Monday, August 10, 2009

Falling Through the Cracks

You know how some kids think about their toys coming to life when they're not around, like in Toy Story? When I was a kid, I was convinced that my Barbies had a pool party, my porcelain dolls had a tea party, and Jem was rocking out in a corner somewhere with her band. The stuffed animals were obviously running amock, because every time I walked back into my room I could swear it looked like they'd moved ever so slightly from where I'd left them on my bed. As a young food lover and only child, I carried the same overactive imagination to the contents of my fridge. Maybe it was the dancing hot dogs and twirling popcorn buckets on the big screen at the movies, but I thought for sure that when the refrigerator door closed, the real party began. I tried the sneak a peek as I slowly closed the door, my eyes squinting to see through the small open crack, but the light inevitably went off, leaving me at best with the need for a snack and a slight chill.

Still, with no evidence to the contrary I maintained that the vegetables must have a life of their own after dark. Perhaps the fridge was really a nighttime disco where the gallons of milk and cartons of juice acted as bouncers presiding over the contents of the crisper. The vegetables wore their Saturday night best as they lined up to join the party. The carrots would obviously make it in, tall and tan as they were. The peppers were the life of the party, full of flavor and spice, and don't get me started on the iceberg lettuce, which I envisioned as a big round frat boy at a toga party (like the John Belushi of vegetables). The onions were always too depressed to party and they made everyone cry, so they had their own little emo party in the crisper. The vine-ripened tomatoes were like the gaggle of slightly plump girls attached at the hip in too much make-up and too short dresses.
I always thought I had a place for every vegetable in my scenario (garlic always comes on too strong and gets kicked out before midnight, greens are the tall, lanky guys that pop and lock in the middle of the dance floor), but it turns out there was never eggplant in my fridge as a kid.

No one in my family really cared for it, and no one grew up eating it, so it never made its way into our house. In fact the only memory I have of it as a child is ordering what I expected to be a yummy meat-filled lasagna, only to find it was bordering on vegetarian and filled with eggplant. To say my relationship with eggplant began on a low note is an understatement. From then on it became "that mushy thing that ruins meals" and not even a fatty, marinara and mozzarella doused eggplant parm could convince me otherwise. So needless to say I was less than thrilled when I received a bagful of eggplant with my CSA bounty last week. Lovely as the Japanese eggplant were--small, sweet and the deepest hue of purple you can imagine--I was not only uninspired but uninterested. And so, they sat in the fridge, presumably partaking in the kind of party I imagined as a kid, but I had no idea what their role in that scenario would be be.

Finally, after a few days of feeling guilty I decided that if there are people out there that love eggplant, then it must have some redeeming qualities that I could exploit enhance. So after some research, I found a lot of tasty sounding Asian preparations, but that seemed too easy. After all, you can pretty much stir-fry anything with soy sauce and consider it tasty, not to mention there was no guarantee that it wouldn't go mushy on me. There was nothing of note in my cookbooks other than a bunch of baked, bechamel covered dishes, and I didn't want something heavy or mushy, so after some internet research I came upon this recipe from Bon Appétit, which I made a few changes to. I didn't bother to submerge the eggplant in water to remove the bitterness because I had little Japanese eggplants which are inherently less bitter. The recipe also called for cumin and cayenne, which I changed to cumin and spicy smoked paprika. While the drizzle of pomegranate molasses in the original recipe would have been nice, it's on the expensive side, so instead I made a quick from the hip reduced balsamic sauce. It's a foolproof recipe that I developed a few years ago and perfectly balanced. It works well over ice cream or fruit in addition to savory applications like this one, and can really dress up just about any dish (it's great in a pinch). I normally try to skip anything that involves too much fuss from the stove top to the oven, but it really helped keep the eggplant crunchy and moist, and anything but soggy to do both. The raw garlic on top was questionable, and actually felt a bit unnecessary. I think next time I'd roast large pieces in the oven with the eggplant, but for now, I suggest leaving it out--there's plenty of flavor. Here's the recipe with my changes.

Spicy Eggplant with Balsamic Glaze

3-4 Japanese eggplant cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp spicy smoked paprika
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sauté eggplant until browned and softened, 2 minutes per side. Transfer to large rimmed baking sheet covered in foil (for easy clean-up).

2. Mix cumin and cayenne. Sprinkle eggplant
while still hot with salt and pepper, followed by cumin mixture. Roast in oven until golden and cooked through, about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, combine balsamic vinegar, olive oil and honey in a small non-stick saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking frequently until reduced and thickened.

4. Plate eggplant and drizzle with balsamic glaze. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve. Enjoy!


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