The Corfu eggplant salad,* which I made to celebrate too-hot-to-cook salad week, was a gigantic success. It is nearly easy enough to qualify as Cuisine Dolce Far Niente — the dernier cri of which, as we have discussed, is fresh cherries in a crystal bowl full of ice cubes.
What’s so especially interesting is the addition of sweet almonds and meaty eggs, to develop the vegetarian umami aspect of eggplant, which I consider its more Greek Ottoman iteration.
Tomatoes do make their way into middle eastern eggplant dishes, but it’s more likely to be cooked with lamb and cinnamon, a la moussaka, which is super delicious.
So I started thinking about the permutations of eggplant, a non-gendered, chameleon kind of vegetarian-friendly stalwart. Claudia Roden, doyenne of middle eastern cookery writers, has 5 separate recipes for eggplant, of which the smokey charred ethos of baba ghanouj is one eggplant trope worth keeping in mind, along with the cinnamon/nutmeg-in-the-moussaka trope. She also emphasizes serving it with cream cheese or yoghurt, another iteration of its vegetarian umami aspect.
(The Guardian has these epic recipe geek columns reviewing 10 cooks’ different approaches to one dish, and concluding with the Platonic ideal of a recipe, awesome.)
The Italians do eggplant in Tomato Land as no one else does.
I realized I have never cooked or eaten eggplant Parm, which always looks so day-old-heart-attack-in-shitty-sauce in restaurants. Enough with your nasty tomato paste and softball gobs of mozzarella.
I turn to Marcella Hazan for the Ur recipe on eggplant in Tomato Land, and discover a few things. First, slim 3/8 inch slices of eggplant are PEELED, you fucking Visigoths, salted, drained, dried, and fried, according to exhaustive instructions. Laid in a dish. Covered with drained, canned, diced tomatoes and nothing the fuck else. Sprinkled lightly with grated mozzarella, Parm and oregano. Layer, finishing with eggplant lightly Parmed and dotted with butter. This actually sounds edible, and possibly related to Roden’s Ottoman dishes of eggplant with creamy white cheese or yoghurt.
The other thing the Italians do with eggplant is agrodolce — caponata. I think I read somewhere agrodolce is a conceit of Sephardic Jews? Whatever, the Cook’s magazine recipe for caponata is worth subscribing to the website in and of its own self. It has raisins in it, and the fruited aspect of eggplant — could we call this the North African or tagine trope? — comes to the fore.
The other superb thing about the Cooks’ magazine recipe is they solve the drainage problem eggplant has by nuking the finely cut cubes until they’re almost dessicated, before frying. Once upon a time I solved the mystery of the Shroud of Turin by laying salted eggplant slices to drain on cloth kitchen towels, resulting in photographically accurate prints of each slice in half an hour. |
The other place I found eggplant paired with cooked fruit is in this online recipe for Armenian Lentil Soup. I know nothing about Armenians and what they eat, but the recipe, with eggplant, dried apricots, vinegar and brown sugar is definitely in the agrodolce tradition. Also spice and tomatoes, which suggests many many armies marching through. I love the tagine thing of cooked fruit in a savory dish, and this soup is a favorite with me.
Alice Waters has an interesting non-tomato Italian take, of charcoal grilled slices with Italian parsley/caper/anchovy sauce which they call Salsa Verde, and I call Portofino Greeno™. As Portofino Greeno™ makes old inner tubes worth eating, I didn’t like Waters’ sort of American take as well as I might have. In other words, why kill myself to screw around endlessly with eggplant slices and a grill (see smoky baba ghanouj trope, above) when I could eat the sauce alone out of a bowl? (Check out Hazan’s whole barbecue of grilled vegetables, delicious and worth firing up for.)
Finally, for the base line of clean and yet sublimely well-cooked American recipes, Edna Lewis is the queen. I wish somebody would run her recipes through the forensic foodway detective software to discover their origins: I suspect French-educated slave cooks at Monticello are the font of the elegant food Lewis’ mother cooked in Orange County, VA.
For the Lewises, eggplant was a winter dish. It kept over winter, Lewis writes, whether on the vine or in the root cellar she doesn’t specify.
I was looking at recipes for roasted cauliflower the other day, there’s a million of them now due to sheet pan meal popularity and that Cauliflower, The Other White Meat, aspect it shares with eggplant. And I thought, who wants to eat it with any of that shit on it, when just caramelized is pretty near heaven? So with Miss Edna’s just plain fried eggplant. Here is her winter menu.
A Duck Dinner in Winter
Braised Muscovy Duck in Natural Sauce
Buttered Green Beans
Fried Eggplant or Puree of Chestnuts
Applesauce with Nutmeg
Slices of Yeast Bread
Lemon Meringue Pie
Please note eggplant affinities suggested above — with nuts, spice, lemon, and dark fat meat like lamb, its caramelized or smokey aspect complimenting those Ottoman or North African flavors. Maybe Mrs. Lewis just brought that palate with her from Africa, not Monticello.
With eggplant, anything is possible.
*Corfu eggplant salad is 1 lb. 10 oz. eggplants (three medium) baked in a 400 oven for 45 minutes, or until you can press their sides together. Flesh stripped into a colander to drain of brown juices (line your jelly roll pan with foil to avoid scrubbing said encrusted on your pan). A little over half a package of blanched almonds (3 1/2 oz.), blitzed. Half a cup of olive oil and juice of one lemon, beaten or blitzed together. Two hardboiled eggs, finely chopped. Salt. Parsley. Let it macerate overnight if possible and eat with pitas.