Eggplant….

Eggplant is a lovely vegetable from the blooms to the fruit.  What’s not to love about this glossy purple vegetable, especially from an artistic point of view?  Beautiful color, highlights and shadows….

From a cook’s standpoint, at the farmers’ market I hear lots of “What do I do with eggplant?” questions. This seems to be another vegetable that needs to be looked up in a vegetable cookbook to get some basic information.   I’d recommend checking out The Victory Garden Cookbook at the library if you don’t want to own it.  The author is Marian Morash.

I’m going to try to condense some information from various sources here to give you a bit better idea about what eggplant is and what you can do with eggplant.

For any of you who might want to think about growing your own next summer, keep in mind that it’s a hot-weather plant.  The nighttime temperatures need to be about 55 ° F before you put the plants out in the garden; otherwise they just kind of sit there and never do anything–even after the temperatures warm up.  So don’t rush it–wait until it’s warm enough.  Then you’ll have a plant that is very productive (if you keep harvesting the fruits).  Come peak season, you’ll find eggplant a bit like zucchini…you will have an abundant (maybe even excessive) supply of this lovely stuff. Maybe you neighbors would like some…especially if you can tell them some things to do with it when you give it to them.

It’s a widely used vegetable in Middle East and Mediterranean cultures.  It seems to be less familiar to the average American cook shopping at the farmers’ market.  So here is some basic information on yields (from The Victory Garden Cookbook, page 102-103):

  • one pound of cubed, peeled eggplant is about 4 cups.
  • for 1 cup of cooked, cubed eggplant you’ll need about 6 cups of raw, cubed eggplant.
  • for 2 cups of puréed eggplant, you’ll need about 6 cups of raw, cubed eggplant
  • for 4 servings, you’ll need about 1-1/2 pounds of eggplant.

Now for choosing your eggplant:  If you’re harvesting your own, size is not a good indicator of maturity–big is not necessarily better.  Older eggplants can become bitter, with many seeds, and skins will be tough.   First, look for glossy skin.  Then lightly press on the fruit.  If it’s hard, the eggplant is not ready.  If the flesh presses down, and bounces back–it’s ready.  Flesh of a too-old eggplant will press down very easily and will keep the depression from your pressure.   Eggplants that you buy should have the “cap” and part of the stem on them.

Eggplants are easily bruised so handle with care–when checking for maturity be gentle.

Eggplants also are not “fond” of refrigeration; best storage temperature is about 50 ° F.  Stored colder than that, the eggplant will rapidly develop soft brown spots (rotting) and will become bitter.   Plan to cook your eggplant as soon as possible after purchase or harvest and store in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel, at room temperature.

One of the down sides of cooking eggplant is that it’s a bit like a sponge–it can absorb large quantities of oil–which most of us don’t want in our diet because of the calories (at least).  A properly harvested eggplant does not need salting in order to remove bitterness.  Salting and draining, however, removes moisture from the eggplant.

Traditional salting uses about 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt per pound of eggplant.  Let stand for 30 to 60 minutes.  Then press between paper towels to get more moisture out and compress the eggplant so that it’s not so porous or “spongy”.

You can also get help from the microwave:  add the salt 1/2 teaspoon per pound, place on paper towels sprayed with nonstick spray, and cook on high power for about 10 minutes until it feels dry and is slightly shriveled.  Press to compress the eggplant so that it’s dense, and doesn’t absorb oil.  Proceed with sautéing, and it will not absorb  nearly so much oil; you should be able to sauté a pound of eggplant with about 1 tablespoon of oil.  (I love this method–I have been able to sauté a pound of eggplant in less than a tablespoon of oil.)  See post on Caponata!  This will work with sliced eggplant as well as cubed.  I’d recommend doing this instead of the traditional salting, but the pressure compressing the eggplant is important.

There are other things to do with eggplant than make eggplant parmesan but that seems to be a dish that everyone has heard of.  Even if you’re going to make eggplant parmesan, I recommend using one of the procedures for removing moisture and compressing this vegetable.

