Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer vegetables inspire

Shopping at the market this morning I spotted eggplant, and gorgeous tomatoes. Yesterday I'd unearthed some potatoes from the vegetable garden. And suddenly, the urge to have fried eggplant and a fresh, long-cooked tomato sauce just overwhelmed me, or at least some variation of such. Early, very early, in my time in Arles, Erick prepared me his Aubergine en Estrasses, aka La Riste d'Aubergine. It was a revelation. Never had eggplant been so delectable.

My mother had attempted fried eggplant when I was a child. Somehow it never went over. She dipped the thick round slices in eggs, then bread crumbs, and fried away, I don't know in what oil, likely a Crisco product. They were bitter sponges of oil, with, progressively, more and more burnt crumbs upon them. Now, don't get me wrong, Ma can cook, but this was not a dish she had mastered, and I found it pretty darn inedible. So, eggplant and I, well, we took awhile to get acquainted.

Then there was the eggplant in black bean sauce at the Chinese restaurant where I was hostess nearly every weekend through high school. That was pretty good, with lots of garlic. Atop rice it made a meal. Yet, there again, the oil content was rather overwhelming and I'm sure it didn't help my figure.

So, along I came to Provence, by the Mediterranean Sea, to a land of summer vegetables. Yes, both the eggplant and the tomato were late-comers to these shores, the former from the new world, the latter along the silk and spice routes. But oh how they have adapted.

The craving for the nutty, salty flavor of the olive oil fried eggplant, paired with the sweet and intense flavor of summer tomatoes accosted me, and thus, my purchases followed suit. However, there were still those potatoes to consider, and a bit of sausage meat seemed tempting. Why not attempt a variation of a Moussaka? I've not my cookbooks here with me at my friend's, but I've my taste memories, and a few culinary skills to apply so, why not wing it? What follows is what I was inspired to do, and does not follow any existent recipe by an esteemed colleague.

I began by slicing the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkling them with salt to sweat -- layer by layer in a casserole dish, I laid down eggplant slices (about 1/4 in or a 1/2 cm), sprinkled on salt, and continued till I'd filled my casserole. Then I put this aside and forgot it, allowing the salt to do its work drawing out moisture and bitterness.

My attention then turned to the potatoes. I put these in some water to boil and soften. (a handful of small ones, all told 2 cups when riced).

Then I chopped three small onions and put them in a pan with some olive oil. As they sweated I pulled out my sausage meat (yes, this time round, I was more in the mood for sausage than ground beef) and added it to the onions. While these browned a bit, I chopped up my ever so red tomatoes. The onions nicely sweated and the sausage mostly cooked, I added the tomatoes to the sauce pan. I then smashed with the side of my knife and chopped finely 3-4 garlic cloves (about 1 tablespoon plus of garlic). I went down the outside stairs to pluck some bay leaf from the tree, and added these to the mix as well. The heat drew out the liquid in the tomatoes, and the sauce began to cook down.

I then got out a thick bottomed frying pan and began a béchamel sauce. I had a memory of a smooth mashed potato topping on Moussaka. So in went a nice chunk of butter, then a tablespoon or so of flour, once I'd blended these together with the whisk I poured in a cup and a half of milk, relatively slowly, whisking all the while. For once I made a béchamel in a frying pan not a sauce pan. I think I'll continue doing this. The process goes a bit faster, and keeps me beside it, thus limiting chances of forgetfulness, sticking on the bottom of the pan, etc., Once the sauce began to thicken a bit, I sprinkled in some grated gruyère cheese, and a few leaves of oregano from outdoors. I whisked till it was all just blended, then turned off the heat and let it sit.

Meantime, my potatoes were cooked (I just gently tested them with a knife, to see if they were tender). I put them in some cool water so I could handle them, and then put them through the vegetable mill to rice them. These I added to the béchamel, and blended together.

I could then turn my attention back to the eggplant. I'd only let them sweat the time it took me to handle the other manoeuvers. Erick would have been sure to let them sweat at least an hour and a half, if not two, till properly wilted. Ah well, perfection is attainable by some, and others make do with the time at hand.

