Eggplants are everywhere in my Greenmarket now. Not just every where, but every size, every shape, and every shade in the white, green, and purple ranges.
They’re among my favorite summer vegetables, and I make them most often in composed Mediterranean-style dishes – ratatouille, caponata, ciambotta, parmigiana – sometimes stuffed, and occasionally just simply baked or fried. Most recently I wanted to try a different kind of preparation, so off to the cookbooks I went on a search.
In the Middle Eastern Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, I was intrigued by several Iranian recipes for coucou, explained as a thick vegetable pancake. One, Coucou Bademjan, was for eggplant. That would do! I initially thought the dish would be like a frittata.
You start by frying thinly sliced onions in olive oil until dark brown. (This is a common way of treating onions from the Middle East through India, and the effect is quite different from less-cooked western ways with onions.) Take the onions out of the pan, put in half a pound of eggplant cubes, and stir to coat them with the oil. Add turmeric (whose color you’ll spend the next three days trying to remove from pans and implements), salt, pepper, and water; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the eggplant is tender. Return the onions and cook briskly, stirring, until the liquid is almost all evaporated.
Then you transfer everything to a large bowl and let it cool. Finally, eggs are beaten in: four of them. They made a very soft batter, unlike any frittata mixture. The cooking technique is different too. It’s done in that same pan, with more olive oil, of course – eggplant is a sponge for oil! – but covered. Mine cooked quickly around the edges, while the center stayed very wet. The eggplant itself seemed to be liquefying rather than firming as the batter cooked.
The recipe’s next instruction was strange. You’re to cut the cake into four wedges right there in the pan, keep on cooking for a minute or two “until the center is firm,” invert a plate over the pan, flip everything over, and slide the coucou back into the pan to cook the other side.
At that point Beloved Spouse, who is the frittata cooker in our household, intervened. Ridiculous to cut wedges and then try to turn them over as a single cake! Also, when the uncooked side touches the plate, it’s likely to cling, making it hard to get the item to slide cleanly back into the pan. He finished the cooking according to his own technique. When he judged the coucou to be ready to turn, after quite a bit more cooking time than indicated, he slid it out (uncut) onto a large, upside-down pan lid, which he held from below by the knob; inverted the pan over it, and then quickly flipped the whole thing; cooking the second side again longer than the recipe said. It came out an attractive golden brown, but still much softer than a frittata ever is.
When the coucou was on its serving plate, I finally cut it into quarters and served them, as the recipe suggested, with a few slices of ripe tomato. As you’ll see, it does look a bit like a frittata, but it was nothing like one in texture. Didn’t look much like a pancake either, for that matter: It was still soft and very moist. Quite tasty, though, and pleasantly eggplanty.
We ate the first two quarters at a lunch – it’s pretty rich and filling – and I put the rest in the refrigerator for another meal. Two days later, for a dinner, I warmed the leftover two quarters in the toaster oven and served them as a first course with a simple (also leftover) tomato sauce on the side. They’d dried and firmed up a bit, and tasted even better than previously.
This was a very different way of treating eggplant than any I’m familiar with, and I’m not entirely sure the dish turned out the way it should have. But it was interesting to try, enjoyable to taste, and a learning experience that has me considering other uses for the coucou approach.