Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from the Prep List: Eggplant

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, October 3rd, 2013.

"Somebody brought a few foxglove leaves in with some spinach from the garden...." - Agatha Christie, Postern of Fate

Maybe because I’ve read too many inter-war British murder mysteries to trust any member of the nightshade family, or maybe because my expectations are always baffled by the slightly slimy reality, I’ve struggled with eggplant for years. All the breading, soaking, and searing in the world won’t make an eggplant cutlet into a Wiener schnitzel no matter what it looks like on the plate. Baba ganoush is delicious and nutritious but it’s as drab looking as wallpaper paste. And when people claim to love eggplant, I can’t help but view them with a Miss Marple-esqe suspicion – if the butler didn’t do it, then the murderous culprit was definitely the gardener who substituted deadly nightshade for salad greens; who could love such a fiend? 

So, when eggplant appeared on a prep list of never-tried preparations, I was skeptical. Eggplant gets all squishy when cooked, the flesh texturally similar to an overripe banana, the skin as tough as a shark’s. In a restaurant where everything is beautiful, and on a menu with no room for the word “gloopy,” I was even a little bit balky. But cooking is about learning, and the culinary horizon recedes even as you think you’ve gained ground because quail eggs no longer give you the heebie jeebies…. There was nothing for it but to sally forth. 

My first step was to make a mental shift from the name “eggplant,” which conjures images of a sulfurous garden patch littered with shells and broken yolks, to the more European “aubergine,” which sounds like the name of a French exchange student who hasn’t yet lost her baby fat. (I like the idea of Aubergine and Courgette sharing a tiny apartment during their second semester at NYU, meeting for falafels in Washington Square, struggling to make ends meet, but generally having a good time in the big American city. Courgette has more boyfriends, but Aubergine finds her true love: math major and trombone aficionado Celeriac.)

The aubergines in the walk-in are beautiful, it’s true. A hotel pan of purple. Helpful website “Cook’s Thesaurus” lists no fewer than 14 varieties of eggplants, as well as their respective names, regions, skin-thicknesses, and relative bitterness. (A complete collection of eggplants from around the world is as diverse as the students in one of Aubergine’s night-school ESL classes.) We’re using Japanese eggplant, which are less bulbous than the American variety, and less bitter. Instead of the dark, brooding purple of a mid-winter night sky, the Japanese eggplants are cheerful and bright, like parasols or lilacs or silk blouses. Their looks are not their problem, for sure.

The recipe has me split the eggplant lengthwise, roll the halves in olive oil, salt, and black pepper, line them on a large sheet pan (which I oiled beforehand) and roast until tender. Which happens a little faster than you might think. When they’re pulled from the oven, the bright purple is all gone and the vegetables resemble old black ballet slippers. Yum! That’s not sad-making at all!

After they’ve cooled, scrape the flesh into a large stainless steel bowl and add a good amount of nuoc cham. Wait, what? That’s right. We’re not climbing into the northern Italian Alps for this eggplant dish, nor are we stepping off the gangplank in Tunisia. We’re in Hanoi, baby.  (That the eggplants are Japanese and the preparation is Vietnamese is just a coincidence; you are not getting involved in a land-war in Asia.)

Nuoc cham is a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce made with garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, and fish sauce. I like adding a pinch of sugar, a little Sambal, and I think thinly sliced Serrano peppers are delicious in this. I’ve found that “Three Crabs” fish sauce draws the fewest cats, but do expect a certain, um, robustness to the smell.

For twenty split eggplants, add two cups or even more of nuoc cham. Right now the preparation will resemble a slippery pile of sardines, or newspaper ready for a papier-mâché project. Add a half cup of mint chiffonade and a full cup of basil chiffonade. Taste for salt and spice. You may notice the flavor of the eggplant has become slightly sweet, you many also notice yourself eating a lot of this before you label the container and put it on the prep shelf. Hmmm. Perhaps the problem was trying to make aubergine something it is not – it is spongey, it is weird, it isn’t ever going to sear perfectly, and maybe that’s okay….tasting it again as an accompaniment to scallops or trout, after the plate is finished with another member of the nightshade family – tomatoes, or perhaps a few quarters of roasted tomatillos – I realize I’m in the presence of deliciousness. The dish is greater than the sum of its parts; this is one of the reasons we cook.

After making this dish a couple of times, and another in which the eggplant is cubed, sautéed with (so much) olive oil and garlic, deglazed with balsamic vinegar and later folded together with similarly prepared Fennel, Courgettes, Red Onions, and Basil, I found myself liking Aubergine more and more. I’m not quite ready to embrace her and kiss both cheeks. But I’ll let her into the kitchen.  

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