Friday, July 8, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Creole and Anglo Southern Eggplant Casseroles

A week ago, I told you about the New Orleans Creole tradition of stuffing some of the summer vegetables produced in such abundance in the hot climate of the American South--notably, yellow crookneck summer squash and eggplants.  Today, I'd like to share yet another Creole recipe for stuffed eggplant, though this dish is cooked as a casserole and not stuffed into the eggplant shell.  And I want to compare that Creole treatment of eggplant with a parallel recipe from the Anglo part of the South, which also has a tradition of using both summer squash and eggplant in casserole dishes, but which gives an entirely different culinary signature to its treatment of these dishes.

For reasons I've never quite understood, a number of eminent American food writers have suggested that eggplant was unknown to American cooks until Italian immigrants introduced it on the east coast in the latter part of the 19th century.  Waverly Root echoes those writers in his Food (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1980), which says, "Many authors report that it was first introduced [to the United States] late in the nineteenth century by the country's most prestigious restaurant, Demonico's . . ." (p. 121).

Root does note, however, that American cookbooks published earlier in the century give recipes for it, but he opines as to how the vegetable "has never played an important role in the American diet."  I'm astounded by that claim.  My family, a family of the relatively isolated backwater mid-South region, has long relished eggplant, and has always used it as a staple vegetable for as long as it's in season.  We have always eaten it all summer long, made into casseroles or simply sliced across, battered with cornmeal, and fried.

I know that my family has long taken this vegetable for granted and enjoyed it immensely because I know that my grandmother grew it all her life in her munificent garden.  It was one of her favorite vegetables, and had been a staple of her family's table when she was growing up.  When she died, her jumbled recipe drawer was chock-full of eggplant recipes she'd jotted down or had her daughters type for her, or which she'd clipped from newspapers.

Her eggplant envie was fixed, in particular, on discovering the "real" recipe for a scalloped eggplant dish served at Franke's cafeteria, a venerable Little Rock cafeteria still going strong, which began business in 1924.  The recipe drawer contained clipping after clipping from newspapers that purported to have received from Franke's the authentic recipe for the scalloped eggplant, which my grandmother invariably ordered on our many visits to that cafeteria as I was growing up, always with a dessert of egg-custard pie.

But Mama was dubious about the authenticity of any of these "authentic" or "real" recipes.  They had left something out, she was sure of it.  The proportions just weren't quite right.  She fiddled and fumed and had her daughter Kat cook each new version that came along, tampering with the recipe in the hope of discovering precisely what Franke's did to make it perfect.  And the recipe I'll share below is her version of one of the "authentic" recipes published over and over in Little Rock papers in the 1940s and 1950s.

Another reason that I know eggplant has long been taken for granted in many families of the Southeast, and is a longstanding part of my own family's culinary history, is the following: some of my grandmother's cousins far out in eastern North Carolina (their family was related to her in more ways than you can shake a stick at)--a man named Joshua Worldly Hassell (1786-1824) and his son Cushing Biggs Hassell (1809-1880)--kept diaries in which they recorded in careful detail the plants they grew for several seasons in their garden in Williamston, North Carolina.  These note, without any indication at all that the vegetable was a novelty to these small-town Southerners in the early 19th century, that the family planted guinea squash, or eggplant, in its garden.

As John and Karen Hess point out in their book The Taste of America (NY: Viking, 1977), Mary Randolph's 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife contains two eggplant recipes--the first the Hesses have found in American cookbooks--which suggest that this vegetable was familiar and readily available in Virginia in the 1820s (p. 93). The familiarity of Southerners with eggplant, and their long love of this vegetable, stands to reason when one considers its dominance in the cooking of north Africa, with which the American South had many ties through the slave trade.

And now to the diptych of Creole and Anglo eggplant casserole dishes I'd like to describe for readers.  The New Orleans dish is a recipe I learned from an elderly friend of mine, whose mother, though she had Swiss and German ancestry, was for many years a cook for an old Creole family in New Orleans.  And in that line of work, she learned some wonderful Creole recipes, which she passed down to her son, who did the cooking for his own family, since his wife was totally disinterested in cooking and preferred to handle the family's business transactions and records, instead. 

