What To Do With Eggplant

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Eggplant needs some TLC. Some years, it grows an endless amount of satisfyingly plump purple fruits. What is one to do with so much of a vegetable which is sometimes hard to cook, and somewhat of a blank slate – boring on its own? Many folks avoid eggplant all together, for several reasons: they don’t like the taste, texture, hassle, or it causes them gastrointestinal distress. Because of that last reason, it’s best to soak the eggplant first before cooking it. I’m not sure what this does scientifically, but superstitiously soaking supposedly removes some of the “nightshade toxins” and makes it more easily digested for some folks.

Brine Soak

Cut the eggplant into either half-inch slices or cubes (skin on) and soak them in a mixture of water to cover, salt, and a splash of vinegar. Soak for at least a half hour (longer is better), stirring occasionally and weighing down the eggplant (which naturally floats) with a heavy enough lid. When done soaking, the liquid will be a murkier color than what you started with – drain off all the liquid. When flavoring eggplant that’s been soaked this way, remember to add less salt than usual, since it’s picked up some salt from the brine.

Eggplant needs some flavor and texture help. I have a few tried-and-tested, community-approved methods that leave some people exclaiming, “Wow, you got me to eat eggplant because you did something good to it!”

Marinated Eggplant Cubes, for salad or casseroles:

Take the pre-soaked eggplant cubes and mix them in a bowl with spices & herbs & olive oil. The classic flavors that make me think of really good Italian food – lots of oregano, basil, a pinch of fennel seeds & a pinch of marjoram (one of the few instances when marjoram is a must-have for me), salt & pepper, and a drizzle of decent-tasting olive oil, toss and let sit for at least a half an hour (again, longer is better to absorb more of the flavors). Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Toss the eggplant mixture, herbs and oil and all, onto baking sheet pans in one layer. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the eggplant is soft when prodded, and starting to brown and crisp slightly. Let cool, and then mix the eggplant into a salad of some sort. My favorite is to add roasted, marinated tasty eggplant cubes into some greens (like arugula or baby spinach) with feta cheese, good olives, sliced red onion, with a little bit of a light tahini dressing on top. Eggplant cubes can also go nicely mixed into a casserole of any kind, with the confidence that it’s already completely pre-cooked. In a sauce (tomato, pesto, or creamy) with cheese on top, you can’t go wrong. Green tomatoes are a great pairing for eggplant, especially when given the same cubed, roasted, marinated herb treatment.

Spicy Breaded Eggplant

For this recipe, gather your bowl of pre-soaked half-inch eggplant slices, a small bowl of oil (canola or your preferred kind), a couple of greased baking sheet pans, and the breading mixture. You can use any kind of flour you like – white, whole wheat, rice, cornmeal, etc. My personal favorite breading for this dish is a third rye flour, a third cornmeal, and a third white wheat flour. To this mix, add sprinkles (or spoonfuls) of cayenne, salt, pepper, and paprika. Mix well. Proceed to use one hand for wet ingredients (eggplant & oil) and one hand for dry (flour), to prevent caking your hands up with a spicy mixture. With your wet hand, pick a slice of eggplant and dip it into the oil bowl, letting some of the excess oil drip off. Place the oiled slice into the flour bowl, and with your dry hand, cover the slice thoroughly with flour mixture. Place the slices of breaded eggplant onto the baking sheet, back to back since it really doesn’t need any space in between slices. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the center of the eggplant gives way to softness.

Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes & Mozzarella (photo)

This is a very simple recipe, and quite succulent in its pure few ingredients. Prepare pre-soaked half-inch sliced eggplant and an equal number of half-inch slices of tomatoes, plus some fresh basil leaves, and optionally zucchini or yellow summer squash chunks. I recommend large or medium fresh heritage tomato varieties, from a farmers’ market or from your garden, while you can get them. I’m not a big fan of out-of-season-tomatoes, if the flavor and texture suffer.

