Thursday, October 1, 2009

a veg only (even) a mother would love

My mom is the least picky person I know. A chef tried and true, we cannot go out for dinner without her tasting a bit of what everyone else is having. Invite her over for a meal, and she not only offers to help, but does so by tasting what is to come. She always ate what our childish hands made her for breakfast-in-bed-surprises, burnt or strange, and can sample her way through any farmers market or costco shopping trip. There is no food culture she has not experienced, from classic Italian, to the offals of Greek and German cuisine, the butter loving French, overwhelming Indian curries (my subject of avoidance), american takeout, crummy chinese takeout, authentic chinese sit down, and her own and mine, experimentation. My ma is the easiest to please for she simply loves food, its flavours and textures and the mere act of eating for such pleasure. I admire this in her, for I am at times a bit squeemish, and particular about a time and place for certain foods, and dont like alot of flavours at once (read, she may stick her fork in what I ordered, but it wont be as an exchange of tastes). I wish I could be more unabashed with eating, because I, like her, am really not picky.
But there are a few things that she does not like. Unless pears are cooked, she cannot stand their grainy texture; you wont catch her drinking a pina colada, because anything coconut flavoured in liquid form makes her feel as if she is drinking sunscreen, and she doesnt care for capers--though I have snuck them into a few things that she has admittedly enjoyed. But perhaps most intolerable to her, is eggplant.

Now she is not alone in feeling this way. Many people loathe eggplant for its tendency toward sogginess, and almost milky texture and flavour. I however, love it, and it is one of the things that I am curious enough to try in many different forms (except curry--dont get me started) and am intrigued by new ways to use, prepare, or incorporate aubergine (I find it even easier to love if you call it that) into dinner, for I love its taste, soggy milkiness and all.
That is to say, i love it with other things. While many a vegetable are best eaten unadulterated (but for maybe some coarse salt and olive oil), eggplant needs help. Alone, it is almost queezy, like its flavour is leftover from something that was once delicious. Like a burp. Ok...I know I am not making eggplant sound appetizing, and could not even convince my ma, at this point, that it can be so satisfying, but... what I mean to say is that eggplant, being the sponge that it is, benefits from other ingredients, while adding its own creamy, earthy flavour. It can stand up to anchovies, olives, and capers, and robust mediterranean herbs like basil and oregano, and a shwonk load of garlic, rounding out the saltiness and aromatics of the like. Eggplant loves most all cheeses, but is particularly fond of parm, ricotta salata, pecorino, and goats cheese. It holds its own in ratatouille, adding substance to the classic vegetarian dish.
But even if you enjoy the taste of eggplant in these dishes, it can be a pain in the butt to cook. Eggplant seems to stick to your pan no matter how much oil you use, for it soaks it all up the same as it absorbs flavour. And it seems to do so no matter how thick or thin you slice it. For myself, I dont mind this, because eggplant mush scraped from a pan still tastes delightfully like eggplant, and I just carryon cooking as if it were a pasta sauce of intent. But for those with a strong aversion to baby-food esque dinners, I suggest roasting it.
To do so, cut your eggplant in thick wedges. Rather than drizzle with oil, rub your hands with about a tablespoon of it and then rub each slice of eggplant, to coat, between your palms. Lay them on a parchment lined sheet pan, generously sprinkle with salt and roast at 400F for about twenty minutes. Eat them like this, with a zesty vinaegrette drizzled over, or dipped in salsa verde or garlicky aoili, or dice up your wedges and add to a pan of melted anchovies and garlic with handful of basil and oregano, toss with pasta and shave on a cheese that eggplant loves, no pan scrapage necessary.
But now, in a roundabout way, I get to the inspiration for such longwinded discussion of a very unpopular veg, both for frustration and flavour. I found an eggplant dish even my ma would love.
Long ago while seeing what was on the menu in the Chez Panisse Cafe as I often do, there was listed a Halibut entree served with green beans and eggplant. This was a combination I was not inspired to try, at least not right away. I thought that such a delicate whitefish would be overwhelmed by the distinctive taste of eggplant; despite loving both things, I couldnt imagine loving them together. But curiosity got the best of me, and sure enough, it was wonderful (should I ever have doubted the vegetable gurus of CP...). So wonderful in fact, that I think I could have fed my ma this supper, and made the list of things she does not like even shorter. Then again, just add Halibut and anything is possible with that lady...

Steamed Halibut with Green Beans and Roasted Eggplant
I dont remember what was served on top of the dish at Chez Panisse that particular Tuesday evening, but I drizzled over some meyer lemon confit--grassy and lively and perking up the earthiness of the roasted aubergine. It would also be good, however, with a dab of lemony aoli, or finely minced capers (though serving a dish with two of my mas food loathes may be trying too much...). This recipe makes enough for you and your ma, or any other eggplant skeptic you hope to dissuade, yourself included.

Turn your oven to 400F. Cut one medium sized eggplant, or two smaller ones (the less flesh, the less likely to mush), into thick wedges, and rub down with well olive-oiled hands. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt and roast on parchment for 10-15 mins.

In the meantime, prepare a pan with:
1 cup water
a good drizzle of olive oil
a splash of white wine (hmmm...halibut and gewurtz, even better for my ma)
one large clove of garlic, smashed
a few whole sprigs of parsely.
You will use this pan to partially steam your trimmed green beans, about a handful each, and halibut filets. This only takes four minutes, with the water simmering over medium heat. After four minutes, add the beans and halibut to your tray of eggplant with about a third of the pan liquid and finish the lot in the oven until the fish is just cooked, a mere two to four minutes more. Top with meyer lemon confit and some fresh chopped parsely and prepare to bid goodbye your aubergine woes.

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