Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eggplant, Semi-Improvised

Good lord, it's not like there's nothing going on around here, but this book project is just taking up all my time and at the end of three hours of putting this proposal together, with all the minute detail-work that entails, and watching it grow to 40,000 words (2/3 of the size of a normal book) and knowing it's just an outline, for heaven's sakes, I really don't feel witty enough to sit down and write an entertaining blog-post about life in Montpellier. Not that I've experienced much of it, since I spend the days sitting here at the desk alternately staring at columns of data and the screen and the courtyard outside, where new tenants appear to be doing heavy renovation. Fortunately, 15 years in Berlin inured me to the sound of construction, but banging and shouting doesn't really make writing any easier.

Fortunately, though, the markets are filling up with great stuff -- I just had some yellow peaches that were so good I can't remember the last time I had any that were so tasty -- and among the things that are coming in are our old friends the solenaceae, that family of New World plants that have made themselves a nice home in southern Europe, and includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. That last one is something people look at and often wonder what to do with, and I'm no exception. I've already covered ratatouille, that local favorite, when I got a bunch of beautiful ivory-colored eggplants and made White Rat. But there's another recipe I've been playing around with, and it came from a guy who uses the handle almanac on the Well, the amazing online community that may or may not just have gotten killed yesterday by its owner, Salon. (I'll have more on that, probably, on my other blog on Wednesday).

Anyway, this guy posted a recipe a year or so ago and I've been messing with it ever since, and, as you'll see, have aspects as yet un-messed-with. But last week I was at the market, saw some actual real live non-greenhouse-looking eggplants, the season's first, and said aha! Time to make Penne al'Almanache! Yes, it's sort of a distant relative of pasta alla Norma, but it's got a couple of things that make it different. Anyway, here'w what you need to make it:

Actually, not all of this counts, but you've got, sort of going clockwise, the eggplants, not the parsley, but the plant next to it which is the Provençal small-leaf basil (although you can use the more common kind -- I just had this lying around), Balsamic vinegar, canned tomatoes, garlic, onion, oregano, and salt.

Now, I'm of two minds about salting and sweating eggplant. A lot of varieties don't need it, and it's hard to tell unless you know just what variety you have on hand whether you need to do this or not. What it does is pull out some bitterness from the eggplant, although I have yet to get any eggplant I considered too bitter. I decided to do it here so I could illustrate it for you. You cut the eggplant into cubes, throw it in a colander, sprinkle it with salt, and toss it, then add a little more salt. Then you let it sit for an hour.

An hour later:

Big deal, huh? Now, I've done this and come away with nice puddles down there, so I figure that was a variety that really needed to be salted. This one, well, that's an hour that didn't need to happen. So I now washed the eggplant to dissolve all the salt on it and then put it in a dishcloth and wrung out the water.

Again, I've had eggplants just drip brown water, but in this case, nothing much. Anyway, I've had the oven on to 400º F/200ºC and so now I take the squeezed cubes, put them in a metal bowl with some olive oil, toss them well, and stick them on a baking sheet. Forty minutes later, the eggplant's ready to rock.

Back it goes into the bowl.

Okay, now it's time to make the sauce. Heat some olive oil, and toss in some very thinly-sliced onions. Stir them around until they get soft and somewhat yellow, then add four cloves of well-minced garlic, and stir-fry that until it's fragrant. Then (aha! A trick!) add some oregano, rubbing it in with your hand, and stir it quickly in the oil. This will make the oregano flavor deeper, as it extracts some of the flavorful oil from the dried herb.

Then hit the mixture with a healthy splash of Balsamic...

...and add your canned tomatoes (plus about 1/4 can or a bit more of water, if your canned tomatoes are as dense as mine are) and basil...

...stir it all together well, lower the heat and cook for an hour. Taste it for salt at the end: enough salt usually escapes the rinsing that you don't need to add any, but this time a tiny bit more actually was necessary.

Not a quick sauce at all, especially if you count the salting and baking of the eggplant. But worth it? Damn right.

