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Eggplant heaven

September 12, 2011

It’s nearly mid-September and you know what that means. It’s harvest time. The tomatoes at my dad’s house have started to keep us busy. I’ve spent more than one night when I should have been going to bed, chopping up tomatoes for freezer bags in an attempt to outpace ripeness and rotting. That was AFTER giving a fair amount to a co-worker.

The jalapenos are also really taking off. We have more than a dozen hanging, almost grown, on our two plants, and we’ve picked at least twice that. They’re also finally getting hot. Mid-summer when they ripened, these little pointy peppers were totally mild, like a green pepper with only the vaguest hint of spice. Now, eat a few seeds by mistake and you’ll be grabbing your windpipe and fumbling for water.

I feel somewhat validated now, after a passerby who had read an urban square-foot-gardening book informed me through the fence that jalapeno plants HAD to be fertilized with pig manure to be productive. We haven’t used any manure on these plants, pig or otherwise, and they’re just fine.

But some of the best gardening thrills come from an under-the-leaves discovery. The moment when you inspect the vines and discover the first dangling cucumber, or push the prolific zucchini leaves aside to discover a behemoth specimen you had no idea was there. This happened the other week when I ducked down to check our small, seemingly frail eggplant (being dwarfed by indeterminate tomato plants and crowded by leaping jalapenos), and found a massive, glossy black fruit hiding underneath. Eggplants have an almost magical ability to produce a huge fruit out of seemingly slim resources: like a kiwi (bird) producing an egg that’s a quarter of its body mass. It just doesn’t seem physically possible. And yet, there it was.

I’m not actually crazy about eggplants. Their texture can be pretty iffy if they’re under- or over-cooked. Too dry, or too chewy. The perfect eggplant is hard to come by. I can remember only a few eggplant dishes I really enjoyed… that is, after the days that my dad used to make delicious fried eggplant on a summer night in our deep-fat-fryer. A pretty good eggplant Parmesan was served at the buffet at our wedding reception, for example.

But: Because our one eggplant had given us such a singular, marvelous fruit (and I knew this might be the only home-grown one we got all year), I wanted to prepare it really well. I discovered eggplant heaven, by making the following recipe (from VEGETARIAN (The Greatest Ever Vegetarian Cookbook) – yes, that is really the title, by Nicola Graimes).

First, cut the ends off a large eggplant and then slice it thickly. (Looking at these slices, I remembered with some concern the last, semi-gross eggplant recipe I tried, but kept faith.)

Salting the slices will help draw out their moisture and reduce the amount of oil they absorb (so the book says in a helpful “cook’s tip”). Pat them dry with a paper towel after a few minutes. Spread out a 1/2 cup all-purpose flour in a shallow dish and season generously with salt and pepper. In another bowl, beat two eggs. In a third bowl or dish, put 2 cups white bread crumbs (or panko – Japanese bread crumbs, which I used).

Line up the bowls on the counter to make an assembly line, the end point of which is a large frying pan. Heat enough vegetable oil to have a depth of about 1/4 inch in this frying pan. Dip the eggplant slices first in the flour, then in the egg, and then in the bread crumbs, patting them to make an even coating and help them stick.

Fry the eggplant slices for 4-5 minutes in the oil or until golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels.

To make a hot vinaigrette dressing:

Heat 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil in a small pan. Add 1 crushed garlic clove and 1 Tbsp. capers (their liquid drained off) and cook over gentle heat for 1 minute. Increase the heat, add 1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar, and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in 1 Tbsp. chili oil (or something spicy… we used slightly less than 1 Tbsp.) and remove from the heat.

Arrange the leaves from 1 head of radicchio (the fancy dark red lettuce) or 1 small head of cabbage (any kind) on two plates. Top with the hot eggplant slices. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve.

You get something like this:

Which, I am very proud to say, looks a lot like the fancy full-page photo in the cookbook. Except I replaced the radicchio it called for with the cabbage we had in the fridge from the Homewood garden. The eggplant was absolutely delicious, crisp outside, tender and flavorful on the inside. With the combined spicinesses of the vinaigrette and the cabbage, plus the discovery that I like capers after all, it was…. heaven.

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