In a casserole dish, put one layer of eggplant slices. Take the fresh basil leaves and spread them out over the eggplant. Next, put a tomato slice on top of each eggplant slice. Sprinkle the optional squash chunks in between. Then, Drizzle olive oil over top, and salt & pepper to taste. Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft and fully cooked. Add shredded mozzarella over top and return to the oven for just a few minutes to melt the cheese. Great served as a side dish, or featured by itself on top of a slice of bread.

Deep-fried Eggplant

Still aren’t satisfied with eggplant? Deep-fry it! Use your favorite batter – I usually do a light, tempura-like batter with flour & cornstarch with a bit of oregano, salt, pepper, & paprika, and a bit of cornmeal for extra crunch. Dip your pre-soaked slices (thinner is better for frying) in batter, letting some excess batter drip off. Drop into hot oil to cook for about 5-10 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden and the eggplant is soft inside. A note about deep-frying setup: make sure it’s safe – as in, use a pan with at least 4 inches of height in case of splatter etc. Don’t over-fill with oil – you only need about 2-3 inches of oil to fry in, maximum. Use an oil with a higher smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or (heaven forbid) lard. Pre-heat the oil on medium-high (you may need to turn down later if it’s smoking a lot). Keep an eye on the oil, and test the heat by placing your hand about two inches above the oil – when it starts to get uncomfortably hot, test the oil with a drop of batter – does the batter just sink sadly (not ready), or does it quickly sizzle and float? When you believe the oil’s ready, drop a tester slice in and see how it does. When it cools, taste it, and modify your methods as needed.

Dipping sauces

Marinara sauce is a classic pairing with fried eggplant. Warm thick tomato sauce with lots of oregano, basil, and a pinch of marjoram.

Chipotle Mayo is another easy-to-make favorite dipping sauce. Simply mix a sprinkle or two (to taste) of chipotle powder into a little mayonnaise. Alternately, you could use smoked paprika with your favorite hot sauce.

BBQ sauce, or any dressing can also help your fried eggplant disappear, but chances are that it’ll disappear on its own pretty quickly!

What are your favorite ways to eat eggplant?

Soup Sequel

Cream of Anything Soup

To make a cream base for whatever kind of cream soup you’re planning, start by sauteeing a diced onion and couple diced cloves of garlic in some butter or oil. Once they’re soft, add milk to fill the pan with some room left for veggies, plus salt and pepper to taste. If you can, use a ratio of three parts whole milk to one part cream. If you want a lower fat version, skim milk can be used instead of cream. Warm the milk on medium-low, stirring often.

Now for the fun part: which vegetables do you have around that are worthy of this solo? My favorites are asparagus, broccoli (with shredded cheddar), mushrooms, roasted garlic & squash, celery, or greens. Whatever vegetable(s) are the filling to this cream soup, it’s best to mostly pre-cook them in a bit of water or sautee before adding them to the cream pot. To prevent burning, this soup doesn’t get boiled much – so veggies won’t cook fully on their own.

Stir a bit of cornstarch with some cold milk in a separate small bowl, using a whisk to break up any clumps. Once the soup is near boiling (steaming, not quite yet rolling), pour the cornstarch mixture into the soup while whisking the soup constantly for a few minutes to prevent clumps and sticking to the bottom. The soup should thicken within a few minutes as the soup starts to simmer. Now, taste: does it need more salt, or anything else? Serve with a hearty bread – cream soup is great for dipping!

Chowder comes in many forms, varying by region across New England. Manhattan style chowder is a tomato-based variety. But what most people think of as “chowdah” is creamy, chunky, and if you’re in Maine, most definitely contains a sea of fresh clams, mussels, lobster, or white fish. Here on the farm in Virginia, in the absence of such luxuries, chowder comes in the form of fresh farm veggies like corn and summer squash, potatoes, chard, and sometimes savory woodland treats like wild mushrooms (chicken-of-the-woods, shiitake, oyster). Sautee all veggies in the bottom of the chowdah pot with a couple of bay leaves & some thyme, add the potato cubes & corn and just enough water to cover, and pre-boil til tender. Pour in the cream & milk, bring nearly to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture to thicken. Serve with oyster crackers and bread.

