An Egg by Any Other Name

This just in from Jenn Digby;
“Any ideas on what to do with eggplant (other than deep fry and serve under melted cheese)? it seemed a lot less intimidating when I was a vegetarian, but now they cheer and bump fists when I close the fridge door in defeat.”

Oh let’s whip those saucy little buggers into shape, shall we, girlfriend! The eggplant is much maligned because, like tofu, it, in and of itself, is not a stellar performer, but use it for the qualities in which it shines and you’ll be a happy camper, (And the little buggers will sit in stony silence when you shut the fridge door…). Eggplant, (Aubergine in French), is another member of the same family as tomatoes, sweet peppers and spuds; they are a great source of dietary fiber and have a bunch of nutrients, so let’s give them the shot they deserve, huh?

So, you ask, what IS that stuff good for? Well, again, just like tofu, it can take on a variety of textures and sucks up and holds good flavors like nobody’s business; eggplant needs just a little work to truly shine, so watch them prep steps, eh?

Jenn noted she wants something other than deep fried under melted cheese, and the first thing that comes to mind is a variation on Eggplant Parmigiano made with a lighter hand; it’s a wonderful dish, basically a veggie lasagna, if you will!

Eggplant Veggiano with Homemade Ricotta Cheese

2-3 good sized eggplants
5 – 6 fresh tomatoes of your choice, (Canned/preserved is fine too!)
1-2 carrots, shaved with a peeler
1-2 small shallots, minced
1-2 sticks celery, minced
½ cup fresh basil, chiffenade
Dash of balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, fine diced
Olive oil
Thyme
Rosemary
Salt, Pepper to taste

Blanch your tomatoes, cool and remove the skins. Puree/blend/motor boat until a nice smooth consistency. In a couple tablespoons of olive oil, sweat your shallots, celery and garlic on low heat. Raise heat to medium low and add tomato puree, dash of balsamic vinegar, then add basil, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste, allow to simmer for about 20 minutes or so. Pour your sauce into a bowl to cool and leave the pan just as it is, ‘cause you’re gonna use it again in a sec or two…

Choose eggplants that are nice and shiny purple and firm; avoid really big ones or anything where the skins are white; remember the adage; baby tender, old guy tough! They may look gnarly, but they’re actually a pretty sensitive veg; store them whole, unwashed, at about 45 to 55 degrees, ideally, and no longer than any other fresh veggie.

OK, so to prep the eggplants, check ‘em for dirt and critters; wash gently, cut off the ends and then you’re ready to go. Use a stainless steel bladed knife when cutting the eggplants; they have some nutrients in ‘em that will turn them a nasty black color if you introduce them to carbon steel!

For this recipe, we want the eggplant to emulate pasta; cut them into roughly ¼” slices. If you have a mandolin, (The kind for hand slicing, not the kind Sam Bush plays), you can slice quite thin and that’s just fine. Lightly salt the slices and stick ‘em in a colander, or on a tight weave wire rack, with a cookie sheet underneath as a drip pan; let ‘em sit for about 30 minutes: This is kind a room temperature sweat, if you will, just designed to pull some moisture out of the eggplant and tenderize them a bit. While that’s working, it’s cheese making time…

“Cheese making time,” you say, “In 30 minutes?! Yeah, gang, yeah; it’s that easy; OK, so maybe you could do this first if you’re worried about time, but… Everybody needs to try their hand at homemade cheese; that’s my story and I am stickin’ to it – The quality is like nothing you’ve ever bought, short of very good artisanal offerings. It is super simple, incredibly satisfying, and your guests will gaze on you with wonder and admiration as they chow down… Ricotta is a great first effort; it’s so simple it’s silly. The buttermilk does all the work for you, so let’s get after it!

Homemade Ricotta:

½ gallon whole milk
½ gallon buttermilk

Pour all your milk into a non reactive pan over medium high heat; use the best pan you got, preferably one with a nice thick bottom to store heat well.

Stir the milk just about non-stop, taking care to check the bottom of the pan often, making sure that things aren’t burning.

As the milk gets hot, you’re gonna see curds starting to rise to the surface. As you see this happening, use a flat whisk or spatula to scrape the bottom and free up more curds, (Yes, they will get their whey… Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

Snag a large colander or chinoise, the wider the better. Line the colander with cheese cloth; if you use real cheese cloth, you need a good 6+ layers to avoid stuff running through too much.

On a tip from Michael Ruhlman in his book, Ratios, I bought some cheap, plain white handkerchiefs and use them for straining and after a good washing; they do a much better job, are reusable and are generally more satisfying to work with.

When your milk mixture gets to roughly 175º F, you’ll see the curds and whey begin to separate; (The curds are the white globs and the whey is the watery leftovers, FYI).

Pull your pan off the heat and with a ladle, carefully transfer your curds to the lined colander; do NOT press on the curds; let the moisture leave of its own accord! Gently grab the corners of your cloth, draw them together and tie ‘em with kitchen twine, (You DO have kitchen twine, right?) Let the cheese drain and cool for about 20 minutes. Makes about 2 cups of finished cheese; placed it in an airtight, glass container to store; it’s good for a few days refrigerated, but it really shouldn’t even last that long, should it?

Rinse your eggplant thoroughly under cold running water until you get all the salt off. Reheat the pan you did up your sauce in to medium high heat and add another tablespoon of olive oil. Place your eggplant and carrot slices and lightly sauté them.

Preheat your oven to 375º F. Lightly grease an appropriately sized glass baking dish with a little olive oil. Place a layer of eggplant down, followed by carrots and then layers of sauce and your fresh ricotta. End with sauce and if you’re feeling frisky, sprinkle on a little hard cheese like Parmigiano or Pecorino.

Bake for +/- 35 minutes, until sauce and cheese and browned and bubbling.

Enjoy!

Variation: If you don’t want as much olive oil in your dish, (Although I can’t imagine why not…), as an alternative to browning your eggplant and carrot slices, you can steam them; it’ll give a very nice, lighter taste note.

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