I remember the first time I tasted truly divine eggplant.
It was at the restaurant where I work, shortly after I had just started. Those were what I like to refer to as the Early days, but could just as easily be renamed as the Times of Great Embarrassment, or, more generally, just a really naïve time in my life. I was a neophyte to all things food; the menu we were required to memorize was daunting, and probably should have been much more so than it seemed at the time. For some reason, I felt as though it was an exercise similar to what I used to do in 5th grade drama, particularly in The Christmas Story, or Twelfth Night, Abridged. I was too young to know who wrote the work I was performing, but I knew I needed to memorize lines, stage directions, and come off sounding the least bit convincing. Come to think of it, much of what we did in the few opening months there felt like that of a rehearsed play. We knew the lines, the movements, but had not the slightest clue as to the origins.
That, of course, would prove to be a huge problem. We were part of a restaurant that was doing new and unusual things for its area: trio and duo plates, unconventional ingredients, all grown outside the massive dining room windows. As servers, we needed to know what went into every dish in the dreadful event that a discerning diner would ask. Unfortunately, in those few beginning months, anything outside the realm of “I’ll have the duck, please” was uncharted territory.
I first felt the kind of embarrassment fine dining has the ability to land a novice in when I asked a question of my own. As I said, I knew literally nothing at this point, but I was an eager student. I remember that first menu copy they had given us to look over; mine was an ink-stained mess, all covered in notes reminding me how to describe an aioli, what farm the Kobe beef was from. I was looking over this map to my new job late one night after service, and I found a term I was unfamiliar with. Unsure whether it was a cooking technique or some rare cut of meat, I asked the chef what a haricot vert was, making sure to use the hard “t” pronunciation dictated to me in my years of English classes. I was met with laughter.
I wrote that off quickly, eventually laughing about it myself, until one day that embarrassment was trumped. After opening weekend, when people seemed too excited to have a restaurant with a liquor license in a formerly dry town, the customers started getting a lot more curious about the food. We had not rehearsed for this. I could recite my notes to the tables, yes, but when it came to the plate composition, actually seeing and identifying the food I had memorized, I was a proverbial deer in headlights. I had seen those plates twice, maybe, and even then, opening night was such a blur of memory that I could have very well gone the whole night without opening my eyes. For the most part, I navigated like the teen driver with a permit that I was: I still needed guidance, but I could usually figure out, in a stutter, which was the lobster and which was the steak. (The grace came later.)
Then someone asked me what was under the drumstick on the chicken entrée. I had no idea. I couldn’t even make something up on the fly. If they would have said, Excuse me, is this eggplant? I would have agreed thankfully, regardless of accuracy. But they gave me nothing. And I had nothing. After an embarrassing run back to the kitchen, I found out it was eggplant, and I made it my mission to taste it.
When I finally did taste the mysterious vegetable, it was sweet, coddled to caramelizaton, and was right on the edge of melting in my mouth. I loved it. Suffice it to say, my history with eggplant is long-winded (or maybe that’s just me), but I hope that you’ve made it far enough to get to the recipes I want to share. Inspired by a really cute little eggplant last weekend, I decided to try my hand in making it all these years after I found out how delicious it can be. What follows are two made-up, very adaptable blueprints for eggplant dishes. Follow what I did, or substitute to your heart’s desire. Just don’t become a server at any sort of establishment that will be serving it before you know what it looks like.
Balsamic Roasted Eggplant with Mint and Goat Cheese
(Note: I was only cooking for myself, so feel free to multiply these quantities.)
Good quality olive oil
Handful of fresh mint, roughly chopped
Fresh goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400° F. Halve eggplant lengthwise, with stem still intact, and place in a liberally oiled baking dish. Sprinkle a bit more olive oil over the top, and toss to coat; make sure eggplant halves end up cut-side down in the dish. Sprinkle liberally with balsamic vinegar, and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until a knife glides effortlessly through the flesh.
Let cool (just to the point where you can handle them; this is best served warm). Cut into slices, and toss gently in a bowl with mint, salt and pepper, and a bit more vinegar. Serve sprinkled with goat cheese. (The word “sprinkle” just works for this recipe, ok?)
Mediterranean Wheatberry Salad
This is just a list of ingredients that I found work well together, especially finished
with some good olive oil and sharp feta.
(You want the ratio of wheatberries to water to be about 1:3; the water gets absorbed quite a bit.)
1 eggplant, diced
Roasted red pepper, diced
Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
Good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Start by cooking the wheatberries; they need to be boiled for about an hour, until they yield and are the slightest bit chewy when you bite them. While they’re cooking, get everything else ready: Sauté the eggplant on medium heat until deep brown and very soft, and chop everything else.
Drain wheatberries and transfer back to a bowl. Add everything but the feta and incorporate, tasting and adjusting the seasoning. Add one more good glug of olive oil. Serve topped with feta cheese.