Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I hope Laurie Colwin would forgive the title. It was difficult not to borrow, being as I was the other day, alone in the kitchen with eggplants. Lavender and lilac-colored ones, slender, with sloping curves and taut skin, too svelte for words, almost. Sigh. I realize eggplant envy is a little weird and that perhaps I’m becoming too intimate with my food. (Although once, on a family vacation when I was younger, I made up names for everyone, firstname surnameisavegetable. I was Emily Eggplant, so obviously there is some kinship here.)

The truth is, much as I adore the looks of these elegant fruits, they always seem less suited to my usual eggplant purposes, which tend to appreciate fuller, more generously-figured varieties with a larger skin-to-flesh ratio. But still I gather them up, almost whenever I see them, because they are so exquisitely good looking. I think about how this time, I’m going to bake them whole, split not quite through and stuffed with something heady and fragrant, or use them for some lively, herby salad or another (like this one from the New York Times I bookmarked two months ago), or make the Vietnamese claypot eggplant I haven’t made in years but used to crave like clockwork. I bring them home, so full of potential, and still they find their way into ratatouille or any number of Sicilian pasta dishes I am compelled to run through before frost signs eggplant off for the year. Let me say, those dishes are all wonderful; there are reasons I keep after them. But eggplant is capable of so much more that I always end up feeling the littlest bit guilty imposing limits on it, as though by treating it just a few ways I’m stifling its repertoire. I am given to wanton immoderation, but there it is.

And then about a month ago, reading through Andrea Reusing’s wonderful Cooking in the Moment, my eyes locked on her recipe for eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic, and I knew I was going to make appropriate use of those eggplants for once, at least.

Reusing owns Lantern, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she uses glorious produce from the region’s profusion of small farms to illustrate a Southern-inflected, pan-Asian menu marked by much more cohesiveness and clarity than it sounds.

Her book offers glimpses of Lantern’s kitchen, but they are modest, secret-sharing ones. And she dispenses stories and personal anecdotes, but where they are occasionally sentimental, they are never gratuitous or self-indulgent. Instead they give you a start; suddenly you’re itching to shell peas or pay an on-farm visit to your favorite local grower, or cook with someone much older than you, or younger. Her text is honest and real, her recipes perfectly accessible, and the upshot is that, unlike so many other chef-authored cookbooks, this one works more, in the end, to inspire and instruct than impress.

I can vouch, at this point, for the simple goodness of her summer squash braised softly with butter, onions and basil; the spinach with melted leeks and cardamom; the pickled hot peppers, whose fiery vinegar bath, I can already tell, is going to rescue my winter cooking from doldrums with regularity these cold months ahead. But it’s this eggplant salad I want to write about, because it’s the thing I’ve kept returning to again and again, and I’m not in the habit of settling. In it, slender eggplants are quartered, steamed until just tender, left to cool, and then tossed with a full-bodied dressing of lemon, olive oil, parsley, garlic, walnuts and hot chile. There is sublime contrast and balance here, flavors and textures egging each other on, but never too far. It is such a delectable, substantial salad that I’ve been eating it for lunch as it is, with some good bread and something else of salad kind, tomatoes, here, radishes there.

The other day I had the idea to add some minced onion to the dressing and use chopped peanuts in place of the walnuts. I served this round with an unruly-looking heap of the first gorgeous mustards of the season, a mix of purples and jades that were full of nutty, fiery spice. I worked a smashed garlic-lemon-olive oil dressing into those, too, which seems redundant next to the eggplant’s dressing, but those mustards are so bossy it didn’t taste that way.

So now, finishing this post, I’m seeing that it might seem terrifically ill-timed, with eggplant taking a bow right about now, making room for greens and squashes and cooler-weather everything. But if you think about it, doesn’t eggplant really deserve an encore? That’s what I’m thinking.

Eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic

Reprinted with permission, from Cooking in the Moment, by Andrea Reusing

8 small Japanese eggplants, about 6 inches long and 1 inch across

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon mild Anaheim chile flakes, less if using regular chile flakes

3/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and any loose skin rubbed off

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cut each eggplant in half crosswise into 3-inch-thick rounds and then quarter them lengthwise. In a vegetable steamer over medium-high heat, and in batches if necessary, steam the eggplant for 10 to 12 minutes, until it is tender but not yet falling apart. Let the eggplant cool on a plate, discarding any liquid that accumulates.

Mash the garlic and salt together into a smooth paste, using the side of a knife. Transfer the paste to a medium bowl and stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, and chile flakes. Coarsely chop the walnuts and add them. Add the parsley and eggplant, and mix well.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

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