That glut of food down the hill, or the fenced patch of weeds and trailing vines formerly known as “the garden,” is making me more magnanimous than usual. I’m chucking vegetables into pots, stripping kale from its stems at warp speed and lopping off way too much good stuff when I cut up a tomato, just to get through them. But I’m telling you, I want to get these vegetables taken care of, and they just keep coming, Strega Nonna-style.
My eggplants are glorious. Check it out. Scads of shiny baby eggplants, weighing down the stalks like iron lanterns.
Store-bought eggplant do not compare to fresh eggplant. They’re silkier, paler and when cooked slow and low, they will melt in your mouth. The only problem with growing them is that they come all at once. I’ve been throwing them on the stovetop to smoke and wither down every chance I get, and I even froze a bunch of them for making babghanous, the smoky eggplant and homemade mayo dip that I adore.
But the other day I peeled back the burnt skins and pureed the smoked eggplant, pumped it up with farm eggs and a pretty healthy pour of heavy cream and slowly baked the custard. I wouldn’t bake it uncovered again, strictly for visual reasons, as the skin it formed on top was an unappealing leatherish army green, but still, the custard was delicious in small doses and carried a great deal of smoky eggplant flavor through. (My thought: it might be better as a sformato: baked in individual cups in a water bath. Next time.)
Tonight I took the leftover eggplant custard and mixed it into a batch of steamed basmati rice with dill and toasted almonds and found myself stumbling onto something pretty great. Smoked eggplant dirty rice? Oh my god. And it’s vegetarian. No matter which way you lean on the protein spectrum, this stuff rocks. But the next time I may forgo making the custard; I’ll just add the crushed smoked eggplant to the sauteed onions and almonds, add the rice, bury a cinnamon stick and a few bay leaves in it, and steam. (Sorry, there’s no recipe. It was pure improvisation.)
But my absolute favorite way to make eggplant comes from this little Uzbekistani restaurant on Brighton Beach Boulevard in Brooklyn. We stumbled up from the beach one day, our noses leading us to this restaurant whose windows, open to the street, were exhaling great puffs of smoke. My gut identified it as pork. Inside, two guys were spinning shaskliks (kabobs: some pork, some lamb rib, some ground lamb) over chunks of charcoal as if caught in a hot game of foosball. We ordered a couple of those, and they fully lived up to the smoky hype drifting out onto the street, but the revelation of the day was the eggplant and tomato “salad,” a dish of shining cubes of purple eggplant, some tomato and a few spent petals of onion. The entire thing had been cooked into submission, and in an ungodly amount of olive oil, too.
But that day I discovered something: I hadn’t been cooking my eggplant near long enough. And another thing: if you cook the eggplant in its skin for a long time in olive oil, like a French confit, it comes out as soft and luscious (and nearly as sweet) as a marshmallow. I kid you not. So this is my rendition of the Uzbek eggplant-tomato, studded with cinnamon and bay, honey and plenty of olive oil. In our house it goes by the feckless name “eggplant stuff,” but we think of it with great reverence.