Thursday, August 24, 2006

Incongruity Deluxe

The eggplant is refined lady in waiting corseted in lustrous satin silk and a high starched collar. To my admiring eyes, everything about her hints of decadence- her form, color and feel. Solanum melongena has the coloring of royalty that ranges from deep midnight purple to bone china white. The form of the eggplant is pleasing, both elongated and voluptuous, full bottomed and heavy. Even in its more slender guise, one end is elegantly tapered while the other gently rounded, maintaining respectful regal bearing. One can detect the curve of a shoulder, the small of a back, the tuck of an underside all contained within supple skin burnished and taut. This ovoid fruit of mystery feels at home in my palm, firm yet slightly yielding. At the same time, there is something completely foreign and unfamiliar about this fruit-vegetable. For one thing while it embodies a sensuality that I appreciate, its similarity to my own corporeal flesh rattles my nerves a bit. It is after all a member of the plant kingdom. Second, while eggplants stacked tongue and groove into an exotic baroque pyramid at the grocery store is visually stunning; the pendulous Elvira like fruit heavily clustered on the shrub shocks me with its aggressive dark flamboyance. And there is nothing about its richly anointed externals that prepares one for aubergine’s dry pithy interior which more closely resembles high performance orthopedic foam than any kind of appetizing food stuff. Equally off putting is the immediate somber discoloration that occurs once cutting commences. How can something so gloriously decorated on the outside be shirked so miserably within? Surely the eggplant is the very face of incongruity steeped in its own mystique.

I think it is a question of commitment. Not necessarily in the eating but certainly in the preparation of the eggplant. Are you willing to go the distance to unravel the deliciousness found deep within this formidable food? In order to transform its bitter unpleasant dry chew to one that is silky rich and ineffable, one needs a good smattering of patience inspired on by the memory of a good eggplant dish. Eggplant parmesan, moussaka, and Thai eggplant in garlic sauce have been my personal guideposts lighting the way to culinary enchantment. For years I avoided cooking “the stuff” because preparation seemed too laborious, one actually needs to tend to it first before using within a dish. It is not an ingredient to hastily chop and throw into a fry pan. Melenzana needs to be coaxed and pampered into relaxing a little, in order for its subtly sweet smokiness to come to the fore. While fried of course is excellent; I prefer roasting, broiling and braising. Something magical happens to the flesh when it soaks up heat, oil, or a spice infused liquid. It melts and melds into a complex taste that is hard to pinpoint. It tastes bronzed and well experienced, has a hint of bitterness with an almost cinnamon end. I really strive to cook the eggplant so that the skin thins to a delicately caramelized burnt chew. This adds another patina to an already gloriously hued taste. It is important to note that the spongy interior is notorious for quaffing up as much oil as a chef allows. Therefore it is essential to keep a sharp eye on things because a lot of absorption can happen quickly. It is imperative that the oil be fresh and of the highest quality since its flavor lends so heavily in the mix.

Buffalo Eggplant Deluxe in the way of Zorba the Greek
The dish of the day was inspired by Greek-Style Lamb and Eggplant Lasagne and Pastitsio. A few essentials like ground lamb could not be found at the local grocery store so buffalo made a quick stand in. Shredded zucchini was still abounding within my refrigerator from 2 posts ago- that made a courtesy appearance, as did some leftover rice. The result was a hearty hodgepodge of disparate parts that artfully came together. I think Zorba would have approved. I definitely did.

2 lbs eggplant
olive oil

For meat sauce
2 cups chopped onions
2 cups shredded zucchini
3 garlic cloves minced
olive oil to coat pan
1 lb ground buffalo
28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
2 Tblsp tomato paste
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
salt and pepper to taste

For bechamel sauce
1/2 stick unsalted butter
5 Tbsp flour
4 cup 2% milk
1 egg beaten

1 cup crumbled feta
About 2 cups of cooked rice

DIRECTIONS: Essentially the components were all made separately over 2 days, to be put together on a third day. Cut the eggplant into 1/3 inch slices and brush both sides with oil. Bake in 350 degree oven until golden brown and set aside when done. For the meat sauce, saute the onions, zucchini and garlic in oil until it just begins to color. Add buffalo and break up chunks, cook until no longer pink. Add salt and pepper, cinnamon, allspice, and both tomatoes. Cook uncovered for about 30 minutes until sauce is thickened and flavors come together. Cool and set aside. For the bechamel, melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low-medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook the roux for about 3 minutes, all the while mixing. Whisk in milk in a stream and add the salt and pepper to taste. Continue mixing until sauce thickens. This should take about 5 minutes at an easy simmer. Whisk in egg and keep mixing for an additional minute. Cool and put aside. On the day of baking, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. I put about 1/3 of the bechamel sauce in the bottom of a 13 X 9 X 2 inch baking dish. I placed about 1/2 of the eggplant on top, covered it with a sprinkle of feta and then a layer of meat sauce and then a layer of rice. I had enough ingredients to repeat: bechamel, eggplant, feta, meatsauce, rice with a final layer of bechamel on the top. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes more and then broil a minute or two until golden if desired. Let it stand a few minutes before serving. The final note I would add is that the rice was more substantial than the lasagne noodles I have used in the past. Next time I am inclined to forgo the starch and add a layer of roasted zucchini/mushroom instead. I would also add about a teaspoon of oregano to the sauce. Changes aside, the eggplant and bechamel combo is praiseworthy both elevating the other. Enjoy with some good company.


Anonymous said...

Eggplant---one of my favorites! This sounds absolutely awesome. I'm just going to make this meatless though. Have you ever thought about designing kitchen tiles? Your artwork is beautiful!

Callipygia said...

anonymous, the flavors of this is complex enough w/o the meat,if you want to keep it in the spirit of Zorba you should at least drink some ouzo with it. Thank you for your appreciation.

jbird said...

I had remembered this painting professor doing a whole series on organic forms that he found in the world, and how one thing can be reminiscent of another....and I had remembered he used eggplant as an example and said the grocery packers would give him wierd looks as he stood staring at this gorgeous eggplant. The color, the form....and he was off to the races. Yum! My fav eggplant is the one that is roasted for 1.5 hrs in very low heat, and the thing spreads like the most sumptuous custard. Here's to the glorious Donny Osmond of vegetables! Hey, is it a vegetable or a fruit?

Callipygia said...

It is a fruit that people use like a veggie, so people refer to it as a vegetable. Maritess would roast japanese eggplants and then pound them flat, batter dip and then fry them in a pan. She served them with ketchup. Labor intensive love.

miragee said...

Oh I love this post! The illo is awesome. Moreover, the description of eggplants is so vivid. I can't but think on my past experiences of cooking eggplants. You are very right in saying that frying eggplants is not a wise act. It's better to roast it. I roasted eggplant slices with cheese and other veggies, sometimes with frankfurt sausages. The juice leaked after its being sent to the oven. Very delicious.

One more thing, eggplants here in Taiwan (even in Asia) is thinner, longer, and the flesh inside is very soft. They can be fried and tasted ok...Asian eggplants fried with a little bit of garlic and red chili...Or maybe a teaspoonful of Thai fish sauce. How beautiful life is!

woof said...

Mmmm. Eggplant. I think one of the best eggplant dishes I had was in Thailand. It was a wood grilled eggplant curry. The eggplant absorbed the wonderful grilled flavor as well as the curry. Truly delicious!

Callipygia said...

miragree, I do like the asian preparations of eggplant, especially the fish sauce. Yes life is beautiful!

woof, your description written like a true pho-odie...wood grilled eggplant curry. ps, I cannot change the title, it was linked to my account when i started.