This time I just did the regular throw some Parmesan on it and eat it thing. But there's another way I have yet to explore, which is to get some mozzarella and mix that in the hot pasta and sauce mixture and let it melt. The shredded mozzarella you can get in the States to make pizza out of is, oddly enough, better for this than the fresh mozz we get here, although if you can remember to get that up to room temperature and cut it in small pieces, that'll work, too. (It also helps to drain it on paper towels to get the water content down so you don't sog the sauce out too much).

So there we go. You can envy me access to these great eggplants (and the two kilos of what Americans call "heirloom" tomatoes and we just call tomates that I just brought home from a tomato fair near my house run by the amazing Eric le Tomatologue) and I'll envy you a place to live that's big enough that you don't have to eat a foot and a half away from the cooling oven you roasted the eggplants in. But, once again, this didn't cost much, and it's yet another wonderful addition to the Broke-Not-Poor repertoire.

Now I'm beginning to mess around with sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and lemons, so stay tuned. And yes, I really will give you an update as to what's going on around here before too very long, I hope!


  1. great post, Ed. Here's my recipe for BBQ Eggplant: start a hot fire using wood and or charcoal, with some mesquite chips soaked in water for at least an hour waiting nearby. Cut the eggplant into round medallions, each roughly 3/4 of an inch thick. Marinate for an hour in at least 2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil (have much more on hand if need be), Juice of one Lemon, 1 Tablespoon of Kosher or Sea Salt, 1 T of Freshly Ground Black Pepper, 6-8 cloves of Minced Garlic, 1/2 Teaspon of Chili Flakes, 4 Tablespoons of Dried Oregano, and a few Capers and/or a minced Anchovy. Add the soaked Mesquite chips to the fire right before grilling the eggplant. After Eggplant has marinated, Grill, feeling free to add the marinade to grilling aubergines. Cover the grill during the cooking in order to concentrate the smoke flavors. Cooking time is minimal, depending on the heat of the grill, usually a few minutes on each side of the eggplant medallions. This is a great summer dish, one I consider Texas/Mediterranean fusion.
    BTW, I usually advocate using a lot of Olive Oil, but you don't have to overdo it with this recipe. Really, you just want enough to soak up the ingredients and make for enough marinade liquid, and maybe have a bit extra to brush on while the eggplant is grilling. One other note: when using smoking techniques, move the coals over to one side your grill and put the mesquite chips on top of them there--then this way you can put the eggplant on top of the grill side not directly over the coals--proper smoking technique for all manner of meats and veggies.

  2. Dear Ed,

    Will wonders never cease?...

    For once (and I intend to savor this moment, since it's the first time and my good guess is that it'll be the last time),I've caught an error in your writing.

    Eggplants aren't from "The New World". They're originally from India.

    That said?...

    You're right about this "Eggplants are BITTER!" bidness. We didn't soak them when I was growing up. I can't tell you how many times folks have told me they don't use eggplant because they don't have the patience for "soaking", or have expressed amazement (if they happen to be around while I'm cooking) that I haven't taken the necessary precaution of soaking them. I always wonder if the next thing they'll be telling me is that tomatoes have to be boiled for at least three hours to render them non-poisonous.

    In any case, I've been growing and eating eggplant all my life----and I agree with Patricia Wells (who, as you'll know is no novice when it comes to cooking); she basically says that, if you have bitter eggplant, you're picking/selecting eggplants that are to old or ill-grown (i.e., not given enough water, or subjected to flood/drought conditions).

    So, we don't salt our eggplant.

    More interestingly (and amusingly), I just this morning finished reading a surprisingly wonderful new book on Jefferson's garden at Monticello, titled "A Rich Spot of Earth". It's written by the dautingly well-informed Peter Hatch, who's run the gardens since 1980 or so. There's an entire section on the history of eggplant cultivation.

    I was amused to read that Jefferson's grandaughter, Mary Randolph, wrote in her household cookbook: "They are delicious, tasting much like soft crabs."


