Books

Trapped in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

The eggplant does not blend with other flavors as, say, the onion, or the carrot do. The eggplant, no matter what one does to it, remains irresolutely itself. And I am rendered despondent.

Amid the happy tumble of heirloom tomatoes, near the scalloped yellow pattypan squashes perched beside their elongated, green-skinned brethren, down the aisle from the fresh corn; just as little Heather O’Rourke warned us in another context: there’re here. Piled high, purple-black, glistening like so may pairs of patent leather boots.

The eggplants are in.

And I weep.

* * *

Open any cookbook and find love sonnets written to the eggplant’s vegetal versatility. You can bake it, broil it, fry it, steam it, even cook it down to a sweet jam. Laurie Colwin’s first book of food writing, Home Cooking, contains the famous essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant”, which describes in great detail the many eggplant-based meals she happily concocted while living in a studio apartment with minimal cooking facilities. Among these dishes were eggplant… “with garlic and honey, eggplant with spaghetti, eggplant with fried onions and Chinese plum sauce.” Her friends, she wrote, refused to partake. Yet even after marrying and moving into an apartment with a real kitchen, she concluded the essay by admitting that when she was alone, she still reached for an eggplant and cooked up one of her odd dinners.

I wish I could share this feeling. I wish I could rejoice in the summer produce glee that folds cucumbers, zucchini, fresh garlic, basil, tomatoes, and, yes, eggplant to its joyous bosom (Look, life is miserable. We have to be happy about something).

But I say it loud, if not proud: I don’t like eggplant.

Don’t misunderstand. I have tried and tried to like eggplant. But I don't come from an eggplant-eating family. Nor did I marry into one. The arrival of eggplant in my weekly box of farm vegetables, nestled among the tomatoes and peaches, does not bring joy. Nor do I feel good setting eggplant on the counter -- like the tomato, it dislikes the refrigerator -- and watching it wither .

I have succeeded with eggplant in only three areas: a spicy chicken/eggplant dish served in a local Chinese restaurant, moussaka, and provisionally, Claudia Roden’s baba ghanoush recipe from The Book of Jewish Food. All distract from the eggplant’s essential, bitter unavailability, a quality only I seem to notice.

* * *

The eggplant holds superstar billing in my Middle Eastern cookbooks. Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon has 26 eggplant recipes, ranging from salads to stews, mostly with lamb, for eggplant and lamb go together like fries with catsup. Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food has 30 eggplant recipes, not one of them Ashkenazi, or Eastern European; eggplants are native to the Mediterranean, and thus the food of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, Jews. My forebears are Russian and Romanian, consumers of cabbage and carrots; perhaps it is in my genes to disavow the eggplant.

* * *

Open an Israeli cookbook and brace yourself. Israelis are not known for their mellow approach to foodstuffs. Nor are American Jews… but Israelis, if this is possible, are louder. I say this with kindness, for it must be admitted that Ashkenazi food, the food of my soul, of my final meal, pales beside the vibrantly spicy multicultural Israeli cuisine, zinging with herbs, spices, and oy vey, so very much eggplant.

Take the Israeli-born, now London inhabitant Yotam Ottolenghi, whose cookbook Plenty is divided by vegetable. The eggplant is not merely labeled eggplant: it is “The Mighty Eggplant”. Janna Gur, in The Book of New Israeli Food, calls the eggplant “sexy-looking”, while warning against heavier vegetables, which are seedier. This did not help me with last week’s gargantuan specimen, which was indeed heavy, laced throughout with seeds that no cookbook has any advice on apart from avoidance. Wonderful.

Both Ottolenghi and Gur offer a multitude of eggplant recipes, many involving tahini (sometimes spelled tahina), which is a dip or paste made from ground sesame seeds. Baba Ghanoush is eggplant broiled much like peppers are, over a gas flame or under the broiler, their skins peeled, their innards then mashed with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley. It is, as I said above, something I can tolerate in a sandwich with summer’s freshly sliced tomatoes. The countless other eggplant preparations Ottolenghi, Gur, and of course, Claudia Roden offer I cannot stomach.

Ottolenghi’s eggplant with buttermilk and pomegranate seeds, so pretty it graces Plenty’s cover, is combination of food that scrambles my brains. None were a part of my life until middle adulthood. Buttermilk, until I began using it in muffin-baking exploits, was known to me as a by-product of Ma Ingalls’s butter-churning, given to Mary and Laura as a treat. Pomegranate seeds exist to lodge themselves demonically in my dental work. Neither mask the essential fact of the eggplant: even when seedless, there is an unavailability about it, a bitterness no amount of salting or cooking dissipates.

The eggplant does not blend with other flavors as, say, the onion, or the carrot do, lending their flavors to the rest of the dish as if their vegetable lives depend on it. Perhaps they do. But the eggplant, no matter what one does to it, remains irresolutely itself.

Even Ottolenghi’s mother’s recipe for eggplant croquettes, requiring both feta cheese and deep frying, fails to hide what is being sprinkled with that sharply lovely, crumbly cheese and a bath in hot oil. Deep frying is a pain in the ass. It’s also the cook’s equivalent to bacon: it improves almost everything. Except… eggplant.

There is Janna Gur’s Eggplant Carpaccio, which calls for roasting eggplant, then topping it with hyssop leaves, silan honey, tahini, goat milk yogurt, tomatoes, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, hot pepper, salt and pepper, then tucking in as you would a loaded baked potato. I tried this, eliminating the hyssop leaves, a specialty item, and the silan honey, because the idea of honey and eggplant frankly revolted me. The rest was great except the eggplant, which sat there being its usual uninviting self.

* * *

You may wonder why an entire column devoted to a disliked food. Because I’m guilty. True eggplant is seasonal, and everyone else is doing Happy Eggplant Dances and making fake chopped liver (This is so, so wrong. Either make real chopped liver or make something else.).

I feel I should be following Deborah Madison’s dictum, from Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone.“Eggplant is the workhorse of the summer kitchen in Mediterranean cuisine.” Madison is part of the Alice Waters Posse: to dislike eggplant is to fly in the face of chefs I revere: Alice Waters, David Tanis, whose few eggplant recipes are true to form, plainly speaking of the vegetable, the venerable Claudia Roden, younger chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and his partner, Sami Tamimi, whose marvelously creative cooking is causing a sensation in the food world. It is to reject a vegetable of tremendous versatility—I’ve not written here of significant role eggplant plays in Asian cuisine, of the smaller Asian eggplants, which are a delicate eggshell white.

We all have foods we dislike. Some of us are choosier than others; strangely, I find with age I am becoming intolerant of foods I once loved, especially sweets. Then there are the foods I will never like: beets, pineapple, sweet liquors. Yet I struggle to remain open-minded.

Certainly in the grand scheme, it's ridiculous to agonize over eggplant. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy. Throwing away a fresh vegetable is reason for guilt. Until I can find something else to do with eggplant—prepare recipes like involtini or moussaka, which are complicated and call for numerous ingredients, therefore masking the eggplant to some degree—I console myself, grudgingly, with baba ghanoush. And hope, with time and persistence, my taste changes.

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