Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eggplant Rules

Can you imagine anyone waxing rhapsodic about eggplant? Pretty weird, huh? And yet...

We planted the polytunnel (plastic greenhouse) with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The polytunnel was a raging success, so now we have a raging excess of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The eggplant in particular is hard to avoid. Everyone LOVES tomatoes, but eggplant is sort of the homely relative at the wedding. It arrives in these enormous, appealing lumps with that alluring color, but they sit there on the counter, daring you do do something useful with them.

And what DO you do with them? Most traditional uses start with frying, which in my experience means that the lump of appealing color first gets turned into an oil-soaked sponge before anything else happens with it. We've always had two alternatives to that course, one of them pretty much an end in itself and therefore not much use for anything else. You can 1) slice them thickly, brush with oil and grill them in the oven (avoidance of frying); or you can 2) cut them into cubes, toss with a little olive oil, and bake them into colorful, reasonably tasty oven fries.

But not this year. This year, I'm amazed to report, eggplant has come into its own. It has won a place of honor on the Upstill plate. More important, most of the deluge from the polytunnel has actually found its way into our stomachs rather than the pigs'.

The first stroke was from Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone). It turns out that you actually can sautee eggplant without it taking up a significant fraction of your annual uptake of dietary fat. Starting with cubes the size of a fingernail, you heat up a regular amount of oil, add the eggplant, toss to distribute the oil, and carry on sauteeing. Like the guy said about torture ("The trick is not making it not hurt; the trick is not minding that it hurts."), you just resolutely deny it any more oil. Keep sauteeing over medium heat for about 15 minutes, and you get tasty, texturelicious cubes with just the right amount of browning. DM then tosses it with garlic, parsley, toasted pine nuts and a little olive oil, and what do you know? You get an actual, bona fide vegetable out of it! Marvelous picnic food.

Extending the concept, Krys suggested: Why not try dry-frying it? So I put it in a hot non-stick pan that was just filmed with oil, and kept tossing until I couldn't stand it any longer, then added a tablespoon or two of oil and tossed a few minutes longer, adding some salt and pepper at the end. Again with the tasty morsels! Again with the conservation of the cooking oil. Again with eggplant turning into an actual vegetable!

Thus emboldened, I marched confidently into a recipe for Sichuan-style eggplant with bits of meat and a hot, oily sauce. Oh, the glories of Sichuan. Oh, the caloric price to pay, for the first step is the dreaded deep-frying of the eggplant. But the recipe waxed so rhapsodic about the melty texture of properly fried eggplant, and so emboldened was I by the sauteeing success, that I did something I haven't done in at least 30 years in the kitchen: I loaded up a frypan with a real depth of oil and went for the gold.

And it worked! Now, granted, I was using Asian eggplant, which, even after you cut it into chunks, still has at least half its surface area covered in oil-proof skin. So that's cheating a little. But still: I heated the oil quite hot from the get-go, added not too much eggplant at a time, the better to maintain that roiling fry temperature, but still did a not-small amount of eggplant in two batches. And when it was done, there was very little less oil in the pan than when I started. The eggplant was indeed creamy, with a lovely caramelized outside, and if you squeezed it, did it exude oil? It did not! But when it was joined with the aforementioned hot, oily (and meaty!) sauce, it was eyes-rolling-up-in-the-head good. We'll be revisiting this area of Sichuan real soon now.

But still, there's that pesky onslaught of eggplant to contend with--not to mention the peppers and the tomatoes, etc. Come on, we're only two people. We can only eat so much sauteed eggplant with parsley and pine nuts, no matter how scrumptious it is. I don't know how it happened, but early this afternoon the light came on. Even if it took a while for the vocabulary to render up the name (vanishing verbal memory: I hate it), can this be the answer? Caponata: Sicilian relish of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and a laundry list of savories including celery (yes! Sauteed celery! Who knew?), garlic, capers, olives, vinegar and herbs. Italy's answer to ratatouille it is, and my question is, Why can't we bottle this stuff up and have a blast of summer whenever we want it?
Well, it appears the answer is, Why, no reason at all, grasshopper!

It turns out you can't swing a dead cat at our bookshelf without hitting a recipe for caponata, so popular is that concoction. I don't know, maybe there are a lot of polytunnels in Sicily; can somebody address that question? Anyway, it's one of those basic ideas with a million variations: olives or not; capers or not; hot peppers or not; even sweet peppers or not. But the basics are clear: you're looking for a jam-like consistency, vivid flavors, tomatoes as a binder rather than an independent element, and a maximum distinction between vegetables from cooking them independently. For crying out loud, have you ever heard of sauteeing celery all by itself? Then tossing it with fresh thyme? Only at the end, for the last two minutes of cooking, do you put it all together.

So we took a batch to a birthday party tonight. It didn't eclipse the guest of honor, and there were a lot of dishes there, but it definitely left the also-present ratatouille in the shade: vivid flavors, still-distinctive textures, and many different flavors swirling around in the mouth, of a brightness that you only get from just the right amount of cooking.

We're definitely going to be finding some space on the pantry shelves for a big pot of caponata. I definitely like the idea of opening up a jar of summer on a cold spring day when the garden is just getting started.

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