Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Eggplant: Convincing the unconvincable

I subscribed to a CSA this year. First time, long time coming.  While it means deliciously fresh, local (ie. guilt free) produce, organic (in this case), well loved, lip-smacking good, it also means.....a little bit of strife. Box number one glared up at me with it's purple sheen, hiding beneath butter lettuce, pressed between English cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes.  Eggplant.  Can you see it?

What to do with this gummy, oddly seeded, tough, flavorless aubergine? Wikipedia tells me that this lovely little veggie (sometimes a fruit) only arrived in the west circa 1500, hardly a time when my people were developing their palates.  Clearly mine still has not developed a taste for this. As a matter of fact, neither has the Cap'n nor Trodimon's.  We have three non-believers that need to be converted.  Nothing from box #1 will go to waste.

I stumble upon this little recipe and the wheels start to turn.  I wasn't craving an Asian taste.  Last night's soup satisfied that taste bookmark for the week.  But I like the idea.  Cut a slit in 3/4" eggplant rounds and stuff it full of...something.  This I can work with.
Stuffed, eggplant, Italian-- and fennel pops in my head.  One of my coworkers has recently fell head over heels for Mario Batalli, or more particularly the man's use of fennel.  Like any good Italian knows, fennel is not just for our Italian sausage but can be blended into almost anything for that little non so cosa (Italian for je ne sais quoi).  .
So what if we combine ricotta cheese, hot Italian sausage and fennel and stuff eggplants with that.  Then grill it.  Throw it on a bed of marinara pasta...
And top with garden-grown Italian parsley and vodka marinara.  Presto!  We were converted.  This tastes nothing like that gummy, gross, overly breaded flavorless, gelatinous mass that I hate.  This eggplant is fresh and firm and earthy. And, much to Mario's delight, full of fennel.  Delicious.  I think for round two lunch leftovers I may even spoon the extra filling on top of the eggplant.
And here you have it.  Our inaugural meal on my newly built picnic table.  May the delicious combination of CSA challenges and convertible palates begin on my soon-to-be-blue picnic table!

Italian Stuffed Eggplant
1 eggplant, sliced into 3/4" rounds, and slit 2" wide
1 cup ricotta
3 links of hot Italian sausage, de-cased, browned and broken into small bits
2 t freshly ground fennel
1 medium zucchini, sliced into 1/8 inch strips
8 oz whole wheat thin spaghetti
1 jar vodka marinara
2 T chopped Italian parsley
Salt & pepper
Olive oil

Prepare spaghetti according to package instructions.  Toss with 1/3 c marinara sauce to keep the pasta from sticking.  Fire up your grill.  Combine ricotta, sausage, fennel, and salt and pepper to taste.  Stuff eggplant rounds with ricotta mix.  Brush eggplant and zucchini with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Grill zucchini and eggplant for 5 minutes each side, or until nice char marks develop.  Plate pasta, cross 2 zucchini strips and place eggplant atop pasta pile.  Spoon extra marinara atop eggplant and sprinkle with parsley.

*line your grill with aluminum foil to keep your eggplant from sticking to the grill.
** to be enjoyed on a hot summer night after biking a gallon of blue wood stain 4 miles home.  This is going to be a picnic table deserving of such hard-fought-for-meals.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An academic approach to cooking: Philosophy & Food

Well folks the cat is out of the bag. I'm currently attending Kendall College to obtain my Certificate of Professional Cookery. No, I don't really think that I want to work the line in a restaurant. No, I don't think this will change my day job. But damn do I hope it makes me one hell of a dinner party host.

My plan had been to wait until near retirement for this bucket-list-pursuit. But as I've been reminded lately, life is too short for waiting later in life to pursue what you love and, as un-American as it sounds, maybe it's ok to throw money and time and energy at something just because you love it and not because it's going to take you to the right career path. I am interested in developing myself as a passionate, interesting person, which sometimes can include, but does not always include the diligent, focused worker. So there.

This weeks assignment in Stocks, Soups & Sauces was "write about your Philosophy of Food." Period. Chef Pollin gave us little direction when he simply added, "you know, I jus laiike to 'ear about what it eez zat makes you want to cuuk." So here goes.

I am passionate about food because I am passionate about taste.  Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin says in The Physiology of Taste, “taste invites us, by arousing our pleasure, to repair the constant losses which we suffer through our physical existence.  [And] it helps us to choose from the variety of substances which Nature presents to us those which are best adapted to nourish us.”  For me, the taste of food, the experience that happens when we taste food drives me too cook, to seek out new adventures in taste, to store memories in a way that flavor is what marks time and keeps me in place and drives me to new places. 
Food in our culture is often abused as it is such a comfort for when we feel pain.  Brillat-Savarin is right when he says that taste repairs losses.  The concept of comfort food itself validates this.  For me there is a place in my brain where I store memories of taste and most frequently those flavors are tied to an emotion.  The taste of asparagus brings me to the early green shoots of daffodils poking their way up on a dreary April morning.  The taste of a hearty stew reminds me of coming home from college to a supportive, encouraging mom.  The taste of peppery goat cheese sends me straight to a garden in the Loire Valley where I ate the best cheese I ever had on a drizzly afternoon sitting under a pine tree.  It is through taste that I can recall my life and mark time through the flavors of seasons. 
Taste has an incredible forward-moving component to it as well.  As a thrill seeker and adventurer, I likewise am always on the hunt for a new taste.  Being passionate about food means you are always after something just a little bit different, just a little bit better than the last dish you created.  As I find new flavors, I think about layering and combining flavors and textures in a new way, playing with those combinations in my head.  The crave of taste has lately brought me to farmers markets and to raising chickens in my back yard.  It has begun playing a formative role for my hobbies and interests, much to my surprise and delight. 
Food is my medium for showing people that I care about them as I provide a space and a carrier for them to hold good memories.  Through sharing food and the experience of taste, I think we share one of the most fundamental acts of being human: feeding ourselves.  Through this nourishment, we do repair the ‘losses of physical existence’ and in so doing, create a lasting bond between ourselves and those we eat with.