No eggplant left behind

As the nights are getting chilly, the skin of the delicious Fairytale eggplants toughens. A few days ago the eggplants melted in your mouth. Now you can still eat them whole, and they are still good, but they are not at their peak any more.

I picked my six plants clean and used the larger ones for a dip adapted from Deborah Madison’s excellent Roasted Eggplant Dip with Dill, Yogurt, and Walnuts, which I like better than traditional Baba Ghannoush with tahini. As eggplants and eggplant skins are a good addition to vegetable broth (here is my recipe), that’s where all the other tiny eggplants are going.

Not a single eggplant left. I will for sure grow those again next year!

Fairytale Eggplant Dip with Dill

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

There is more waste from all the skins of the small Fairytale eggplants, therefore I started with a full 2 pounds of eggplant instead of the 1 1/4 pounds in the original recipe. Also, I always throw in a handful of dill fronds (all tough thick sprigs removed) instead of chopping the dill, as everything gets finely pureed in the food processor anyway.

2 pounds Fairytale eggplants

Olive oil

1/3 cup walnuts

3 garlic gloves

1 handful of fresh dill fronds

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for pouring onto the dip

1/2 cup Greek yogurt (I used 0%)

Salt

Freshly milled black pepper1. Preheat the oven broiler and set the rack about 5 inches from the heat.

2. Cut the blossom ends off the eggplants. Put the eggplants in a large bowl and toss them with a little olive oil to coat evenly. Distribute them evenly in one layer on a roasting pan and place them under the broiler. Stand by closely, they turn brown very quickly. Once the tops have slightly charred, turn them and broil from the other side. Test one eggplant to check if the skin can be easily removed; if not, let the skins char some more, turning the eggplants as needed. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.

3. As soon as the eggplants are cool enough to handle, remove the skins. The easiest way to do this is by making an incision along the length of each eggplant and flap it open. Collect the pulp in a bowl and set aside to cool.

4. Lightly toast the walnuts in an non-greased pan. Let cool, then place it in the food processor, together with the eggplant pulp and all the other ingredients. Puree to a fine consistency and salt and pepper to taste. Alternatively, you can also puree the dip with a stick blender if the bowl is large enough to hold all the ingredients. Scoop the dip into a container with a tight-fitting lid and pour a little extra-virgin olive oil on top to prevent it from drying out. Refrigerate. Serve at room temperature, stirring well to smoothen before serving. The dip keeps in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days.

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Of mice and fairytales

Fairytale eggplant and asters

On Sunday I barely missed what would have been my most traumatic gardening experience. The pole beans on the first two teepees needed picking, and since the vines had started to form such a thicket I asked my husband to come along to lift the vines while I cut off the beans.

When I had quickly harvested some beans for dinner the week before I had noticed a nest made of newspaper scraps almost at the top of one of the tepees. Smart birds, I thought, taking the newspaper mulch from around the tomato plants, and I simply picked around it.

The nest soon started to get in our way when we were picking on Sunday so I suggested we check if it still had anything inside. My husband took it down and instantly threw it over the garden fence down the hill.

“What was it?” I asked.

Pause.

“Tell me.”

“You would have screamed so loud all our neighbors would have called 911. It was a mice nest. One of them was looking straight at me.”

He was not exaggerating. Mice and other rodents, dead or alive, small or large, freak me out in capital letters. Living in the country for more than a decade has not diminished my phobia, on the contrary.

I know there are always mice around outdoors, but as long as I don’t see them or their traces, I can manage. But sticking my face into a nest and having a mouse stare at me would have been too much. If I had taken down that nest, I am sure I would have had such a shock that I most likely would have had a hard time setting foot in the garden for a good long time.

Upon my insistence we stripped the teepee of all the vines and cut off all harvestable beans. Now when I go to the garden, I clap my hands several times before opening the gate. I know it sounds ridiculous but it makes me feel better.

To end this post on a more positive note, the China asters that I planted as cutting flowers are blooming. I gave them a sheltered home inside the garden to protect them from voracious rabbits.

And, I have started to harvest Fairytale eggplants! I fell in love with those beauties at Field to Fork, an event I organized last year in August with the Master Gardeners. Designed to inspire more people to garden, we grew different fruits and vegetables in containers. One member of the group had Fairytale eggplants and I couldn’t wait to try them myself.

Fairytale eggplants are hybrids, meaning a cross breed between two parent plants. Unlike heirlooms, you cannot collect the seeds for next year. Frankly I do not understand the hype about heirlooms, and the demonization of hybrids that often goes hand in hand with it. Mankind has been breeding plants for thousands of years. If plant hybridization gives you crops that are resistant to a disease or a pest, and/or yield a result as delicious and beautiful as Fairytale, what’s the big deal? I think one of the reasons why hybrids are often shunned is that some people confuse them with genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). They are not. Seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, thus reassuring their customers that they not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants, do sell hybrids.

Fairytale eggplants do not require much preparation. Even without salting they are not the slightest bit bitter. I cut them in half, brush them with a mix of garlic and olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Then I put them under the broiler and turn them once until they are slightly browned from both sides. Fairytales truly deserve their name.

Broth clarity (and a happy dog)

SwissChardWhile I consider myself a somewhat educated consumer and critical food buyer, for vegetable broth I succumbed to the delusion that because it’s organic it must be good. Until Cooks Illustrated found that the brand I usually bought tasted “like dirt” or “like musky socks in a patch of mushrooms”. Yikes. How could I have been so taste-blind? That was in 2008. Since then I either resorted to chicken broth for soup, or, on some rare occasions, made vegetable broth from scratch.

