Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Consider the Eggplant

Here’s another vegetable that we sophisticated eaters now take for granted, but which was rarely seen on the tables of our youth.  In fact, I cannot remember my mother cooking eggplant, ever.  Not once.  Really.  Eggplant parm on the menus of the local Italian-American restaurants, that was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with eggplant until sometime in the early ‘80s.  Not that I ever ordered it.  And you know, you can’t really blame American cooks for approaching eggplant a bit leerily.  After all, here was a vegetable for which all the recipes instructed you to first slice it and salt it, maybe press it, to draw out the bitter juices.  Can you blame a guy if he wondered:  Can’t we just start with something that doesn’t have bitter juices?  And while many vegetables are perfectly lovely in their raw state—tomatoes, sweet peas, green beans, sweet corn, even kale—no one’s going to be snacking on raw eggplant while prepping dinner at the cutting board.

What's great about eggplant, of course, is the way it combines with other flavors, and the creamy texture it attains when properly cooked.  I think it was ratatouille that first interested me in eggplant, then baba ganouj, but where the purple fruit really shines is in Chinese cooking, and when I say Chinese cooking I mean Sichuan food, and when I say Sichuan food I mean yu xiang qiezi, and when I say…that, I mean:  Fish Fragrance Eggplant, one of my favorite Sichuan dishes, which puts it well up there among my favorite things to eat, period.  Where the fish in the title comes from, we will probably never know.  There are theories:  that the seasonings in the dish are the same commonly used to cook fish (but I had fish prepared many different ways in Sichuan); that in land-locked areas this preparation was somehow meant to mimic seafood (but even where there are not oceans, there are lakes and rivers).  

What’s certain is that there is nothing remotely fishy about the dish.  The eggplant is first fried to soften and brown it, then a sauce is prepared, of garlic and ginger, hot bean paste, soy, vinegar, and sugar, then the eggplant is anointed with this fragrant mélange, and the result is a really quite humble dish which nonetheless bursts with a complex interplay of flavors, aromas, and textures.  Zhen hao chi!

You can make this with the larger, Italian type of eggplant, but the skinny Asian kind is best.  I really like the pale lavender-and-lilac varieties, but I've only seen the dark versions this year.  I don't have them in my garden this year; the couple of plants I purchased failed to thrive.  It has been my experience that really fresh eggplant, whether of the Italian or Asian type, isn't bitter.  I think it's the long-haul, far-from-fresh eggplant we find in grocery stores in winter, dull-skinned and soft, that tend toward bitterness, and should be avoided.    Look for eggplant that is firm and shiny-skinned.  Don't let it sit around too long; it does not keep well.

The height of vegetable season--i.e., now--is a great time to dive into Chinese cooking.  Meat is often used more or less as a seasoning in many Chinese dishes, and the multi-plate format of a Chinese meal is a wonderful way to enjoy the amazing variety of produce available right now.  Sweet corn and chiles, cucumbers, and eggplants were the stars of a recent dinner chez Ecklaw.  Since our new house has an electric range, doing a proper stir-fry is difficult.  The wok doesn't get hot enough; a big sauté pan works okay, but it's really not the same.  So on this recent evening I decided to try the live-fire method.

A hunk of old metal we found in the woods at Bide-A-Wee made an adequate wok burner cooktop.  Things were off to a good start with the corn and chile stir-fry:

But we were racing against time:

And we lost.  We got one dish done on the fire, then made a mad dash back into the house to finish cooking in the kitchen.  It turned out okay.

Sichuan "Fish-Fragrance" Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)

If you can’t find the long, thin Chinese or Japanese eggplant, this dish can be made with regular eggplant.  If you use regular eggplant:  Trim the ends and cut the eggplant in half the long way; use a spoon to scoop out the seediest part of the center, then cut the rest into bite-size wedges.  Chopped pickled chiles are usually used in China; sambal is a more than adequate substitute.

A little bit of ground pork is often added to vegetable dishes in Sichuan.  You can omit it for a vegetarian version, but the well-fried, slightly crunchy pork makes a wonderful textural contrast to the creamy eggplant.