So, as I learned from Erick, I rinsed these eggplant in lots of running water, squeezed them out and laid them on a dish cloth and tapped them with another till all the droplets of water were pressed out. I poured some olive in a frying pan -- enough to nicely cover the bottom. I turned on the heat, and 3 to 4 slices at a time I fried for just over a minute a side -- I wanted them lightly browned, but not too. I used my tongs to turn them, and then lift them out of the frying pan, letting a maximum of oil drip off before transferring them to a colander to continue draining. I continued till I'd finished all the slices.

All along my tomato sauce was simmering and concentrating. mmmm.

Now, all my separate ingredients were ready and I put it all together: In a square baking dish a layer or two of eggplant, then some of my sauce with sausage, another layer of eggplant and sauce, and then topped off with the smoothed potatoes (to which I'd added a bit more milk as I saw them thicken when cooled). I grated a touch of nutmeg on top, sprinkled some paprika and hot pepper, and then into a hot oven for 30 minutes till the top was nicely browned.

(not the most elegant of presentations, but it was yummy!)

A proper lunch for a summer's day, no? and my vegetable cravings soon to be sated. Mmmm

Here is Erick's original recipe for the fried eggplant and sauce:

Riste d’Aubergine/ Aubergine en Estrasses - Fried Eggplant in tomato sauce

A dish so simple and yet very rich in flavor and pleasure. Its second name “en estrasses” makes reference to the appearance of the wilted and fried eggplant (esstrasse means an old dish cloth).

Preparation time : 1-2 hours to sweat the eggplant; plus 45 minutes -- though if you’ve a bit more for the sauce, it can only get better.

One kg eggplant (2.2 lbs)
salt for sweating the eggplant
1/2 - 1 cup olive oil for frying

For the sauce :

3 tblspns olive oil
One onion sliced
One kg tomatoes (2.2 lbs) peeled and chopped coarsely
3 garlic cloves crushed and chopped
3 bay leaves
one tiny dried hot red pepper (cayenne, bird’s tongue)
fresh water as needed

Slice the eggplant in 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick lengths, leaving on the skins. Layer in a rectangular casserole dish, sprinkling liberally with salt to sweat. After an hour or so, rinse well under fresh running water, and tap dry.

While the eggplant is sweating, start the tomato sauce. In a large sauce pan pour in the olive and add the onions. Simmer till translucent (sweated), approximately 2-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook till they release their juice (5 minutes or so). Add the garlic, the bay leaves, and the pepper and let simmer. -- A note here, I prefer to use a tiny hot pepper in my tomato sauces rather than black pepper. I find that black pepper becomes bitter when simmered over a long time (like black tea) and in the end, adds only a bit of “hotness”. Whereas, the tiny red pepper raises all the flavors in the sauce, never too hot, but just more lively. -- As needed, add fresh water (especially if you’re working with a sauce pan without a lid). This has the added benefit of allowing you to cook the tomatoes longer and therefore have a sweeter richer sauce flavor when you serve it. Do not let the liquid reduce to a thickness that would encourage the bottom to burn. You want a relatively liquid sauce. Cooking time can be an hour or more. The general rule with tomatoes is the more they simmer, the less acidic they’ll be. Towards the end of the cooking time, take a potato masher and crush the chunks of tomato in the sauce, this will thicken your sauce and smooth it out.

Your sauce underway, check your eggplant. If it’s well wilted, rinsed and tapped dry, pour the olive oil into a deep frying pan (you want at least a 1/3 inch or 1/2 centimeter of oil in your pan). Let it heat up (a minute) and then start frying the eggplant slices, as many as fit into the pan easily, turning when lightly browned, and then remove them to a platter with a paper towel on it to absorb extra oil. Continue till all the slices are done. Set aside till you are ready to serve. To serve the dish, ladle the hot sauce on the eggplant in a deep serving dish, each person receives 3 or more slices with accompanying sauce. Enjoy!

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