Here’s the thing. Some of you have been hammering me for quite some time to blog some new Cook For Your Date material. Just not enough of you to get me to get off my butt and do anything about it. After all, everything you really need is in the book already.
Then, about two weeks ago, someone sent me a particularly compelling question. “What about my girlfriend? She’s a vegetarian. What can I do that’s creative for her? After all, the way I see it I didn’t claw my way up the food chain to eat asparagus…so I’m kind of at a loss.”
OK, well…he didn’t word it quite like that. But you get the idea. In any case, it got the file cards turning.
Then, as fortune would have it two things happened. First, I went on a diet. Second, that Bacon Explosion monster appeared on the Internets shortly before the Super Bowl.
My comeback was, logically enough, that I needed to BBQ me up a whole mess of Broccoli Explosion instead.
It was a joke. I didn’t mean any harm.
But the die had been cast. The damage done. The fate, in effect, sealed.
Before I know it, a tweetstorm ™ of ideas was flowing. As it turned out, it was altogether possible to replicate the concept of the Bacon Explosion with veggies. And in fact, it was starting to sound sort of tasty. And instead of having on the order of 5000 calories, this would have like, oh…nine. The ideas were so good, that I knew it had to be done: A real, live (if not “in the flesh”, per se) example needed to be made.
This sat on the back burner for about a week, during which time it occurred to me that the Broccoli Explosion was the quintessentially perfect answer for my reader with the rabbit-food-eating girlfriend.
So the “prototype” or “beta test” version of the Broccoli Explosion was actually created yesterday, right over there in my own kitchen.
And I have to warn you. Although the vegetarian in you will likely love this monstrosity, the rest of you will probably wonder what’s really for dinner. So vegetarian girlfriends aside, the Broccoli Explosion may ultimately be best served (or maybe “deployed” is a better word, based on the looks of this thing) as a side dish for oh, say…a Bacon Explosion.
OK, so for starters, here’s the list of ingredients:
Two large eggplants (focus on length vs. girth)
About 8-10 zucchinis (same as above, plus nice and straight. And you’ve got a dirty mind.)
3 1 lb. bags of frozen spinach
8 oz. fresh broccoli
8 oz. sliced fresh mushrooms
1 large sweet onion, sliced (e.g. 1015 or Vidalia variety)
1 large green pepper, sliced
1 can sliced black olives (optional)
1 5 oz. bag of slivered almonds
1 tbsp. minced garlic
Pam olive oil cooking spray as appropriate
Greek or Italian spice blend to taste
Black pepper to taste
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Once you’ve collected the ingredients, start by laying down a few sheets of foil on a cutting board. Coat the foil in Pam olive oil spray. If you really want to use olive oil from a bottle, that’s fine, but it’ll likely be messier and much higher in calories. Remember, this is diet food here.
Next, cut the ends off of the zukes and the eggplants. If you want to peel them, that’s fine…but I chose not to. At first, I was cutting the zukes into strips with a sharp knife and halving the eggplants before doing the same. But about midway through the process, it occurred to me to use a cheese slicer (you know, the one with the wire thingy) instead. As it turned out, this worked like a charm…effectively slicing out strips of equal thickness, which is crucial here.
Once the eggplants and zucchinis are sliced, begin to lay them out on the foil in a woven mat pattern, just like the bacon strips are on the Bacon Explosion.
I coated the “veggie weave” with Pam spray, and sprinkled some Greek seasoning blend on it. You could use Italian (e.g. oregano, basil, etc.) instead with great results, I’m sure.
Next, I slathered the “veggie mat” with boiled spinach, in lieu of Italian sausage. You could use fresh spinach, but it was nearly four bucks a pound at my local grocery store. And fresh spinach has this way of yielding a shockingly small amount of finished (spinached?) product when boiled up, so forgettaboutit…I went with the frozen variety in a bag for about a buck each and ended up needing only about three bags to do the trick.
Run the cooked spinach under cool water in a colander for a while so you don’t burn your digits. No worries here, since the grill will take care of the issue later. Then, pack down the spinach in the colander so that as much liquid as possible is pressed out.
Start placing the spinach by filling the visual gaps of daylight in the “veggie mat”, just to be sure, and complete the process of “full coverage” from there. Be sure to make it an even layer, and not very thick. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste. It should look like this when done:
Next, I sprayed some Pam into a small pan and toasted the slivered almonds in there until lightly brown. Yeah, I realize almonds aren’t exactly “veggies”. So sue me. If you have deep pockets, feel free to substitute pine nuts for the almonds. If you’ve never toasted nuts in a pan before, pay close attention while doing so. It all happens really fast. Use medium to medium/high heat and at the first sign of brown almonds, start thinking about spooning them out into a small bowl ASAP.
Evenly distribute the almonds over top of the spinach like this:
Next comes the best part, and also the part where you can be as creative as you so choose.
I took a large pan, sprayed it with Pam, and proceeded to fry up the onions, peppers and mushrooms exactly in the manner necessary to make good stuff to put on top of a Philly Cheesesteak. (Okay my sincerest apologies…I won’t mention such an egregious–but delicious–treat such as that again.)
Sliced black olives and some minced garlic were added to my particular mix, but feel free to omit those. You can also add some shredded carrots or other creative items, but I have to say the particular blend I threw together turned out pretty well.
Once the ‘shrooms are brown and the onions done to translucent perfection, drain the mix in a strainer (this is important), and layer the mix over top of the spinach, being careful to keep it a couple inches away from each side. This will be really, really important when rolling it up in a minute or so.
