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Posts Tagged ‘eggplant’

The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

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Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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Rearranging some bookshelves recently, I had to move my 19 volumes of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. Just looking at them made me hungry. The Sicilian dishes that the inspector consumes in every story make me want to sit down beside him and pick up a knife and fork. Failing that, I reached for my copy of Stefania Campo’s I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano and browsed the book for recipes that I hadn’t yet tried.

montalbano cookbookThis time I liked one for involtini di melanzane. These are fried eggplant slices rolled around a filling of spaghetti dressed with tomato sauce, baked with a topping of more sauce and shavings of ricotta salata – a dish that the cookbook says contains all the flavors of Palermo. Montalbano eats these involtini in a short story that hasn’t yet been translated into English: “Un Caso di Omonimia,” which my dictionary tells me means “A Coincidence of Names.”

I found the entire Italian text of the story online, and with help from my friends Betty and Livio, who are knowledgeable in both Italian and Sicilian (much of the narrative is in dialect), I managed to make out enough to understand the dining situation.

After a big fight with Livia, Montalbano goes to spend the Christmas holidays with an old friend in Palermo. Regrettably, his friend’s wife is a terrible cook. One day, after walking around the city feeling melancholy, he decides to console himself by eating at a tiny osteria that he patronizes whenever he’s in Palermo. The proprietor-waiter is Don Peppe; in the kitchen is his wife, who “knows how to make things the way God wants them.” There, Montalbano “with eyes half closed from the pleasure, scarfed down a dish of involtini di melanzane con la pasta e la ricotta salata.

That was his first course. He never gets to his second course that evening – but you don’t need to hear the whole plot of the mystery. Let me tell you about the dish as I made it.

The recipe called for three “big” eggplants, and of course what’s big in Italy isn’t necessarily big in America. For the half quantity, supposedly serving two, that I was making I’d chosen one large, long, straight eggplant so I’d have slices big enough to wrap. Beloved Spouse did his usual expert knife work to produce them. I salted the slices and set them in colanders for half an hour.

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salting

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At that point the recipe said “then fry them” – no details. I dried my slices with a linen cloth, pressing as much liquid out of them as I could. I fried them in shallow olive oil until they browned a bit and felt soft enough to curve around a filling but not so soft as to fall apart. Needless to say, they absorbed a fair amount of oil: So much the better – or the worse, depending on your view of olive oil.

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frying

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For the filling, half the indicated amount of spaghetti would have been a little over five ounces. That seemed like a lot, so I cooked less and dressed it with my own simple tomato sauce with garlic and basil. Since I had seven eggplant slices to fill, I slid the spaghetti onto a prep board and divided it into seven little swirls. My eggplant slices accepted all the spaghetti and curved comfortably, if messily, around it.

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rolled

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Then it was just a matter of ladling a little more sauce on the rolls and shaving ricotta salata on top before putting the dish briefly in a hot oven. The recipe would have wanted seven ounces of ricotta. That seemed like an enormous amount, so I used much less, doing it just by eyeball. That was a mistake. I had sheep-milk ricotta, which was very flavorful but dense and dry, and it didn’t melt or even spread in the oven. I should have grated it and used a lot more.

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served

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Even so, the dish was excellent. The flavors complemented each other in the same way as a good dish of pasta alla Norma does. But it was far too much for two first-course servings: We couldn’t possibly finish it all. I’m pretty sure Montalbano could have, though!

 

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LTIAh, summer! When farmstands are laden with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers, and a happy home cook can revel in the bright flavors, turning out lively, colorful vegetable dishes for hot-weather dining – ratatouille, panzanella, gazpacho, caponata. I made the season’s first caponata this week, using my own recipe from La Tavola Italiana.

I didn’t much like caponata when I first tasted it, long ago. The one I had came out of a can, and my recollection is that it was mostly mud-colored, with an indeterminate flavor and a mushy texture. Much later, my first encounter with a freshly made one was a revelation.

Many good variations on caponata are possible. Ingredients and quantities are very flexible, but to my mind there are some limits – which are not always observed in the recipes I’ve seen. First, caponata is not a spread: it’s chunky. Second, it absolutely has to contain eggplant. (Believe me, some don’t.) Third, the components must be sauteed in olive oil. As you might guess, I like my own version. These are its ingredients:

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Ingredients B

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Those vegetables take a lot of chopping. My gallant knife-wielding husband took on the task for me, as always. (That’s not pure altruism: Tom likes caponata too.) Here they are, awaiting their baptism in the sauté pan.

