Thursday, January 10, 2008

Eggplant Remorse


I could just weep. I love almost all vegetables, but there are a couple that just don’t call out to me. Asparagus, okra, avocado, eggplant. I’ve never felt impaired by these preferences, never felt deprived in any way. Until now. I’ve started to feel that my lack of love for eggplant is lessening my food experience. I actually feel like I’m missing something.

And the frustration is, I’ve tried eggplant. I really have. I’ve bought it, I’ve salted it, I’ve cooked it, and I’ve ordered it. I even tried it recently, at an excellent restaurant in my husband’s hometown, when we were visiting this summer. There was a lamb entrée that came with eggplant, and, as I told my sister-in-law at the time, if you’re going to try something that you have previously disliked, a really good restaurant is the place to do it. Well it was fine, but nothing special. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t strike a chord, the scales did not fall from my eyes, I saw no angels dancing around the edge of my plate. I was, in short, unmoved.

Then I received as a Christmas present Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. His chapters are about a foods he admires, and appear in alphabetical order, along with recipes. Thus it is you find engaging discourses on the anchovy, chicken, chocolate, olive oil, pork pieces and bacon and so on. When I came to the chapter on aubergine (which of course is what the British call eggplant—I have the British edition, not the US imprint) I read with a little shrug, sure that once again I would finish the recipes and think, “Well, fine for those of you who like it, but not for me.” This has always been the case.

By the time I got through with his brief essay and the recipes themselves, I was in a deep state of depression. Tell me how anyone could hate something called Creamed Aubergines, or Aubergines Baked with Herbs and Cream, or even the more restrained-sounding Vinegared Aubergines with Chili and Spring Onions. Why, these recipes sounded positively…yummy!

And yet, this whole overwhelming emotion did not take me completely by surprise. I felt a twinge of it the day after Christmas. Our holiday visitors were leaving on a late plane, so we took them out for lunch rather than dinner. Since they had never been to Seattle before, we decided to take them to a restaurant I had been to for the first time only recently, and which my husband, based on my descriptions, was anxious to try. I made reservations at Serafina, which has a very local neighborhood feel about it.

There we had a delicious lunch, sharing appetizers of Pancia (pork belly), Crostoni della Enoteca Trimani (slices of bread served with bubbly hot fresh mozzarella and topped with an arugula salad—this was enough for two people, or even a whole meal), and the Zuppa del Giorno (which was creamy garlic on this day). We moved on to Plin (agnolotti filled with braised pork shoulder, savoy cabbage, and Reggiano), two orders of Gnocchi di Semolina, and the Melanzane alla Serafina, described as their signature dish, which my sister-in-law ordered.

I confess it sounds outstanding: thinly sliced eggplant rolled with ricotta cheese, fresh basil, and parmesan; baked in a tomato sauce, served over cappellini aglio e olio. She declared it to be wonderful, and my brother-in-law, who also tried it, agreed. It was then I felt the first faint prick of remorse over my feelings for eggplant. It looked so good, and I adore all of the ingredients except the eggplant.

I’m a little afraid to rush out and buy an eggplant and try a recipe, even one of Hopkinson’s, as amazing as they appear to be. It has been my experience that when people who haven’t ever made a thing before (or haven’t ever made a thing before successfully) try to make it, they often manage to muck it up and end up disliking the thing (or continue to dislike it, as the case may be). I think the best thing I can do is go back to Serafina and try the Melanzane alla Serafina, and then turn to the cookbooks I own that were written by reliable authors and see what I can find. Because even if I were to try to make my own eggplant, I just don’t have a proven recipe right now that I know of. I’m sure the likes of Deborah Madison, Donna Hay, or James Beard somewhere in their works have an infallible combination of ingredients, but I just don’t know for certain. I’m going to have to see what eggplant is capable of before I try to prepare it myself.

For those of you who like eggplant, or who haven’t tried it and aren’t afraid of making it, or who don’t like it and want to try it again, just to see, here’s one of Hopkinson’s recipes.

Aubergines Baked with Herbs and Cream
from Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson

4 small aubergines
50 ml/2 fl oz olive oil
8 ripe tomatoes, skinned and coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
50g/2 oz butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon each of finely chopped tarragon, parsley, chives, and basil
450ml/3/4 pint double cream

Cut the aubergines into 1 cm/1/2 inch slices and fry on both sides in hot olive oil until pale golden. Drain on absorbent paper and leave to cool. Season the tomatoes and stew with the butter for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and pour into a 5cm/2 inch deep oval baking dish. Cover with overlapping slices of aubergine, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Stir the chopped herbs into the cream. Pour over the aubergines and bake in the oven at 375 F/190 C/Gas Mark 5 for about 20 minutes until bubbling and lightly browned.

Serve with a crisp green salad dressed with lemon juice and walnut oil, mingled together with some garlic croutons. A good accompaniment to grilled lamb chops.

Hopkinson doesn’t say how many servings this makes. Perhaps it depends on how much you like eggplant.

1 comment:

wondering... said...

Mmmm...gnocchi... The eggplant doesn't sound half-bad either ;)