If you’re going to broil or grill (a favorite of mine) you won’t need to do the salting or compressing–just brush the slices, of halves of the oriental-type eggplant with olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper and grill/griddle/broil until tender.

There’s a wonderful Middle Eastern dip to make using eggplant too: baba ghanoush (many alternative spellings which I’m not going to include here).   This usually starts with a whole globe eggplant baked or grilled whole before being mashed with extra-virgin olive oil and seasonings.

Another popular eggplant dish which you may encounter in restaurants is Iman Bayidi–eggplant sautéed  and braised with onions, garlic, and tomatoes.  Ratatouille is a popular Provençal dish which uses eggplants.

Baking or sautéing is often a preliminary step in eggplant dishes, but you can serve it just like that with a squeeze of lemon juice, or one of many toppings.

When you’re searching for eggplant recipes, try looking at Mediterranean (Italian, Greek, southern France), Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern  cuisines as this vegetable is frequently used in these.    Just some thoughts on where to go to find things to do with eggplant now that you know how to buy it and some of the basic techniques for cooking it.

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Vegetable cookbooks….

At the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market today, purple-hull peas made an appearance. There were lots of questions about them.  What are they? They certainly don’t look like what most folks are used to as “peas”.  How do you cook them?  Do you eat the pods? What do they taste like?

One of the joys…or perhaps frustrations, for some…of a trip to the farmers’ market is that you find “new” vegetables–uncommon ones, or simply regional ones–like purple-hull peas which are not necessarily included in a vegetarian cookbook.  So you need general, basic information–not fancy recipes; just the basics for starters.  Where to go?

There are lots of vegetarian cookbooks out there–some very sophisticated with wonderful recipes that make vegetables into worthy main courses or entrées; however, that’s not what you need to begin cooking a vegetable that is completely new to you.  For that what you want is the nitty-gritty information of how to prepare it–do you shell it, peel it–or how best to cook it.  The more sophisticated vegetarian books may just call for the ingredient and not give you the those basics or even just some simple recipes.

One of my favorite vegetable (note that I didn’t say vegetarian) cookbooks (and gardening information too) is The Cover of The Victory Garden CookbookVictory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.  It’s organized by veggies in alphabetical order so you can go directly to beets, kohlrabi, cauliflower or whatever, and find information on growing, preparing, buying the vegetable.  There’s a highlighted section of special information that includes yields (how much usable vegetable do you have after preparation/trimming or peeling), how to store and preserve, microwave instructions, and even suggestions for things to do with what is left from your first use (especially useful if you’re doing single-serving cooking).  Now that’s a vegetable cookbook!  The recipes given go from the most basic to more advanced. Terms (e.g. string and snap beans) are explained.  It’s a great place to start with a new vegetable.

The one I have in my library was published in 1982– I guess it’s time for me to go to the Regulator Bookshop and browse through the cookbooks again to see if there’s a new edition and if it has significant additions.  As for pink-eyed purple-hull peas…well, unfortunately, the closest this book came was black-eyed peas. True, they’re a Southern thing…and that’s another post coming up.

King klip

I went to Harris Teeter (affectionately known as the Teeter or HT) this morning looking for something to cook for  dinner (or supper if you prefer).  I was scoping out the fish contemplating salmon, tuna, or one of the standbys when  saw something that I was not familiar with, but look great.  The sign said it was  King klip.  My cooking curiosity being what it is, I had to bring some home with me, particularly as it  was inexpensive.

The fishmonger told me it was sort of like grouper and would do well grilled.  The heat being what it was this afternoon (my thermometer in the shade said 97 ° F ), I thought that grilling was out of the question so I opted for the cast-iron griddle –my standby.

I portioned my fish (I was a little overzealous when I said how much to cut so I have King klip filet portionedanother portion to try cooking a different way tomorrow), patted it dry, and rubbed itwith a tiny bit of olive oil.   Then I started wondering what I was going to have with this lovely fish…looking around the kitchen I saw the kaboka squash that I’d brought home from the Compare market the other day and decided that was going to be part of dinner tonight.  (I now have to figure out what to do with the rest of this thing as well, since I used only about a quarter of it.)  I attacked it with my chef’s knife, halved it, seeded half, and then took off several slices to use this evening.