This past summer I finally got into the habit of making vegetable broth more often, usually a large amount, most of which went into the freezer. Maybe the trigger was that the new shiny stockpot I had bought last winter kept looking at me reproachfully for not being used. Or it was the mounds of fresh vegetable leftovers, scraps and peels that went into the compost bin all summer.

Depending on what’s available in the garden, I make vegetable broth in different combinations. For example, today I used, in addition to the staple ingredients onion, carrots, and parsley: Swiss chard stalks, the final eggplants of the season whose skins have toughened because of the cold nights but otherwise are perfectly fine, and a container of frozen tomato skins that accumulated when I made tomato soup a few weeks ago. I did not have any celery, scallions, and leeks but otherwise I would have added them too. Many different vegetables work well as long as they are not spoilt, don’t impart a strong flavor and color (no cabbage, turnips, beets etc.), and don’t fall apart so the broth remains clear. For a more intense flavor, I brown the vegetables and onion in olive oil first, then add the water and proceed as described.

The stockpot gets used, and someone else is happy, too. After straining the broth (salt-free until I add it to the soup I am making) I puree the vegetables. They make several days of veggie add-ons to Woody’s dinner – and he is crazy about it.Woody

Vegetable Broth

4 pounds mixed vegetables

2 large carrots

2 large onions

¼ cup olive oil (optional)

3 large bay leaves

1 big bunch of fresh parsley

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt (optional)

1. If you use organic vegetables no need to peel them, except for the onions. Cut the vegetables into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Heat the olive oil and brown all the vegetables and onion for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so they don’t burn. For the fat-free version, put all the vegetables in a large stockpot right away. Add the bay leaves, parsley, peeled and smashed garlic cloves, and thyme.

2. Add 7½ quarts of water and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain the broth through a fine sieve. Add salt if desired. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze.

Makes about 7 quarts

No more shortcuts

Although I’ve been cooking for many years, I have only recently learned one important lesson – don’t take any shortcuts, at least not with recipes from a highly knowledgeable source. When I made Julia Child’s Boeuf bourguignon for the first time a few months ago I put too much meat in the pot at once, with the result that it did not brown but foamed and bubbled like baking soda. The next time I made the dish, I stuck to the recipe and the meat was perfectly browned. If there was a shortcut, wouldn’t someone like Julia Child go for it? Only then did it dawn on me that it’s not a good idea trying to outsmart cooks who obviously know better than you.

Another example for the no-shortcut rule is eggplant, which is growing abundantly in the garden right now. I have always wondered why the eggplant dishes I made had a bitter aftertaste, even when the eggplant was freshly picked. I am usually too rushed or too lazy to salt it and let it sit for 30 minutes or even 1 hour. It is surprising how much brownish liquid the eggplant releases, no wonder it’s bitter. And, the taste is indefinitely better, no matter what the eggplants are used for afterwards.

Getting 3 pounds of eggplant ready for lasagna was quite a bit of work but I have promised myself that from now on if I don’t have the time to prepare the eggplant comme il faut, I rather cook something else.

I started off with Deborah Madison’s eggplant lasagna with garlic béchamel from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I had made it before and found it somehow lacked something. But instead of serving it with a tomato sauce as she suggests, I incorporated cherry tomatoes right into the lasagna, which I pre-cooked in olive oil and garlic. I also used a good amount of basil and increased the amount of béchamel because I find lasagna often too dry, especially if you prepare it in advance and reheat it.

I was very happy with the result. My son, who would usually not eat eggplant, pointed to his empty plate saying that it “tasted and looked like meat, not like eggplant at all.” Amazing what salting and a little patience can do.

Eggplant Lasagna

3 pounds eggplant

Olive oil

Salt

12 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved

3 garlic cloves, chopped

Béchamel:

2½ cups milk

3 garlic cloves

4 tablespoons butter

¼ cup flour

1 bay leaf

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup milk

Freshly milled white pepper

12 sheets no-boil lasagna

¼ cup packed chopped fresh basil

8 ounces mozzarella, diced

2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan

1. Peel the eggplant and cut into 1/3-inch slices. Spread the slices on two large baking sheets in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a small heavy pot. Add the garlic and cook until translucent. Add the tomatoes and stir. Cook uncovered over medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes are shriveled up a bit. Set aside to cool.

3. For the béchamel, smash the peeled garlic cloves. Put in a saucepan with the milk. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes.

4. When the garlic milk is ready, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and cook stirring for 2 minutes. Pour the garlic milk through a sieve into the saucepan. Stir well with a metal whisk until the sauce thickens. Add the bay leaf and the nutmeg and cook over very low heat for 20 minutes, stirring often and scraping over the bottom of the pan.

5. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

6. Blot the eggplant slices dry with paper towels. Rinse and dry the baking sheets to remove any excess salt.

7. Brush each slice with olive oil from both sides and place slices in a single layer on the baking sheets. The eggplant should be baked one sheet at a time so if you have two ovens use them, or bake one batch after another in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Turn the slices over and cook for 15 minutes from the other side.

8. Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees F.

9. Spray a lasagna dish (one that fits three sheets snugly without overlapping) with olive oil.

10. Remove the bay leaf from the béchamel sauce and whisk in the cream and the milk. Season with salt and pepper. If the béchamel seems lumpy, strain it through a sieve.

11. Spread ½ cup béchamel sauce over the bottom of the dish. Add 3 lasagna sheets. Cover with one-third of eggplant, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, parmesan, and one-quarter of the remaining béchamel sauce. Repeat this with two more layers but omit the Parmesan in the last layer. Place the last lasagna sheets on top and add the remaining béchamel sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. Press down a bit to immerse the lasagna sheets as much as possible but try not to break them.

12. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and press down a bit to immerse top layer, especially if it’s a bit dry and curled up.

13. Bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 4-6 servings