Friday, May 31, 2013

Two If By Eggplant

I had two days off, back-to-back, after Memorial Day. I decided to spend them with my parents, whom I hadn't visited in a while. I combined this trip with two objectives: first, to experiment on my loved ones with two eggplant dishes, only one of which I had tried before; and second, to get a haircut from my Dad. I totally forgot the second objective until I was driving home on Wednesday. As for the first objective, the results were mixed.

The first eggplant dish—the one I had tried before—was ratatouille. I picked up all the ingredients on my way out of town Monday night, excepting olive oil, salt, and pepper (which I trusted my parents to have handy) and basil (which I forgot about). I actually had to buy a live thyme plant, because it was the only way I could get fresh thyme without making an extra stop. When it came time to cook, I personally hand-chopped the eggplant, yellow squash, zucchini, onion, bell peppers (one each of four colors!), Roma tomatoes, parsley, thyme (not so much chopped as pinched the leaves off the stem), and garlic.

Once the ingredients were prepared, I cooked them as directed, adding a little extra time because I was using up all the ingredients rather than limiting myself to Emeril's measurements, so it took longer for the heat to propagate throughout the dish. The outcome was juicy, colorful, and full of delicious flavors. I was very pleased... except when I realized that my folks could probably make more or less the same dish in half the time, using the vegetable grill basket and a charcoal fire. I liked the dish, but I sensed a lukewarm reception by my parents.

The second eggplant dish was the Middle-East-style dip known as Baba Ganoush. And I'm afraid everything went wrong. For starters, I was counting on my parents using the grill, as they usually do when I come over. Apparently they had no such plans for this time, and I had to improvise using something like a broil setting on their oven. My father and I thought it prudent to line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil before doing this, to protect the inside bottom surface from eggplant drippings. Disaster #1 was that the aluminum welded itself to the inside bottom surface of the oven. Disaster #2 was that it took ages to show any signs of softening.

Eventually I lost my patience, peeled the eggplant, and tried mashing it as well as I could. Finding this did not answer well, I put the eggplant in a pan on the stovetop and added a bit of water, giving it more time and thermal energy in the hope that it would soften. Finally, I gave it the best mash I could and popped open the jar of tahini that my father and I had found, after I had failed to find any at the store I shopped on the way out of town (at which time I picked up a tub of hummus as a potential substitute), and after we had both failed to find any tahini at a large grocery store down the highway from my folks' place (where I bought some sesame seeds with the idea of making my own tahini). Just for kicks, before returning home from that shopping trip, we poked our nose into the local market across the road from my parents' place. And what did we find? Tahini!

Disaster #3: Upon opening the jar of tahini and sticking a spoon into it, I found that it had coagulated into one very solid lump. I tried to stir it, but the spoon became hopelessly stuck. I tried to scrape out about half of the contents of the jar, but spilled most of it into the mashed eggplant during the attempt. Then I just had to make the best of it, adding more lemon juice than the recipe called for in a hopeless bid to cut the overpowering flavor of sesame. I also added more of the garlic and parsley I had chopped earlier, some cumin, salt, and pepper, but in spite of everything the dip persisted in having an ugly brownish color, clumpy dry pastelike texture, and a flavor strongly suggestive of extra-oily peanut butter, only with an added edge of bitterness. The eggplant would have disappeared into it altogether, were it not for the vegetable's persistence in sticking together in tough, stringy lumps.

The only thing more devastating than having to dump most of the dip into the trash (especially considering the money spent on its ingredients) was bearing the derisive sniffs of my father (who obviously considers me a fool for even trying this) and the studied nonchalance of my stepmother (when I would have fully understood her being furious). I got the distinct impression that I am not welcome to foist an experiment in Baba Ganoush on their kitchen again... Bummer.

Tonight I recovered some of my self-esteem by making a successful veal Parmesan sandwich on ciabatta bread. I felt particularly gleeful about the fact that the bread (a clearance item), the breaded veal cutlets (four in a package), the cheese (pre-sliced mozzarella), and the spaghetti sauce (a jar of the generic brand), added up to a mere $10 at the cash register. With perhaps a side of steamed veggies and noodles in a warm sauce, a restaurant could sell one of these sandwiches for about what I paid for the makings of four of them, plus extra rolls and cheese. Beam with pride, ye bachelors!

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