Friday, September 14, 2012

Vegetable rehabilitation - the eggplant

Purple and lavender eggplant with purple peppers
 There is a vast range of opinion about the eggplant. Some people love it, others hate it. My friend Heidi isn't fond of it, although she has an open mind.

The varieties of the eggplant are as diverse as opinions. There are big melon-sized eggplant; there are little berry-size eggplant. They can be round, oval, long and narrow, and even long curving saber-like eggplant. They come in colors ranging from white to dark purple-black, and can be pink, lavender, green, yellow or even striped.

Eggplant - alongside another vegetable in need of rehab
There are a lot of vegetables that never graced the family table when I was growing up - squash and beets, for example - but Mom frequently served eggplant, using a recipe from "The Joy of Cooking" for stuffed eggplant Creole. This was an impressive dish, because the mixture of chopped eggplant, onions, celery, peppers and tomato was baked and served in the hollowed-out skins of a large eggplant.

In New York city, the little lunch counter on the loading dock at the theatrical lighting rental company where I worked loading trucks and coiling cable served hot eggplant parmigiana sandwiches, gooey with mozzarella. And when [The Man I Love] and I were courting, we ate a lot of Greek food - our compatibility was sealed by our mutual love of garlicky baba ganoush.

Striped eggplant with a rainbow of peppers and tomatoes
The humble eggplant originated in India, but its popularity has spread to the Middle East, Europe and the rest of Asia. That could be because eggplant, while not necessarily a memorable flavor on its own, has a great affinity for blending with other flavors - notably garlic and with its nightshade family cousins, tomatoes and peppers.

When paired with garlic, eggplant has a smoky sweetness. When paired with tomatoes eggplant takes on a savory meatiness.

Eggplant is a vegetable that plays well with others. The French stew eggplant with zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, onions and herbs to make ratatouille.

Sicilians make something similar, caponata, but add a sweet-sour touch, with vinegar and capers.

All over the Balkans and Middle East, eggplant is roasted, chopped, mashed and mixed with other flavorings to make a rich puree that serves as a dip, a spread, or a salad.

White eggplan
Mediterranean tastes for eggplant are reflected in some of the names given to eggplant dishes. Baba ghanoush, translated from Arabic, means something like "daddy's little girl" or "pampered dad." Either way, the eggplant is a certainly a favored child in that part of the world.

A Turkish eggplant dish made with tomatoes and onions is called Imam Bayaldi, or The Imam Swooned, with a backstory of a priest whose wife made a dish so delicious and unctuously oily her husband fainted at the taste (or the cost of the olive oil.)

In his 1973 classic cookbook , "The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth," gourmand Roy Andries de Groot offers an adaptation of Imam Bayaldi from Mademoiselle Ray Girard, chef at a tiny inn in the mountains of Savoy, France. It's one of my favorite eggplant recipes.

12 Small Italian eggplants - six inches or smaller.
3 - 6 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
Peeled Italian plum tomatoes, chopped or diced - 2 large cans or you can use fresh
Good quality olive oil
Kosher salt
Garlic - 2 - 3 gloves, crushed or minced
Thyme, parsley
Salt and Pepper
8 ounces slivered almonds
2  tbsp butter
8 ounces golden raisins
4 ounces pitted black olives, chopped

Pre heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wash the eggplant, cut the stem short and trim the green stem-cap, then peel lengthwise in four "stripes, leaving the skin on in between stripes. Cut a slit lengthwise through the fruit, deep enough to go into the center, but not all the way through. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt.

Put the eggplant in the oven, cut side down, directly on the oven rack, and let them sweat in the heat for 7 - 10 minutes to draw out the moisture. Eggplant can be bitter; this draws out any bitter juices.

While that's happening, toast the slivered almonds until golden brown - you can do this by spreading them in a single layer in a dry pan in the same oven, or you can saute them in butter in a skillet. Set aside.

Take the eggplant out, and when they are cool enough to touch, squeeze any additional moisture out over the sink. Turn the oven temperature down to 250.

In a mixing bowl, combine the chopped onions with the garlic, thyme, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, toasted almonds and raisins.

One eggplant, showing the stuffing
Using your hands, squeeze the eggplants to enlarge the open side. Put them in an oven proof baking dish large enough to hold the eggplants in a single layer, side by side, open sides up.

Spoon a couple of tablespoons of chopped tomatoes into each eggplant, then top with the onion-raisin-nut mixture. Top again with the rest of the tomatoes, and mound the remaining tomatoes and onions around the dish and over the eggplants.

Drizzle olive oil over the eggplants, and pour enough olive oil into the pan to reach half-way up the sides of the eggplant.

Bake the dish, uncovered, in the slow oven for 3 - 4 hours, basting with some of the olive oil from the pan  every 30 minutes or so. The eggplants will soften and collapse.

When they're done, take them out and cool to room temperature. Drain off the oil and reserve.

Serve the eggplant room temperature or even a little chilled, scraping up the cooked vegetables from the pan and mounding them on top, and drizzling with the cooking oil to taste. The sweet eggplant flesh will be soft enough to scoop out of the skins with a spoon. The crunch of the nuts, the sweet of the raisins, and the piquancy of the olives make a wonderful combination of tastes.

You can serve with a salad for a simple lunch or summertime meal. It's a good vegetarian choice, with lots of flavor. A crusty loaf of French bread helps you mop up all the remaining mash of vegetables and oil - delicious!

You can adjust the seasonings and amount of oil to your taste. Whatever you do, make sure your ingredients are fresh and high quality.

Will this rehabilitate the eggplant in your life? Why not give it a try?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Lol at "little green balls of death"!

As for the eggplant, I've bought 'em, but I tend to be too lazy to make them into something delicious.

smalltownme said...

These eggplants are so beautiful. I'll be brave and give them another try.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

The daycare I worked at in the mid-80's served Baba ghanoush, but I never convinced myself to like it. Eggplant parmigiana is, in my opinion, better than its meaty cousin. I do believe that if they are expertly prepared, anyone would happily eat them. I'm not convinced that I am that expert. You, however, probably are that expert! Certainly those brilliant colors are appealing.
I suspect you might even make me like "little green balls of death!" LOL :)

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I "pinned" it, to ensure that I WILL try it someday!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I am an unapologetic lover of eggplant. This dish looks amazing! I'm definitely going to give it a try.