Prodded on by a Turkish recipe I found in a recent Wednesday New York Times, I went on a bit of an eggplant binge this week-end. I like exploring ethnic recipes that are within my comfort level, i.e. featuring ingredients that are not necessarily familiar but that can find a permanent niche in my pantry. I will dabble with Indian but not so much with Korean as I will not know what to do with fish sauces and pickled vegetables and fiery pastes past the initial burst of enthusiasm.
Turkish food, or anything in the Mediterranean basin, will definitely inspire my cooking which, these days, is limited to Friday nights and Sundays (a girl needs to fit her work-outs in her scarce amount of waking hours). Hoping and praying my Sunday guests, whom I just met and whose culinary preferences are still foreign to me, will share in my eggplant passion, I proceeded to cut a fleshy and purple eggplant in medium size cubes and let them drain, sprinkled with salt, in the sink for an hour. In ancient times, the reason for doing this had to do with the bitterness of the tiny seeds that could be mitigated by making the eggplant sweat. These days, the varieties we buy have been engineered to lose that bitterness but the flesh of the eggplant tends to absorb an enormous amount of fat while cooking (as everyone who has ever eaten an Eggplant Parmesan and reached for Pepto Bismal afterwa will know) so by letting some of the water drain it will limit the amount of oil absorbed.
I heated up some olive oil in a pot on medium-high heat, added the eggplant and let it soften and brown, about 10 minutes, then I removed it to a bowl, added more oil to the pot and dumped in 1 1/2 sweet onions, roughly chopped, a couple of chopped, juicy tomatoes, a few tablespoons of pine nuts, a quarter cup of raisins, a ts of cinnamon, 1 ts of cumin, salt and pepper and let everything cook until the pine nuts started to brown. Then I returned the eggplant to the pot which I covered and let simmer for about half an hour, occasionally stirring, until all the flavours had melded and the eggplant had softened but not completely broken down. I was planning to serve this as a side dish to chicken but I couldn’t stop spreading it on bread and wolfing it down.
To that end, I tackled another eggplant in pretty much the same way and, after browning and softening it, I added a minced garlic clove, a lot of cherry tomatoes from my still yielding plant, some capers, salt and pepper and let everything cook until the tomatoes started to break down. And then I spread it on bread as a bruschetta, while reaching for a Campari that would leave me buzzed and satiated by the time my guests would appear.
What we call eggplant is a bit of a misnomer and should more aptly be known as aubergine, its first Western name (possibly from the French or the Catalonian). Aubergines originated in India, where they are known as brinjal (now you know what you are ordering when your Indian menu doesn’t offer a translation) and they belong to the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and potatoes. They found their way west around the 1500’s where they were promptly named aubergines in a smatter of countries. In the US, the name eggplant dates back to 18th century and it referred to a yellow or white cultivar that resembled an egg. How it went on to encompass the aubergine, I am not clear.
An interesting tidbit about eggplant, besides being rich in potassium and folic acid, it has a very high nicotine content. High for a plant that is – sitting next to a smoker will still let you inhale a much higher dose…