I once went to an acupuncturist who had an absolute mania about plants in the family called Solanaceae. That would include lots of familiar culinary plants like eggplant, potatoes, some peppers and tomatoes, but also poisonous plants like tobacco, Deadly Nightshade and Jimson weed. She was convinced that if you ate or used more than two of these together or any one of them in abundance, you’d be poisoning yourself. I tell myself I didn’t believe her, but then again, I haven’t eaten Ratatouille in years. So I’m not sure what possessed me to plant tomatoes and eggplants together. But then my gardening doesn’t really seem to have a plan at present. I’m just throwing things in the ground and hoping for the best. The best keeps happening and now I’m on the threshold of a bumper crop of five kinds of tomatoes and two kinds of eggplants. The tomatoes are slightly behind, so I’m attempting to eat my way through the eggplants. Which is not an easy thing to do when you have a bumper crop and an English husband who recognizes only three things as vegetables: peas, carrots and potatoes.
So here I am eating eggplant practically three meals a day while I’m in Sonoma and trying not to think about whatever toxins I may be building up in my body. To counteract that fear, I’m avoiding tomatoes and trying to focus on some reports that say the trace elements in eggplant lower cholesterol. I wish I could say I’m experimenting with ever more exotic recipes for eggplant. But, as with all the vegetables I’m growing, I’m finding they taste so perfectly and richly of themselves that I can’t bear to mask them with cheese or sauce or much of anything but salt and olive oil. So for that reason, but not for that reason alone, I’m following the culinary direction of The Jefferson Airplane: Go Ask Alice. That would be Alice Waters. And at this point, if you have ever tasted a fresh heirloom vegetable, you should fall to your knees murmering, “We are not worthy.”
Can we take a moment here to sing the praises of Alice Waters, who I would say cannot be praised enough? This is the woman who, long before there was any foodie movement, locavore revolution or American Food Renaissance, created all three of them by supporting and promoting local growers and farmers (mostly in Sonoma County) who were striving to raise heritage vegetables and animals without pesticides and with the greatest attention to quality and traditional tastes. And although she was French trained, Alice had the foresight and the taste to demand only the simplest of preparations that let the freshest and best ingredients shine. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have an insanely large library of cookbooks. But for my homegrown vegetables, I keep coming back to Alice. And the book I most rely on is her The Art of Simple Food. Oh, I take a detour every now an then through Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He’s thorough and his recipes are nice. But I know Alice and he’s no Alice. Or rather, I would posit that he, too, is an Alice Disciple, because his philosophy seems so similar: get the freshest, best heirloom vegetables, cook them simply and don’t muck them up with too many sauces and ingredients. In any case, when it comes to eggplant, Alice and Mark are on the same page. Or rather Alice is on page 303 in her book and Mark is on page 294 in his book. Still, they mostly agree. Get the best eggplant and do the least to it. Well, Mark does include the heinous eggplant Parmesan, but he does hint at the awful truth. He diplomatically states that “it is a dish where the eggplant loses some of its identity.” I would say it’s a gluey cheesy eggplant recipe for people who don’t really like eggplant.
Where Mark and Alice are in accord (and I suspect they were on the phone to each other during the writing of their respective cookbooks) is that you should start with small, tender, heirloom eggplants. And they both refute the common wisdom that you need to salt the eggplants to draw out bitterness. If you’ve chosen the aforementioned fresh, small eggplants, they won’t be bitter. However, you may want to salt them anyway for taste and also because it draws out some of the water thus blocking the absorption of oil. (If you’ve ever cooked eggplant, you know they are sponges for oil. If you don’t salt them, you can go through a cup of oil before you know it, rendering a zero calorie vegetable a virtual calorie bomb.) Both Alice and Mark are big proponents of grilling eggplant with just a brush of olive oil. Mark even suggests you can dry roast eggplants whole in skillet. Just cook turning “until the eggplant darkens without burning and the skin is blistered and black all over and the flesh collapses.” He suggests this method makes an eggplant you can save and use for later stirfries or stuffed eggplant. Interesting Mark, but I’d rather cook and eat them within the half hour. That sends me back to Alice, who cautions that you should cut fairly thick slices — say about 1/2 inches or a bit larger. Otherwise the slices will dry out before they cook through.
So following their advice, I sliced my eggplant, salted and rested it for about ten minutes. Then I sprinkled the slices with Herbes de Provence and dropped them into a cast iron pan with a minimum of olive oil and cooked until brown on the outside and creamy on the inside.
So come on, people. Now that I’ve channeled Alice to tell you how to cook eggplant, I need those of you in San Francisco to step up to the plate and take some of the harvest.
No matter how well cooked, I can’t eat all this eggplant by myself!