Alone with Many Eggplants
While I was kicking back in my nylon armchair with built-in cup holder (whatever did Americans do before these souped-up lawn chairs came along?) at the campsite in Maine, I quickly flew through the pages of my latest favorite read. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant is a fascinating compilation of literary glimpses into several foodies’ – some more famous than others – habits when cooking and dining alone. Besides the content, I was initially drawn to the cover graphics, as is often the case with me and new books that haven’t come to me on prior recommendation. In fact, the sliced eggplant “informed” (okay, I was trying to create a knock-off) one of my previous recipe photos.
You may have already run across glowing reviews of this book, but if not, allow me to share the “Cliff Notes” for two of my favorite essays. Steve Almond, a humorous writer from Massachusetts, made me giggle with a story about how heritage and breeding made it impossible for him to not feed visitors (I carry this same trait) and how he has concocted one particularly special dish to impress said visitors. Grill-curried shrimp quesarito with avocado raita sounds absolutely stunning, doesn’t it?? While he makes the ingredients in advance and stores them in his fridge in anticipation of company, he woefully admits to regularly consuming the quesaritos on his own in the end. It’s this confession that really rang true for me. I’m constantly “in preparation”, mostly mentally, for the next get-together at which I’ll cook this and that and I’d better get to the store to make sure I have the ingredients on hand… But in the end, so much of the time I cook only for myself. I don’t even get to cook for D so much as he doesn’t particularly fancy vegetables (*insert long tirade here about how ironic it is that a vegetarian doesn’t like vegetables).
Shortly after Mr. Almond’s essay came one by M. F. K. Fisher, a food writer of substantial fame. In hers was a similar tagline to that I’ve already described…she tried socializing and even going out to good restaurants, but in the end it was dining alone at home that seemed the most satisfactory. “But, and there is no cavil here, I felt firmly then, as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality.” Ah, you’re signing to the choir, Ms. Fisher, signing to the choir!
Really though, what I’m trying to convey, besides encouraging you to pick up this book, is the sensibility of making good food for yourself, even if you don’t dine alone. Make something good for yourself using good ingredients. To that end, I gave this North African Roasted Vegetable Salad a try because I love eggplant and there’s bushels of it coming from the farm these days. D doesn’t like eggplant unless it’s breaded and fried so I knew I’d be eating this alone. Having made it, I’m actually glad he doesn’t like eggplant…more for me!
Before I get on with the recipe, a parting comment on eggplant, or aubergene as I grew fond of calling it after living in Europe. The farm is growing a couple varieties this season, and I get many questions from customers at Headhouse market about their differences. The basic distinction is the shape – long and slender is an Asian, or Japanese, variety; fat and more round is an Italian, or Sicilian, variety.
My general recommendation for anyone who hasn’t used eggplant much is to use the Asian varieties for stir frying and dishes where you want it to cook fast and don’t really need it for taste. This variety is less bitter than the Italian variety. The plump Italian type is best used for what one might suspect…Italian dishes such as eggplant parmesan. But in truth, the two types are relatively interchangeable.
If you are not combining the eggplant with other strong flavors, you should first slice it, salt it, and let it release most of its moisture before cooking to cut down on any bitterness it might have. However, with the following recipe, there’s such a burst of flavor going on, there’s no need to tone down the eggplant. In fact, its bitterness enhances this particular dish.
North African Roasted Vegetable Salad (or Dip)
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden Cookbook
4 or 5 Asian eggplants or 1 large Italian eggplant
2 bell peppers (use two colors for a prettier dish)
2 firm tomatoes
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. fresh lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 T. onion, finely minced
2 T. fresh or 1 T. dried parsley
1 t. fresh or 1/2 t. dried chopped rosemary
Large pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 400 F. Prick the eggplants with a sharp knife and place on a foil-lined baking sheet along with the peppers. Place in oven and roast for 25 minutes, turning vegetables half way through. After 25 minutes, place tomatoes on baking sheet and continue roasting all the vegetables until the eggplants are deflated and soft, the peppers are browned and peeling slightly, and the tomatoes are soft and starting to juice. This should take about 10 minutes, more or less for some of the vegetables.
While the peppers are still hot, place them in a plastic bag and seal them to let them steam off their skins. Allow the eggplants and tomatoes to cool. After about 10 minutes, open the pepper bag and slip off the skins. Remove seeds and chop pepper flesh into 1/2 inch pieces and place in a medium bowl.
Slice eggplants in half and use a spoon to scrap out the mushy flesh. Give the eggplant a rough chop to cut down on any large pieces and place in the bowl with peppers. Over the sink or a compost bucket, gently squeeze the tomatoes until they release most of their juices and seeds. Chop the flesh into 1/2 inch pieces and add to bowl with eggplant and peppers.
In another small bowl, mix the remaining ingredients to make a dressing/marinade. Once well combined, pour dressing over vegetables and mix.
Allow the vegetable salad to sit for at least an hour to marinate. Can be served warm or chilled as an appetizer, side dish, or sandwich filling. If using as a dip, serve with toasted bread triangles or pita.
(serves 6 to 8 )