Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick slices. Brush these liberally with olive oil—you don’t have to use EVO, people, any good olive oil will do—and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Dice and reserve. 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. Add eggplant with a cup of diced tomatoes, a chopped roasted red pepper (about a half cup). Season to taste with salt then flavor with freshly-dried basil, dried thyme, and crushed red peppers, Bake at about 300 until bubbling. Cool and serve with flat bread.
Much is written about foods as panaceas against the stress of everyday existence. A bowl of chicken stew on a crisp November night or banana pudding on a warm May afternoon can be every bit as comforting as a Mose Allison tune or slipping on old shoes.
But dishes that challenge us should have places on our plates as well. At some point in our lives, many of us become complacent; we eat what we prefer to stultification. But listen to your Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” I’m not urging you to sample foods contrary to your ethics, but do try dishes you might forego for superficial reasons.
In particular, childhood prejudices should come under review. Unless you were the subject of abuse of the dastardliest kind, the dishes you disliked as a child were most likely fed you by people who loved you and wanted you to do well in the world. Believe that. Believe also that they probably didn’t know how to cook. Perhaps it’s their fault you hate spinach, but the lingering scar of their benign ineptitude should not deny you of present or future pleasure.
My culinary bugbear was eggplant, invariably fried, soggy, greasy, and limp as hell. I hated it. But once I went to a Lebanese event at Ole Miss where a spry little lady served up the most wonderful creamy, and absolutely delicious spread. I asked her what it was, and she turned to her husband, whose English was better, and he said “eggplant.” Had I known what it was in the first place, I probably wouldn’t have tried it at all, but I was pleasantly surprised that my old bête noire could take on such an appealing form. The dish is known by many names, but I know it as baba ghanoush. Here’s a basic recipe:
3 medium eggplants
3 cloves of roast garlic, mashed
1/2 cup of tahini
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
Stem, pierce and roast eggplants in a hot oven until soft. Scoop out the flesh, taking care to get the browned meat, mix with the other ingredients and blend in a food processor until smooth. Adjust salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with wedges of your favorite flat bread.
As a young man, I walked into a health food store that was run by one of those 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 bedsheets 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 already tenuous relationship with curries, and though I have read Madhur Jaffre’s pontifications on the subject, I’ve never reached the degree of sophistication some of my peers have by actually making my own blend. Granted, curry isn’t a spice mixture I use very often, either, but I really do love a pungent curried roast chicken, particularly cold with sour cream. Like most people, I find curry most useful for vegetables, particularly cauliflower and eggplant.
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.) Peel about two pounds 26-30 count shrimp, one white onion and 2 small mild peppers. Heat oil in a heavy skillet, crush two cloves of garlic, add to oil with onions, peppers, and shrimp, sauté until shrimp are cooked, then add eggplant. Stir to mix thoroughly; you’ll have to add some liquid, about two cups. You can use water, but I use a weak stock (usually chicken). Season with two tablespoons curry powder infused with a teaspoon each thyme leaves and basil. Add cayenne to taste. Mix thoroughly and pour into an oven dish or deep–sided pan and bake in a medium (350) oven until firm. Seasoned rice is a great side.