner stores in Cork and made myself a sandwich with Dubliner cheese and a sliced tomato, but I never bought a full loaf of sandwich bread like my roommates. After working at Panera Bread for four months, I was a little bread-ed out, so with the exception of one loaf of Tomato Basil bread I bought at the Coralville, IA Panera in May for old time's sake and put in the freezer (I still have two slices left), I hadn't been eating much of the stuff.
Then in late June, I made my first trip to New Song Episcopal in Coralville, or as I've affectionately dubbed it, "gay church." It's not really a gay church, but about half the congregation is gay or lesbian, and I'm a lesbian, and I particularly like it there. After my first Sunday service, where I'd dutifully filled out the visitor card at the end of one row of folding chairs, a man showed up at my apartment with a gift bag including a fresh-baked loaf of bread. Now I was familiar with this tradition, having driven around with my granddaddy in Charlotte, North Carolina as a child from time to time delivering bread to visitors, but I thought it was a Presbyterian thing. This wasn't even particularly good bread, but it reminded me how wonderful a toasted sandwich can be, especially with the right ingredients. Cheese, sundried or fresh tomatoes, spinach, sprouts, and honey mustard are a favourite combination of mine. I also enjoy a veggie burger on toasted bread, piled high with fixings, or a sandwich on a bagel, which I had a few bags of, frozen, for breakfasts. From here, the next logical step was to try the day-old bread at New Pi, and it was there I fell in love.
Havarti on toasted French bread, it turns out, is the closest thing to heaven Iowa City has to offer. The day-old bread is cheap (ninety nine cents for a small loaf big enough for two small sandwiches) and tasty, similar to what I'd buy in Ireland. The outside is floury and holds up well, while the inside is soft and chewy. But after a while, I wanted to branch out from salads.
I had an eggplant in the fridge that I had been planning to "grill" in the oven as I normally do with some olive oil and herbs, when I came across a recipe on a French blog for panazella. I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember which one, but if anyone knows, please comment and I'll edit this entry! Anyway, I'd been curious about this "bread salad" for a while, and this version looked particularly scrumptious, so I gave it a go. The result was tasty, and lasted for about six small meals, plus some extra as I had more filling ingredients than I did eggplant (even though I bought a second one when I decided to try the recipe). I do think I like each element of the recipe (pan-fried eggplant; cucumber, tomato, and mint salad; oil and balsamic vinegar tossed bread cubes) better on its own, but it was still a fun thing to try for a change.
Of course, by the time I finished I still had some bread left, and a lot of fresh mint. The problem with buying herbs at the store is that I almost always have leftovers, and until I get a window herb garden going, I have to try to find ways to use them up. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a recipe for melon bruschetta on a foodblog. Once again, I'm embarrassed that I can't remember which one, so please let me know if you saw it, too! Anyway, as you can see it's quite an attractive dish. I used organic melons, again from New Pi, which were sweet, juicy, and delicious. The quarter watermelon and half cantaloupe were especially nice for me, because I had enough for bruschetta once, and fresh fruit for breakfast twice, without having way too much melon lying around. My bread was a tad bit too crispy (stale), but then I think it almost needed it to keep from absorbing too much melon juice and becoming soggy. The pairing of oiled bread and fruit isn't a perfect one, but the two flavours still made a decent combination.
The first step in this recipe is the most time consuming, especially if you don't have a very large sauté pan. You want to slice your eggplant very thin lengthwise (though in retrospect a bit thicker might have held together better) and then fry the slices over medium heat on each side with a bit of olive oil. It'll take a few minutes a side, but watch carefully, as the eggplant will quickly show grill marks to let you know it's time to flip. Drain on paper towels (and don't skimp on this, or it'll be quite oily).
Next, prepare your filling. The recipe calls for six small or four large slices of pain de campagne (country bread). I used about two and a half of my little loaves, but you can estimate an appropriate amount of French or Italian bread. It's best to use bread that is a bit stale, maybe one to two days old. Cut whatever you're using into cubes and toss with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and capers. Keep in mind that if you prepare the mixture and then let the bread sit in it too long, the bottom layer will soak it all up—so toss quickly! This bread mixture makes a great soft crouton for salads, or just something simple and tasty to munch on—which I did, plenty.
Next, chop up a couple of cucumbers and three tomatoes. Finely mince six sundried tomatoes (squeeze out the oil first if they're the jar kind) and a handful of fresh mint (the recipe calls for basil instead, tossed with the bread mixture, but New Pi was out so I improvised. Toss these ingredients together.
To assemble, line a cake pan with seran wrap, then arrange your eggplant in a "flower" shape, overlapping, in the pan. The middle will be very thick, and you can carefully press it down with your hands before spooning the fillings in, alternating between bread and veggies. Not a whole lot will fit, but keep trying to pack it down. When you've got as much as your eggplant can reasonably hold, fold the slices over and press down again (I put a couple slices on top as well). Then fold over the seran wrap, press tightly, put something heavy on top (I used another cake pan and a plate on top of that) and refrigerate at least a few hours. I refrigerated overnight and it was very easy to unwrap and move to the plate for presentation, as well as easy to slice. What it isn't is pretty, but hey, functional food never hurt anyone.
This is hardly a recipe, but I'll include it anyway. Basically I just sliced up one of my little loaves, rubbed one side of the slices with olive oil, stuck them in my toaster oven on a toast cycle, and then topped with chopped fresh mint and fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, cut into small pieces and de-seeded. And there you have it! Lovely, eh?