Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Hot Eggplant Relish

Perhaps you're tired of cloying foods, whether you're American and did Thanksgiving or not.  I know that I often hanker for something more piquant, less heavy, that perks up my appetite in winter months, when meals can often be stodgy, and, frankly, more boring than in summertime, with many fresh vegetables at hand.

The following dish does rely on eggplant, which is a summer vegetable, but is usually available in many parts of the world during winter, as well.  As I think I've noted before, I'm always amused when food historians claim that Americans discovered eggplant only when food writers began to tout its virtues after the middle of the 20th century.

My family has long grown and eaten eggplant, and I doubt we're atypical, in the American South, at least.  My grandmother had a particular passion for this vegetable, and when my aunt and I divided the contents of her house some years back, I found her recipe drawer full of recipes for one eggplant dish after another.  A journal I have read by one of her relatives living back in eastern North Carolina in the early part of the 19th century mentions all the garden things he was busy planting one spring.  These included, among many other vegetables, eggplant.

Which may well have come to the American South from Africa, and be yet another of the many foods we now regard as indispensable to Southern cooking which have roots in that continent.  

My recipe journal tells me I crafted this hot eggplant relish one January, and that confirms my instinct that this is a dish best suited for cold winter days, when appetite flags and one looks for something exotic to perk it up.

Peel and chop 2 medium eggplants.  In a large heavy skillet, heat 1/3 cup good olive oil just to the point that it begins to shimmer and tip into the oil a large onion, finely chopped.  Turn the heat to just below medium and cook the onion till it is tender, adding at this point three toes of garlic finely minced.  Tip the eggplant into the frying pan and "fry" it until it begins to darken and cook down.  Since eggplant is a notorious sponge for oil (and you want the oil for this dish, to give it flavor and a soft mouth-feel), add a little water periodically if the eggplant threatens to stick to the pan.

As the eggplant continues to simmer over a medium flame, add either a few sprigs of chopped rosemary and thyme or a pinch of each, dried.  Remember that rosemary can be assertive, and add it sparingly until you think--by your taste--that you've added the right amount.  Add a bay leaf as well.  Then add 1/4 cup wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar, salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne pepper, according to your taste.  Continue to summer until all ingredients have melded together gloriously with the olive oil.  Then stir in several tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese and a tablespoon or two of finely chopped parsley.

My food journal notes tell me that whoever I cooked this for (a dinner party, it seems) liked the relish served hot (it was surely an appetizer).  But I've noted that I preferred it the next day cooled, spread on dark bread.  I hope if you try it, it will add relish and piquancy to your winter meals or parties.

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