    Equally of wry interest?...the eggplant-of-dubious-reputation was, for a long while, thought to be native to the area around the Dead Sea, reputedly the (as we all assume from time to time)home of Sodom and Gomorrah. Milton's "apple of Sodom", which was consumed by the fallen angels in "Paradise Lost", was the eggplant. It was, by the virtuous and Godly, to be "with spattering noise rejected".

    I guess that goes to show which team you and I are playing on.

    Thanks, of course, for the lively and informative posting. Having just moved to a 220 year old house with an entire acre for a back yard, I ironically find myself with a vegetable garden for the first time in my entire life. So, I'll have to depend on the farmers' market this season. On the bright side?...I won't feel compelled (asI do each August) to spend a week canning and pickling during a heatwave.

    Level Best as Ever,

    david Terry

  3. David, this is what I get for not having easy access to my Oxford Companion to Food. I had thought that eggplants were in with peppers and tomatoes as being part of the Columbian Exchange, although given the importance of them in not only Indian, but Southeast Asian cuisine, I might have been suspicious about that. You're right, I'm wrong, and I can't wait until I have an office with all my reference books within arm's reach. And if you don't have an Oxford Companion, git you one. It's the only reference book you can read cover to cover.

  4. Well, Ed.....we're both getting fumble-fingered and mistake-ridden today.

    I meant to write "find myself withOUT a vegetable garden". I don't suppose anything after what-I-wrote makes much sense, as initially written/typed.

    As for the Oxford Companion to Food?.....
    I know the book (although I don't own it). My elderly, longtime, very-cherished friend in Charlottesville owns a copy. She lives in her five-story, 1850, crumbling brick house in the Hysterical District, with a bunch of superannuated parrots and a pack of snapping, equally old sealyham terriers.....and it's surprisingly difficult to locate the refrigerator (or anything else) in what passes for a kitchen there (it used to be the second story landing from the servant's quarters before the 1970's "renovation").

    When I'm visiting (which is often), I get up very early, as I always do anywhere, find some way of making some sort of coffee....and I read "The Oxford Companion to Food". It's the only thing that's always available. I'm about halfway through it these days. My friend seems to read it the way some old ladies read the bible.

    I should emphasize that. at age 75, she's had two brain tumors, two heart attacks, a necrotic gall bladder (last Spring), diabetes, and (on top of everything else) danged GOUT.

    She's the first to admit that she should have already been dead several times over. Still?....she isn't, and doesn't look likely to be so anytime soon.

    Of course, she's basically FORBIDDEN, between her various proscribed (is that the word I'm looking for? you, all of my books are currently in a hundred boxes scattered across three locations/houses) diets for her various conditions, to eat anything. Just try having gout and diabetes simultaneously....this is (as an Indian once referred to a similar situation) "being in a box, but a box with a VENGEANCE!".

    Anyway, she eats sorta-what-she-pleases and reads the Oxford Companion to Food every morning.

    I find that incredibly encouraging, don't you?


    David Terry

    P.S. you're wrong....AGAIN. The Oxford Companion to Food is not the only reference book you can read, cover-to-cover, multiple times. Just an hour or so ago, I was unpacking one of the book-boxes that have come here, and I came across one of my favorite books....since I first came across it at my family's house when I was about seven. It's a 1758 edition of "A Theological Dictionary"....written by a stridently/hysterically Anti-Papist, Scottish divine....and illustrated with large, EXTRAordinarily lurid illustrations of the Roman Church's various abominations, vile practices, and generally unspeakable awfullness. The illustrations (particularly those for "Nuns", "Priests", "The Inquisition", "The Burning of Our Martyrs", etc) are just eyepoppingly graphic (if not exactly state o' the art 3-D).

    I bet I read this thing at least twenty times before I went off to college. Like the Oxford Companion to Food, it has the advantage/attraction of being dauntingly firm-minded and absolute in its statements and shilly-shallying whatsoever


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