Shrimp and Eggplant Curry

Once as a very young man, I walked into a health food store that was run by one of those formidable New Age types whose moral superiority in the realm of nutrition–which she considered an extension of her deep-seated beliefs in The Great Mother and Her Bosom of Beneficence–was further exaggerated by just being an asshole herself.

When I asked her where she kept the curry, she literally sniffed, tilted her nose towards the tie-dyed bed sheets covering the ceiling and said, “I’m sure you mean to make your own. If you’ll give me your recipe, I’ll show you where you can find the ingredients.”

So I fumbled in my pockets and mumbled something about leaving the recipe my friend Rupta had given me at home before beating a retreat and hitting the books only to discover that curry is indeed not a singular spice or seasoning, but a combination of any given number of ingredients with endless variations.

Still, that experience cooled my tenuous relationship with curries, and though I have read Madhur Jaffre’s pontificates on the subject, I’ve never reached the degree of sophistication peers have by actually making my own blend. Granted, curry isn’t a spice mixture I use very often, either, but I love a curried chicken, particularly cold with sour cream, and it’s good with eggplant and okra, too.

Peel and halve (or cut into thick slices, depending on the size) six small or two large eggplants, brush liberally with oil (I don’t recommend olive oil for this recipe, nor ghee or what passes for it in your world; if you’re picky about it–and God help you if you are–use peanut oil), dust with pepper and place in a very hot oven until browned and soft. For this recipe you’ll need about three cups of cooked eggplant.

Saute about two pounds 26-30 count shrimp with a chopped a small onion and 2 small mild peppers. Don’t use a bell if you can help it; even a poblano is better. Saute with  two cloves of garlic until shrimp are cooked, then add eggplant. Season with a quarter cup of your favorite curry. Blend with a cup to two of weak stock to the consistency of a thick gumbo . Bake in a medium (350) oven until reduced by half.

Crawfish-Eggplant Pie

Cryptozoologists report that crawfish three feet long live in a remote Japanese lake, but not one of these animals has yet to make its way onto a sushi bar, much less into an étouffée. The largest recorded crawfish, about half that size, live in Tasmania, where they are protected by law, not like that would stop a Cajun with a plane ticket and a dozen coolers.

Crawfish are the same thing as crayfish. What distinguishes them from their cousins (lobster, shrimp, crab and krill) is that crawfish live in fresh water, making them the most available crustaceans in the world. They’ve been eaten with relish for centuries. Their popularity in this country is largely restricted to the Deep South, more specifically to Louisiana, for the simple reason that the French people who came to live there (unlike the riff-raff who invaded the rest of the country) were more familiar with crawfish as food than as bait.

God in His Infinite Wisdom provided the French settlers in Louisiana with a vigorous and plentiful species for their tables, the red swamp crawfish (Procambarus clarkii). Renegade squadrons of these creatures have achieved invasive status all over North America as well as Europe and Asia, and their proliferation in the wetlands surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi provides the basis for a multi-million dollar industry. The Louisiana Legislature designated the charming city of Breaux Bridge the Crawfish Capital of the World in 1959, a title blithely if not pointedly ignored in Mère France, where dishes including crawfish are referred to as à la Nantua.

Gallic enthusiasm aside, it’s worth noting that crawfish play a significant role in the cuisines of Scandinavia, where on the first Friday in August people gather outside, sing, eat mass quantities of crawfish and drink prodigious amounts of vodka, beer and aquavit. In that part of the world, the cooler taste of dill (seeds, crowns, leaves and stems) is used to flavor a bouillon of sugared vinegar, beer and water. Cajuns also eat crawfish in public celebrations with plenty of music, beer and booze, which might be the only direct parallel between the two peoples. The most decided culinary contrast is the pungent spices used to season the bouillon in this part of the world. Forget that sissy dill; if you don’t have halved heads of garlic, bay and cayenne in the water, not to mention plenty socks of seasonings, corn, potatoes and whatever else is in the refrigerator, you’re going to be trussed to a tree and someone else is going to take charge.

Fresh crawfish are usually available February through May, but frozen crawfish meat is available year-round. This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s wonderful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), in my less-than-humble opinion the most comprehensive and best-written book about the kaleidoscopic world of southern Louisiana’s music, history, and food.

Crawfish-Eggplant Pie

Melt a stick of butter in a skillet, sauté one small onion, three ribs celery, one small bell pepper and a clove of garlic, all finely chopped. Add the diced meat of 1 large eggplant and cook until soft. Add about a cup of chicken stock, a quarter cup sherry (NOT “cooking sherry”), a pound of peeled crawfish tails and enough bread crumbs to thicken into a wet paste. Season with salt, pepper (cayenne, if you want more heat), thyme and basil, pour into a baking dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 until bubbling. This recipe makes about six servings (over rice) as an entree, works well as a small plate buffet item and is better served warm and best the next day.

Spanish Eggplant

Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick dice. Brush these liberally with olive oil and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Sauté a small yellow onion with a mild thin-walled pepper such as a sweet banana or poblano—you want about a cup of each, coarsely chopped—with chopped garlic, two cloves, and diced zucchini or yellow squash. Add eggplant, two cups diced tomatoes, and a large, chopped roasted red pepper. Salt to taste then season with freshly-dried basil, dried thyme, and crushed red pepper. Bake at about 300 until bubbling. Cool and serve with flat bread.