Finally, I chopped up the fresh broccoli, tossing the stems and using only the florets. You could probably add in some fresh cauliflower here also, if desired. At this point, the massive thing is ready to be rolled up, and should look a little something like this…hit it:
Okay, now I have to level with you here. What I’m about to ask you to do is not easy to pull off. The straight-up truth is that these veggies are not going to be nearly as forgiving to roll up as bacon and sausage is.
In fact, you’ve got to prepare yourself ahead of time to not get this right and perhaps have to start all over again. I got lucky, but I can fully see how it could have gone either way.
Here’s the exact process.
First gather up the sides of the foil to head off any potential “side spillage”. If you’ve gotten as much liquid out of the veggies as possible up front, this whole gig will be much less messy than it could be otherwise.
Next, get underneath the front side of the foil with both hand and fold the entire monster away from you in as tight a roll as you can get away with without squishing everything into Bolivian (as Mike Tyson would say).
Check the sides of the foil to make sure they remain tight, and then pull the foil that is now folded over the first roll away. Make sure the back of the Broccoli Explosion isn’t spilling over, and then use your hands to complete a second rollover. Don’t worry if some veggie juice or even some of the veggies squirt out the side or back. This is going to be pretty much inevitable. You may even lose the end veggies on the weave. No worries…I promise it’ll still look good when done.
Now is where it gets even trickier. You’ve got to turn the whole thing over so that the pretty part will be visible, and so that the sheer weight of the Broccoli Explosion will hold everything together when cooking.
To do this successfully, fold the foil over top of the rolled Broccoli Explosion, and crumple the sides in yet one more time. Then, take another long sheet of foil and cover the top again. Crumple the ends of the additional foil layer to secure the sides shut even more. Then, for good measure add another layer of foil in the exact same manner.
Now here’s the part where you’ve got to be sort of coordinated. Take a second cutting board of approximately equal dimension to the first and press it on top of the Broccoli Explosion, securely but without squashing it (no pun intended). At this point, what you’re looking at is basically a “Broccoli Explosion sandwich”, with two cutting boards as “bread”.
Then, grab underneath the base cutting board with your fingertips and get a “vice grip” on the top one with your thumbs. In one deft and deliberate motion, flip the Broccoli Explosion over. What was previously the top cutting board will now be the one the veggie-monster is resting on. You can set the other cutting board aside.
Feel free to do a Homer Simpson happy dance at this point. Or you can punch a hole in the wall because all you have to show for about an hour’s worth of work and $14 worth of food is a massive green mess on the floor to clean up. Either way. It’s up to you.
But assuming a positive outcome, the “torpedo” should now look like this:
Take the whole cutting board out to the back patio, or wherever your pre-heated grill is, remove the Broccoli Explosion and place the thing on board the grill using the best flat-sided grill utensils you have. If you’ve wrapped the Broccoli Explosion up effectively, it should hold together like a champ.
If you have a gas grill that features a veggie shelf, use it. If you are on the flat grill, make sure the fire is only medium hot (as opposed to flames licking the sides of the foil). Either way, cover the grill if at all possible in order to promote even cooking.
Then check on the Broccoli Explosion after about 20 minutes, by sticking a meat thermometer into the center. You’re shooting for about 150 degrees at the core. This will take longer to happen if you’re using the upper shelf on a gas grill, but the the veggies will cook more evenly for sure. You can even peel aside the foil on top around then and see how the zukes and eggplant are doing. When they look done, you can pretty much bet the whole thing is.
If there’s three feet of snow outside this time of year where you are, you probably could even bake the Broccoli Explosion in an oven for about an hour at 350 degrees with no ill effects.
Here’s how mine looked on the grill:
Once it’s cooked to satisfaction, remove the finished product from the grill with those same flat-sided grill utensils and place on a serving plate immediately. For best results, keep the serving plate close.
The veggies will settle a bit as they cook, leaving the top of the foil sort of reminiscent of what happens with “Jiffy Pop” popcorn. Let the thing cool for a good ten minutes, then pull the foil back. You may be able to completely remove the top layer of foil without any problem, or you may have to slice the foil down the center. If the latter, do so with caution to avoid slicing the nice weave of zukes and eggplant at the top. Here’s what it should look like when “unwrapped”:
Finally, I sprinkled a bit of Parmesan cheese on the top. I realize this involves “empty calories”, so feel free to forego it. But it makes a nice touch, as you can see:
And that’s pretty much it. Once it cools, you can slice it up into “pinwheels” just like a Bacon Explosion, and serve it in the manner shown in the photo at the top of this page.
No doubt, the Broccoli Explosion takes a good two and a half hours to pull together from beginning to end. But if you indeed have a vegetarian girlfriend, she’ll appreciate your handiwork for sure. And if you are on a crash diet like I am, you’ll be even more impressed.
It tastes great, although I’ll offer the caveat that this thing is practically begging on its hind legs to become lasagna when it grows up. Make no mistake, a layer of lasagna noodles under the “veggie weave” or between it and the spinach would flat-out rock–while effectively doubling the calories too, though.
And it’s not like a layer of provolone cheese in there somewhere would suck either. But again…the calories.
All of that notwithstanding, if you do the Lasagna version, please link a pic in the comments below. Heck, if you make this thing at all, please post a link. And your questions and comments are otherwise welcome, as always. Enjoy.
P.S. This recipe was born on Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, please re-tweet using this link or by using the “Tweet This” link at the bottom of the post.