I decided that I needed some green stuff with this as well, so I make a trip to a neighbor’s garden(yes, she had previously offered)  for some of  the last of the snow peas–it’s really the last–the heat has gotten to them for sure.

I decided that I’d steam sauté the squash, extravagantly with a bit of butter since the rest of the meal would be “lean”.  I used a paring knife to remove the skin and cut it into chunks so it would cook fairly quickly.

I topped and tailed my snow peas and since they were feeling the heat I put them into some cold water until I was ready to cook them.  I started the  squash in my small sauté pan with a bit of butter and about a tablespoon of water, covered tightly.  It was time to heat up the griddle.  Once it was hot, I rubbed just a light coat of oil onto the surface and put my filet on to start cooking.

Meanwhile, a quick check on the squash–not quite ready to let the water evaporate yet, but close.  Back to the fish–not quite ready to turn yet–still resisted my sliding the spatula under the edge, so it needed a bit more browning to “release” by itself.   It was smelling really good by now.  About the time it was ready to turn, the squash should be read to be uncovered to finish cooking while the water evaporated, and then to start sautéing to finish.

   The fish released and turned easily on the griddle.  I removed the lid from the squash and let the water evaporate from the pan; turned the heat down to hold while the fish was finishing.  I could see the opaque line moving toward the middle.

I put the snow peas into the pan on top of the squash and put the lid back on so that they would get just a bit of steaming .  By the time this thick filet was opaque to the center, the squash and peas were ready to eat as well.

I warmed my plate under hot water and dried it, and put my dinner on it!  Simple, and really pretty healthy–I did put just a small pat of butter on top of the fish to finish it off with the lemon.  That was about 30 to 40 minutes start to finish.  Since this was my first time with this fish, I wanted to cook it as simply as possible to get to know its basic taste.  It was a very mild fish, but it held together well during the grilling.  It’s going in my “standby” category with tilapia for a good all-purpose white fish.  (It’s line-caught, by the way; I was pleased to see that HT signs indicated how all of the fish in the case had been caught)!   It was a simple, but good, quick, healthy meal!

I think that I’ll try baking the other half of that filet in foil with some veggies.  As for the rest of that kaboka, I have a neighbor  who I’m sure will be able to make use of at least part of the other half.  (If you’re doing single-serving cooking, it’s always good to find out what your neighbors like to eat–so you can share when you get really big things like winter squash or watermelons.)  I’ll share, and still have a bit more of the squash for me.  The second portion of fish will probably be a hobo pack with some fresh tomatoes and herbs–maybe tarragon. The rest of the kaboka squash is likely going to get a “classic” treatment:  baked with some butter and brown sugar.

One of the good principles of single-serving cooking is to share the big stuff.  Most of my single (or cooking for two) neighbors always seem really please to be able to get a portion of something like the kaboka–especially if you give cooking instructions if it’s unfamiliar to them.)

Cold beet soup

I’m back from the Durham Farmers’ Market–it was a great day, even though the market is not in full summer swing yet.  The Piedmont BioFarm’s booth, which was right next to mine, had absolutely gorgeous beets. Unfortunately, they  sold quickly so  I didn’t get any today, but I’m told that there will be more next week, so I’m planning to bring some home with me then.

beets with tops from Johnny's Select Seeds.The sunshine and warm weather made me think about beet soup.  This recipe was given to me years ago by a good friend, and it’s become one of my favorite summer things to have in the refrigerator for hot weather.  It’s cool and refreshing, yet very satisfying.

I first experienced this soup when Casey brought me some, just when it was most needed:  I was moving–in extremely hot, humid weather–from one apartment to another in the same building, so it was mostly carrying boxes and lugging furniture, all very hot sweaty work.  Air conditioning was out of the question with the constant coming and going, with the doors open.