Like the Creole stuffed eggplant and squash recipes I shared last week, this dish could well serve as a main dish, though in New Orleans, it's normally served as a vegetable side-dish.  Here's how you make it:

You should have on hand a cup and a half of cooked rice, cooled.  Choose a medium-sized, glossy firm eggplant without soft spots or wrinkles.  The eggplants commonly used for dishes in the South are the deep purple-to-black variety that is somewhat bell-shaped.  Mary Randolph's cookbook recommends these as the best variety for her own dishes, and also encourages her readers to look for fresh, firm, medium-sized fruit as they cook eggplant.

Put the whole eggplant into a pot of plain boiling water and boil it until a fork easily pierces it--pierces it easily right to the center of the fruit.  At this point, immediately remove the eggplant from the boiling water and place it in a bowl of cold water.

As the eggplant is boiling, brown about 3/4 pound to a pound of ground sirloin or chuck in a large, heavy skilled in a bit of olive oil.  When the meat is brown, remove it from the pan and drain off its excess fat.  In some of the fat remaining in the pan, sautée a bell pepper, two stalks celery, and a medium onion, all finely chopped (Creole cooks traditionally add the pepper and celery first, followed by the onion, since the onion takes less time to soften than the pepper and celery).  As the vegetables reach the point of tenderness, add several large toes (four or five) of finely chopped garlic and several bay leaves.

Add salt, pepper, chopped parsley, and thyme to the vegetable mix, in proportions that suit your taste.  Then mix the drained meat with the vegetable mix.  Peel the eggplant, discarding its peel, and chop its meat fine, and then add it to the meat and vegetables, mixing well.  (Because eggplant is a watery vegetable, I chop it in a wooden bowl using a mezzaluna or what old-time New Orleans cooks call an hachoir.)

When you've added the chopped eggplant to the vegetables and ground meat, heat the mixture in the skillet at medium low heat for about five minutes, stirring well, to meld the flavors of the dish.  Then add the cup and a half of cooked rice and three raw eggs, mixing all well.  Fish out the bay leaves and discard them, and then turn the mixture into a buttered casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees F. for half an hour.  You may add grated parmesan cheese to the mix if you wish, or sprinkle grated cheese on top in the final part of the baking.

And don't forget the persillade as you serve the dish.

And here's how Anglo Southern cooks use eggplant in a similar fashion, as a casserole side-dish, but with Anglo rather than Creole notes dominating.  This is my grandmother's version of what purported to be the "real" scalloped eggplant recipe of Little Rock's Franke's cafeteria, in recipes printed in local papers during the 1940s and 1950s: 

Choose a medium-large eggplant (again, the purple-to-black variety) that is glossy, unblemished, and firm to the touch.  Peel the eggplant and cube its flesh.  Cook the cubes in salted water sufficient to cover until the eggplant is tender, and then drain the cubes.  Add salt and pepper to the eggplant, and mash until you have a paste of eggplant.  

Take two cups peeled ripe tomatoes, chop the tomatoes fine, and add them to the eggplant mix.  Then add a finely chopped medium onion, a finely chopped medium bell pepper, 2 cups of cornbread crumbs,  and 2 beaten eggs.  Mix the ingredients together well and turn them into a well-buttered casserole dish.  Top the mixture with a layer of milk sufficient to cover the top, strew across a layer of grated mild cheese, and bake at 375 degrees F. for half an hour.

It goes without saying that the cornbread should be the traditional Southern variety, which has no sugar in it.  I make cornbread as my mother did (and her mother before her), by mixing white cornmeal, a bit of salt and baking soda, and then adding a beaten egg and some fat or vegetable oil and buttermilk sufficient to make a thick batter.  I turn this into a well-greased and very hot black iron skillet, let it brown on bottom over a flame for a minute or two, and pop it into a 350-degree (F.) oven to bake for half an hour or so.  Or I use one of the good prepared cornbread mixes that contain the same dried ingredients--like Martha White or White Lily.

This eggplant casserole can also be made with summer squash steamed and chopped, in place of the eggplant, and, in fact, that's the main dish I made for our dinner at noon yesterday.  When I make this squash casserole, I often add some milk along with the beaten eggs, and I suspect that Franke's may well do the same with its scalloped eggplant, which has a custardy consistency my grandmother admired (since she adored custards of all kinds).   I also mix grated cheddar and parmesan cheese into the batter, as well as topping the casserole with grated cheese.


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