1 pound Chinese eggplant    
1 cup cooking oil

Trim the stem from the eggplants, cut them in half the long way, then cut on the diagonal into 2- to 3-inch pieces.  Heat a wok or heavy saucepan, then add the oil.  When the oil is hot deep-fry the eggplant slices, in two or three batches, until they are soft and just a little bit brown on the cut ends.  Drain them on a paper towel.  Pour out the deep-frying oil (you can save it to use again) and wipe out the wok.

1 tablespoon sugar       
1 tablespoon dark Chinese vinegar* (see note)
2 tablespoons soy sauce          

Mix the sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce together, and stir well to dissolve the sugar.

¼ pound ground pork  
1 ½ tablespoons minced garlic
1 ½ tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon chile paste (such as sambal oelek)
1 tablespoon broad bean paste with chile
2 tablespoons cooking oil         
½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
2 scallions, minced

Heat your wok or fry pan and add 2 tablespoons oil.  When the oil is very hot add the ground pork and stir-fry until the pork is cooked and slightly browned,  2 to 3 minutes.   Add the garlic, ginger, and and both chile and chile bean paste, and stir fry for 1  minute.

Now add the eggplant and stir-fry for about a minute to coat the eggplant with oil.  Then stir up the soy-vinegar-sugar mixture and add it to the pan.  Stir-fry for 1 minute and then remove everything to a serving plate.  Sprinkle the scallions and Sichuan pepper over it, and serve.

* Chinese dark vinegar is not at all the same as "black vinegar," as I was reminded yesterday when I mistakenly purchased the black kind, which tastes almost like Worchestershire sauce.  The dark vinegar I usually buy has a yellow label and is called "Chinkiang Vinegar": picture of the bottle in this post from last summer. 

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


dabbler said...

Why wasn't I invited to this dinner?!! He he... Eggplants, basils, garlic, chili paste, soy sauce, sesame oil and a pinch of sugar make a tasteful dish as well. Ta Ta!

Trout Caviar said...

Well, "dabbler," you must have missed the invitation. I sent it by passenger pigeon. But, you know, you have a standing invitation. Pop in anytime!


Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

I love eggplant and I think I finally figure out how to grow it: do not start it too early!

The only bitter eggplants I have ever tasted where small white ones and tiny orange Turkish ones. Otherwise, eggplants has never tasted bitter to me. But then again, I don't buy them in winter....

Eggplant, olive oil, garlic... can't get any simpler, and hardly any better. But thank you for sharing the Sichuan pork & eggplant recipe... and the introduction of a new-to-me ingredient: broad bean paste...

PS - It's lovely to read your gardening and culinary journal at your new place.

Sylvie in Rappahannock said...

... and one more thing, in that first picture, the frying eggplants look like fish... dark & shiny

(and Brett, those capcha codes are getting really really hard to read: I must have had to type (or ask for a new code) 10 times before being able to post....)

WeekendFarmer said...

Yum...I once had fish and eggplant cooked by a Chinese class-mate. Actually, it was mostly garlic...I think the eggplant and fish was just an excuse : ) I will always remember that dish.

Have you tried shrimp with cucumber? Its a Bengali dish. Amazing!

angie said...

Hi Brett,

Lovely recipe.

If you are interested, I'd like to send you a sampling of our harvest. :)

Contact me off-blog via my website: www.3flatacres.com/contact

Hope all is well. I am embarassingly behind on reading blogs I find of interest (like yours!)


Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sylvie: Our nursery eggplants were doing so poorly, I yanked them weeks ago. Then one day, what do I see in the garden but an incredibly healthy eggplant plant, rising from the soil like the very phoenix! There must have been a small second plant in the pot when I planted it, and it finally found its moment to shine. It has flowers now, but it's a race against time--we could get frost any day. But isn't that a lesson to never count nature out?

Re the codes, I dislike them, too, and I don't really have anything to do with them, they just come with the Blogger program. In spite of them, the robots still get through....

Broad bean paste is a little harder to find than the soy bean chile paste; either will work.

WF: Nice to hear from you. I've never had eggplant and fish, not that I can recall, but it would be a good combination. Bengali shrimp and cucumber sounds fantastic.

Hey, Angie, thank you for the offer, and I will be in touch. I have been keeping up with your progress on the farm--you two are really keeping busy, and everything is looking great!

Cheers, all~ Brett