Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Eggplants

I've never been anti-eggplant.  As a picky child, I eyed them suspiciously the first time my grandmother served them.  But because she's the best, I was willing to try them.  And they were all right.

But I didn't really develop strong feelings for eggplants (or aubergines, as they call them in the UK--which I prefer, but sounds insufferably snobby if you're American) until several years later when I ate the Asian version at a Thai restaurant.  I was simultaneously enlightened and flabbergasted.  How could they be so much better than your regular eggplant?

Sure, that Thai restaurant was good--I remember they made a killer pad thai, too.  But that wasn't it: I tried Asian eggplants at other places, Chinese and Thai restaurants mostly, and K cooked some at home.  They were always good.  Whereas regular eggplants can sometimes be mealy, or are too easily undercooked, Asian eggplants cooked in oil inevitably are transformed into the creamiest fruit you've ever had.  Yes, fruit.

When I first stumbled across a recipe including eggplants from Fuchsia Dunlop's indispensable Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty, I wasn't living in a town where Asian eggplants were regularly accessible within an hour's drive.  Regular eggplants were used as replacements, but it wasn't the same: the skin was tough and the taste was just a little bit off.  I could easily assume I had just done something wrong in the cooking, but lo and behold, that wasn't actually the case.

Moving to the Albany area a month ago, one of my great early discoveries was that there are several solid Asian markets in town.  And of course you can find Asian eggplants in all of them.  We ended up with a sack of them in the refrigerator, courtesy of K's mother, and a single, plump regular eggplant from her cousin's garden.

I knew where to turn for a way to use these eggplants.  They're peppered throughout Land of Plenty, but one focused dish stood out to me: Fish-Fragrant Eggplants.  Dunlop, who moved from England to Chengdu, China, to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, says you can use either regular eggplants or "slender" Asian ones.  She does not mention using a combination of the two.  That was my crazy idea.

Did it work?  Well, yes, to some extent.  The one alteration I made to Dunlop's recipe was that I didn't deep-fry the eggplants; I basically flash fried them in just a couple tablespoons of peanut oil over very high heat.  There was a lot of smoke, and I worried that the dozen or so sprinklers in our new apartment might start spraying at any moment.  So I was cooking with a bit of fear, and didn't let the eggplants go long enough.  They probably could have used ten minutes total; I gave them about half that time.  But as you can see above, they were nicely blackened in that time.

And of course, it was the Asian eggplants that came out soft and buttery; I was silly to think the regular ones would turn out the same way with the same cooking technique.  But they all had a pleasant level of heat from the chili bean paste and paired well with pan-seared salmon seasoned with a rub of Penzey's Bangkok Blend spice mix.  Dunlop suggests serving the eggplant alongside a meat or tofu main course, but adds, "It makes a fine lunch simply with brown rice and a salad."

Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (yu xiang qie zi)
Adapted from Land of Plenty, by Fuchsia Dunlop

You'll want to have everything prepped before you start cooking--once you put the eggplants in your wok or frying pan, things happen in a hurry.  And turn on that fan above the stove before the smoke starts to fill the air.

Serves four as a side dish

1 1/3 - 1 2/3 pounds eggplants
peanut or other neutral oil, enough for either deep-frying or flash-frying
1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
3 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
3 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 1/3 teaspoons cornstarch mixed w/ 1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinkiang or Chinese black vinegar
4 scallions, green parts only, sliced into small rings
1 teaspoon sesame oil

1. Cut the eggplants into approximately two-inch sections.  If you're using regular eggplants, salt them and let the juices draw out for about 30 minutes before you cook them.

2. Heat the oil in the wok or frying pan to 350-400 degrees Fahrenheit, until it just begins to smoke.  Add the eggplants and deep fry for 3-4 minutes or flash fry for 5-10 minutes, until they turn soft on the inside.  Remove and drain.

3. Remove any excess oil from the frying pan, and return it to high heat with 2-3 tablespoons of oil.  Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for about 20 seconds.  Then add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry for another 20-30 seconds.  Be careful not to burn these items.

4. Add the stock, sugar, and soy sauce and mix in well.  Season with salt to taste, if necessary.

5. Return the fried eggplants to the sauce and let them simmer for a few minutes--allow them to absorb the flavors of the seasonings.  Then sprinkle in the cornstarch mixture over the eggplants and stir in gently to thicken the sauce.  Next, add in the vinegar and scallions; stir and leave for a few seconds, until the onions have lost their rawness.

6. Remove the pan from the heat.  Add in the sesame oil, stir, and serve.

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