Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Eggplant Experimentation Extravaganza

I have only used eggplant a couple of times. I frequently come across recipes calling for it that sound good, but when I read all the steps involved in salting and draining and drying etc etc etc I simply become discouraged and write it off as too much trouble. Recently I succumbed to the glossy, rich plumpness. Once home though, I invested hours sorting through recipes and cookbooks trying to find just the right thing to make. If it's as much effort as I remember, I want it to be really good.

I narrowed my search down to two finalists (with a couple pretty high contenders saved for the future). Even down to the point when I had half the eggplant cut into cubes, I was still waffling between which recipe I would follow.  When I saw how many cubes just half the eggplant made, I realized I had enough ingredients to do BOTH recipes!

The tones and hues were similar enough that I ended up serving both recipes together side-by-side. I had a favorite, but it was very close and even for a more carefully planned dinner party, I might again prepare the recipes together.

These are the two raw recipes, with my notes following.

This was the less time-intensive recipe of the two, with fewer ingredients so I thought it would less interesting. I was wrong! The simplicity (of the flavors, not of the prepration!) is probably exactly what makes it so special. I did use a lot of dishes though... a large bowl to soak, and a small bowl to weigh down the eggplant during soaking, then the collander for draining followed by the cast iron skillet for browning, and finally the cookie sheet for baking. Nevertheless, this offers something that other dishes I've made does not; an intensity of each of the types of flavor but a perfect balance between each so that they truly compliment each other. What seems espeically unique is that each layer is pretty bold, often a finely-tuned balance is achieved from subtlety yet in this dish the rich creaminess of the eggplant foundation meets a smokey spiciness from the seasonings followed by the tart and tangy pomegranate molasses finished with the fresh herbality of cilantro. I made a 1/4 recipe (used 1/2 of my 1 1/2 pound eggplant) and followed the instructions exactly except for the raw-garlic finish.  See my presentation notes which follow.  

I took some liberties with the eggplant as printed in this recipe, but followed instructions exactly for the peas. I will have to think of some other ways to serve this puree because it is delicious. It has a vibrant color, and a depth of flavor that is unexpected given the short list of ingredients. The contrast from the carmelized vegetable topping is truly lovely and in full Fall spirit.

I sauteed 3/4 pound drained, cubed eggplant in olive oil, then added two diced, seeded roma tomatoes and two cloves garlic, minced. I cooked it until all the liquid had evaporated from the tomatoes, then stirred in about 1/2 teaspoon ground oregano, ground black pepper, and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.  There is a fair amount of sweetness here but against a garnish of sour yogurt it is a fantastic sensation.

Making the meal:
While I didn't intend to eat these two eggplant dishes side by side, they ended up working quite well together. I did a squiggle of pomegranate molasses across the plate first, then topped with a spoonful of pea puree near the center of the plate, and topped with the ratatouille. Then I started blending the lines between the two dishes, and topped it with Greek yogurt and cilantro leaves. Alongside, I placed wedges of grilled mediterranean flatbread, rubbed a clove of roasted garlic. Layered next to the flatbread were a few slices of the roasted eggplant, which we ate atop the flatbread.

Three days later, I extended my eggplant exploits. While it could potentially become tiresome to eat a lot of the same thing back-to-back, I find that I really enjoy getting to use one ingredient in mulitple ways so that I can really gain an understanding of it's capacity. For example, in the top photo, tasting the roasted/baked eggplant side-by-side with the simmered sauce.

As I said, I had narrowed down my top two recipe finalists, but when I was at the market later in the week, and saw some lovely asian eggplants, I quickly recalled one of the other selections that had been passed over in the first round, and decided to go ahead and pick up a few while eggplant was fresh in my mind.

The recipe I used it in was Spicy Glazed Eggplant, which I served with sushi rice and a dish that I wouldn't recommend as a complimentary menu selection but which worked well to balance out the colors and nutrition of the meal; beet greens with peaches.

The sushi rice was the perfect pairing with the eggplant, which was fortunate, because it was my first time making it, and I was conducting the dish as a trial run for a party I'm planning later this month. The eggplant dish was very flavorful, though I'm not sure it took full advantage of the subtlety of taste and especially texture that the asian eggplant can offer over the standard globe. It called for "Japanese seven spice powder" (shichimi togarashi) which I didn't have and frankly had never heard of. I was able to find a number of recipes online for how to mix it oneself, and the ingredient lists seemed for the most part to reach a consensus, so I believe that I came pretty close in my attempt to recreate it. What I neglected to note was that as I mixed a few tablespoons of the spice recipe, I only needed 1/8 teaspoon for the eggplant, but I dumped it all in. Nevertheless, we didn't find it too strong, and had plenty of rice to balance the intensity of each mouthful.

Because these two items we basically just black and white on the plate, I searched my crisper for some color, and instead of trying to meld flattering flavors, I reached for the couple items which were most likely to loose their freshness if they waiting another day to be consumed. This ended up being the greens from some golden beets (the root lasts much longer than the tops) and a peach.

Beet Green and Peach Saute
serves 2

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
greens from 4 beets, chiffonaded
1 peach, peeled and diced

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil, add the greens and cook until wilted, stir in the peach and saute over medium heat another 2-3 minutes until peaches are soft and have released their juices. The sweet and tangy of the peach plus the slightest bitterness of the greens left this dish perfectly dressed without even needing salt or pepper. Would be really good with a hearty grain (quinoa? bulger?) as a summer salad.

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