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chopped stuff

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The first item to go into an inch of hot olive oil was the eggplant, after it had been salted, set in a colander for half an hour to give up some of its moisture, and lightly squeezed dry in a linen cloth. As soon as the eggplant had softened sufficiently and lightly browned in the hot oil, I drained it onto a plate and replaced it with the pieces of green pepper. When they had joined the eggplant on the plate, I drew off most of the olive oil, leaving just enough to soften the onion and celery, and then added the tomato for 10 minutes. In a separate little pot I briefly simmered the vinegar, capers, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The eggplant and peppers went back into the pan, along with the vinegar mixture, the pine nuts, and the olives, and everything simmered together for 10 more minutes. (A word about the olives: I usually buy oil-cured black ones, but this day I had some big green Castelvetranos in the refrigerator, which I pitted and chunked up, and they were beautiful in the mix. I’ll use them again.)

Caponata needs at least a few hours to sit at room temperature before serving, so the flavors have time to blend and harmonize. When they’ve done that, it’s really a delicious concoction, an ideal hot-weather first course or picnic dish.

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my caponata

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Leftovers – when there are any – keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.

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caponataP.S.  There’s one other recipe for caponata that I like as well as my own. It’s the one made by Adelina, Inspector Montalbano’s housekeeper in the Sicilian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri. It’s unlike any other caponata I’ve encountered. I’ve written about it here.

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I love the names of dishes from India. Unlike the prosaic English versions of the two in my title – Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce and Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs – the exotic Hindi names are so mysterious and appealing! (At least I think that’s Hindi, though it might be Kashmiri or Punjabi or another of the 22 official languages of India.) And I love the flavors of India, whatever their names. Rogan Josh is a particular favorite. Whenever Tom and I go to an Indian restaurant, one of us is bound to order it. But I’d never made it at home, so that was one of the dishes I chose for my latest foray into Indian cooking. For the second I picked an eggplant recipe, to partner with the lamb.

 

Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs

Sahni vegetarianThis recipe is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. She calls it an elegant and beautifully seasoned preparation, but mine didn’t turn out exactly so on either count – though it looked very good on the page and smelled lovely all through its cooking.

I cut a rotund one-pound eggplant in half and carefully scooped out the flesh, leaving thick enough walls (as I thought) to hold the stuffing. The stuffing was a sauté of chopped onion, ginger, the eggplant pulp, tomatoes, green Bell pepper, cayenne pepper, ground coriander, lemon juice, salt, and pot cheese – the last an acceptable substitute for the Indian cheese called chenna. I filled the eggplant shells with the mixture, set them in a baking dish, and drizzled on olive oil.

They were to be covered with foil and baked for 30 minutes; then uncovered and baked 15 minutes more. I wanted a pan deep enough to keep the cover from touching the filling, and my best pan for that was fairly large. And because of the curvature of the shells, the two stuffed halves didn’t sit perfectly level. So when they came out of the oven, the shells had slid around in their oozing juices, partially collapsed, and spilled some of their filling.  I thought I’d left enough flesh on the skins to make the shells hold up, but I guess I hadn’t.

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In that picture the eggplants are not in the pan they were cooked in. Because of their unfortunate deconstruction, I transferred them to a shallow dish for serving, refilling and reshaping the shells as best I could. And I topped them with chopped cilantro, as recommended.

So how did they taste? Well, all right, but not a big winner. The eggplant pulp hadn’t taken on much of the other flavors, and to me it was still somewhat bitter. Dabs of papaya-orange chutney and mango-chili pickle helped it a lot. Tom liked it more than I did: He thought the bitterness minor and relished the mélange of other flavors.  I noticed, however, that he availed himself of the Indian pickle and chutney pretty freely.

With all the other good things there are to do with eggplant, I’m not likely to make this particular dish again, though I might try a different Indian eggplant recipe before local eggplant season ends.

 

Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce

Sahni classicThe recipe I used for Rogan Josh is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. This is my favorite Indian cookbook, and I often do lamb dishes from it, but almost always using its recipe for Ghosht Kari, which is a spicy tomato-based stew. Rogan Josh is something else entirely.

First, boned lamb leg meat is cubed and marinated for a few hours in an aromatic puree made from onions, ginger, coriander, cayenne, yogurt, sour cream, and ghee (or melted butter). Then it’s cooked slowly, still in its marinade, until the lamb is perfectly tender –­ about two hours. The cooking aromas were enticing.

After that, in a small pan, you quickly fry chopped garlic, ground cumin, ground cardamom, and garam masala in more ghee, producing more appetizing smells, and stir the mixture into the lamb’s pot, along with a healthy dose of heavy cream. Then the whole concoction has to sit at room temperature for at least two hours.

I did all this a day in advance, because Sahni says it improves with keeping. The next evening I simply heated it up and served it.

 

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Even though it looked unfortunately a bit like dogfood, the Rogan Josh was really delicious, rich and mellow, without the palate-searing chili heat of many Indian dishes. Those cooking aromas hadn’t lied. Like the eggplant, it had no objection to judicious applications of cilantro, chutney, and pickle. The lamb was beautifully tender and well-seasoned, and the sauce was excellent over plain white rice – and also fine to mop up with warm parathas.

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Unlike the eggplant, the lamb is a dish I will definitely make again.

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