Sharing Recipes and the Love of Cooking with Much Laughter
By Pem McNerney, Living Editor
Published October 13, 2016. Last updated 01:24 p.m., October 11, 2016
Michel Vejar, a Madison-based recipe specialist and food blogger, grew up in an Italian family and has been eating and preparing eggplant her whole life.
So when we recently put out a call for recipes including that abundant seasonal staple, she responded with several, including eggplant “meat”balls (with no meat) from her friend Adele Campanelli of Madison; eggplant pickles from her friend Nancy Leonardi in Branford; paleo eggplant lasagna from her friend Christine Nizolek in Guilford; and eggplant rollatini with vodka sauce, one of Vejar’s own recipes.
“I have been featuring many eggplant dishes so people can use up their garden supplies,” she says.
These recipes and more can be found on her blog, The Traveling Epicurean, thetravelingepicurean.com, which she started about two and a half years ago, and on a YouTube cooking show, www.youtube.com/thetravelingepicureanmichelvejar, started about a year and a half ago. Since then she’s produced more than 80 shows, doing all the work herself, including show scheduling, recipe creation, camera work, lighting, make-up, and editing.
“Not only do I love to show people how to cook, but I love to share other cooks’ passionate family recipes that have been in their family for centuries,” she says.
She says she gets great ideas from talking with other home cooks, including Leonardi, who makes the pickled eggplant in a huge stoneware pickling crock. Leonardi also uses two clean white cotton pillow cases and a washing machine—twice—to drain the eggplant, an idea that Vejar says is sheer genius.
“I have another Italian woman, who will be making stuffed hot peppers next week, who did the same thing when she and her husband used to make pickled eggplant,” Vejar says.
Growing Up Italian
Vejar grew up in West Hartford, attended Southern Connecticut State University, and then for a semester studied at the Università degli Studi di Urbino in a pretty little Renaissance hill town in the north-eastern part of central Italy. A few years after graduation, she moved to San Francisco where she took delight in the wide variety of ethnic food offerings. She and her family, including her two children Reilly and Bella, moved to Madison in 2007. While she loves all kinds of food, her Italian heritage continues to inform much of what she does.
“Growing up in an Italian family is really a wonderful thing. Food and holidays are what brings family and friends together and the Italians really have a grasp on that. I remember helping my mother with holiday food preparations from the time I was around six or seven years old,” she says. “I especially loved helping with her homemade manicotti. I would fill the homemade pasta with ricotta and mozzarella and then roll them up. I did a YouTube cooking show on my mother’s homemade manicotti because they are the most delicious manicotti I have ever had. I wanted everyone to be able to experience this and know how to make them as well.”
She said creating the The Traveling Epicurean is a career move.
“I am a stay-at-home mom who fixes everything in the house that needs fixin’ and gets the pool open in May for the kids. With a graphic design major, I am a sign-maker by trade who loves fine art painting and still has a couple of lettering jobs on the side,” she says.
She has also taught cooking classes, has been featured both in print and on television for her cooking, and has twice made it to the open casting call in New York City for the MasterChef television series on Fox TV.
“I didn’t make it to the final show but it was an amazing experience each time and I learned a lot,” she says.
Self-Taught, Sharing the Love
“I am a self-taught chef who has been cooking her whole life. I have many friends and chefs who I cook with where we constantly share recipes and our love of cooking with much laughter. That’s why creating The Traveling Epicurean Show on YouTube made so much sense for me because I actually get to show people the how-to’s of it all,” she says.
“One of my favorite things about The Traveling Epicurean Show is sharing other cooks’ and chefs’ family recipes that have been with them for generations. I can feel and see the passion in their eyes as I’m shooting footage in their kitchens. It’s an incredible feeling to see this passion, the happiness they feel when sharing their wonderful family recipes.”
She also loves creating the final product, using iMovie, something she learned through YouTube tutorials.
“The creativity I now have with iMovie when I edit is fantastic. I can’t believe I edited the first 50 shows without it. Creating my shows from beginning to end is euphoric for me,” she says. “With all of the positive feedback The Traveling Epicurean has been receiving I’m hoping I am on the right path and will forge ahead on trying to make all of this effort a success. Channel 8-CT Style recently had me do their cooking segment this past June which I thoroughly enjoyed. Working to figure out the best way to promote The Traveling Epicurean is another challenge, but I am taking one step at a time and won’t stop until I get it right.”
To check out Vejar’s other eggplant recipes, visit thetravelingepicurean.com and search for “eggplant.” To check out our earlier eggplant recipes, visit www.zip06.com/living/20160929/cracking-the-code-for-eggplant-parm and www.zip06.com/living/20161006/eggplant-parm-ditching-the-mozz. If you have any recipes that you’d like to share with our readers, write to me at email@example.com or Pem McNerney, Shore Publishing, 724 Boston Post Road, Madison, CT 06443.
Eggplant Balls at Adele’s
Adele and Michel recommend serving this with Adele’s sangria, which includes a bottle of your favorite Pinot Noir combined with three or four peaches, sliced, and as much red wine as you like. It’s best if you can leave it overnight in the fridge.
12 cups cubed up eggplant (about 6 small eggplants)
4 cups bread (1 full loaf of 1 to 2 day-old Italian bread,
wheat bread if you can get it, coarsely ground up in the food processor (Adele says you can even use a “Thanksgiving” bag of bread crumbs!)
1 ½ cup grated Reggiano Parmesan
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
• Simmer tomato-basil sauce ready to add in eggplant balls (visit The Traveling Epicurean for a recipe your use your favorite)
• Cut the ends off 6 small eggplants and peel them with a potato peeler
• Cut the eggplants into ½ inch strips lengthwise and then crosswise ½ inch—cutting into cube-sized pieces—it will measure approx 12 cups
• Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 1 tbsp salt—filling the water only ½-way up the pot
• Add in the 12 cups of cubed-up eggplant to the boiling water all awhile pushing pieces down, they will try to float up, and cover
• Turn heat down to a simmer and cook 5 minutes
• Remove cover and stir eggplant pieces with a spoon to help evenly distribute the cooking
• Cover and cook another 5 minutes, total 10 minutes
• Drain into a colander, then make a well in the center of the eggplant pieces
• Cover eggplant well with a small plate and a large full can on top of that—to weight down eggplant helping drainage
• DO NOT RINSE with cold water
• Leaving draining for 1 ½ to 2 hours
• During this time, at 30 minute intervals, stir the eggplant pieces then replace the plate and the can and continue to drain and cool—approximately 4 times
• When the eggplant is drained, add it to a large mixing bowl
• Add in the rest of the ingredients in the list
• Mix by hand until combined and then shape into 2 inch balls
• Cover cookie tray with foil and spray with Pam
• Place the eggplant balls on the tray
• Drizzle olive oil over the tops of all the eggplant balls and broil for 13 minutes
• Take eggplant balls out and carefully turn over without ripping the bottom of the ball
• Place back under broiler for another 13 minutes until golden
• Turn oven off and leave tray in the oven for another 5 minutes
• Take out and add to tomato-basil sauce and simmer 20-30 minutes
• Or freeze any eggplant balls you don’t need without the sauce for another time in ZipLoc baggies
• Serve eggplant balls in the tomato-basil sauce with your favorite pasta! Mangia…Mangia!