Cooking was also out of the question–mostly for reasons of fatigue, sore muscles, disruption of the kitchen, and the heat, and maybe even a dollop of laziness thrown into the mix.   That soup was the most wonderful treat, particularly under those circumstances; I’ve made it many times since and it’s at least as good, if not even better, when had in much less dire straits.

It’s not a small recipe, but it holds very well in the refrigerator;  a “left-over” taste is not a problem–and I think that the flavors actually blend and grow with standing.  I suppose you could always halve the recipe, but it’s so good that I’ve never done that–I can easily enjoy  it several days in a row!

Šaltibaršciai (Casey’s Cold Beet Soup)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 medium-size onion, finely chopped (preferably Vidalia or Walla Walla sweet onions)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 6-10 (depending on size) boiled, peeled, and grated beetroot
  • 2 cups water in which the beets were boiled.
  • Chopped stems and greens from the beets, steamed 3-5 minutes
  • 2 large cucumbers peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 2 handfuls of fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch of green onions, sliced thinly
  • 5-6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1 cup of sour cream
  • 1/2 gallon buttermilk
  • 2 cups water from cooking the beets (cooled)
  • red wine vinegar (0 -4 tablespoons) to taste.

Assembly

  1. In a large bowl, place the 1/2 medium onion and about 1 salt. With the back of a wooden spoon, grind together the onion and the salt to draw out the onion juice. (You really need to do this “muddling” process–you don’t get the same “blend” of the onion flavor if you simply add minced onions.)
  2. Add the remainder of the ingredients to onion in the bowl and stir well.  Adjust the flavor balance with additional salt if needed, and a wine vinegar to taste.  Add more liquid if needed for the consistency you prefer.
  3. Chill thoroughly.  Serve with boiled or steamed potatoes, chilled.  (You want boiling potatoes, not baking potatoes for this; red or Yukon gold work well.)

Wine suggestions, courtesy of Casey, were as follows:

  • Sauvignon Blanc is excellent.  The soup needs a wine with more fruit and not too herbal or grassy.
  • A white Corbières was too herbal–it accentuated the dill in the soup until it was just overwhelming.

I did not try the Corbières; overwhelming dill did not strike my fancy and I trust this recommendation.  I can attest that Sauvignon Blanc is excellent with the soup.  I’ve probably eaten this for breakfast, lunch, and supper, with wine, and without.  It’s well worth the effort of making and it may well improve with standing a few days.

I have to confess that is a spate of utter laziness, I have replaced the potatoes with cubed extra-firm tofu with a very satisfying result.  I have always thought that it’s the eggs and the potatoes that make this such a satisfying, but cool, meal.  And, it a marvelous color, too–definitely shocking pink.  I’ve not tried it with the orange beets, but that might be interesting, too.

Think it looks like a lot? Well, invite a friend. Friends are usually glad to help in cases of an excess food crisis!

A son goût!

Insalata caprese

One of my favorite things during tomato season is caprese salad.  It’s satisfying and easy to do.  I didn’t do mozzarella di bufala, but I did have fresh mozzarella from the Durham Farmers’ Market (Chapel Hill Creamery) and that was splendid.  Sometimes I get a little over-exuberant and I have leftovers from this.  Next day it’s not quite what I’d want just as is.  (There really can be too much of a good thing at times.)  I’d seen a post on Closet Cooking suggesting a caprese sandwich on ciabatta; that looked really sumptuous, but mine was a leftover.  Standing there staring into the refrigerator, I realized that though I did not have ciabatta, I had some good, homemade olive oil bread–how about turning this into a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich?  Lay the slices of seasoned tomato and mozzarella on my hearty bread, brush the outsides lightly with olive oil, and pop it on the cast-iron griddle that lives on top of my gas stove.  Wonderful way to use a leftover thanks to the inspiration of the post on Closet Cooking.

This is not the first time that I’ve gotten carried away with insalata caprese–I’ve also used the leftovers as a filling for an omelette.  I’m sure there must be other ways to use leftovers and I’m always looking for them especially in the summer time because, if not this summer, I’ll need them next summer, or the one after that.