Borscht

Borscht is fun to say and nutritious! There are many ways to make borscht, with different styles ranging from chunky to smooth; vegan or with beef stock; hot or cold; sweet, sour, or savory; raw or slow-cooked; from Poland to Turkey to Russia to California. Start with fresh beets and dill, and go by what you like from there. Here is my personal favorite borscht:

Chop beets into small cubes. Chop half a cabbage into 1-inch pieces. Slice and caramelize onions, then add cabbage and two bay leaves and saute til soft with a bit of olive oil (or butter). Add beets and beef broth, plus some crushed tomatoes, a pinch of dill & tarragon, splash of vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Boil until beets & cabbage start to fall apart, about an hour & half. Ladle into bowls, scoop a generous dollop of sour cream on top, and garnish with more dill.

To make a Thai-flavored Borscht, use handfuls of fresh cilantro instead of dill. Round off the flavor with a sprinkle of cardamom, fresh lime, and coconut milk. Add chilies if you dare.

For a smooth, vegan, naturally sweeter version of Borscht, boil peeled beet chunks in water with a pinch of dill & tarragon & mint. Optionally, add some pear chunks for more sweetness! Add a dollop of olive oil, minimal salt, pepper, and puree the soup using either a blender, food processor, or immersion blender. Chill until cold, and serve with more fresh dill, tarragon, & mint on top.

What if you don’t have all day to make a soup? Try Soup-in-a-Jar!

This soup takes less than half an hour to make, and if you’re on the go, only needs boiling water added. I make up a few jars ahead of time so they’re ready to go. I take a quart jar and fill it with thin rice noodles, spices (ginger, turmeric, pepper, salt, oregano, thyme, garlic powder), a spoonful of nutritional yeast, a spoonful of sesame oil or olive oil, plus dried seaweed and dried mushrooms. Cover with boiling water, replace lid and gently shake, and let sit for about 20 minutes until the soup is ready to eat.

Soup Season

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Yes, soup season is upon us at last! Chilly days present an opportunity for Hygge, just as summertime ag jobs wind down and we seem to start reconnecting with each other on the farm. Rainy grey days bring some of us indoors, stoking the first fires of the season to warm ourselves while weaving hammocks. It’s this season that I look forward to, standing stirring steaming soup cauldrons. Some days I start a stock early in the morning, and build the soup over the course of the day. Paired with a hearty oat bread, soup can be filling and fulfilling. Cooking for approximately 100, two or three varieties (meaty, creamy, and vegan) in 4-gallon pots feels plentiful. Here are several of my favorite soups to make lately, with very general as-you-go recipes. Substitutions may be made anywhere needed – just use what you’ve got. Lots of beets? Make borscht. Lots of squash? You know what to do. But first, how to make the base layer of soup:

Great Broth

Whether you’re making vegetable broth or meat, start with whatever still-technically-edible (nothing gross, just using up veggie scraps) vegetables are around, like carrot tops, onion skins, wilted greens, that old celery, those tiny green peppers picked the day before first frost, mushroom stems. Add handfuls (or spoonfuls, as the case may be for smaller batches) of herbs: thyme, oregano (both contain thymol, a natural antibiotic), rosemary, sage, peppercorns, bay leaves, and any other flavors you favor. Best, add whole stalks of fresh herbs from your garden. No need for chopping. If you’re in an area with wild nettles, or if you have some dried nettles for tea, it can also be added to broth to deepen the flavor. Don’t forget a bit of salt!

Soup is a chance to use up and extract food from bits of things that might not otherwise get used, that need an extra long, slow time to cook. Especially beef or chicken bones, which both contain marrow and cartilage which heal our joints and more. “Chicken soup for the soul,” a great broth can heal deeply. This is an opportunity to use those rivetting giblets that come inside bought chickens, or get saved by our friends who do the brave slaughter. I usually find a mix of chicken necks, hearts, livers, and bones do the trick, if I don’t have a full chicken or two. Fresh, whole chickens can get boiled for a couple hours til it’s nearly falling apart. I strain the broth, setting the chicken bits aside to cool enough to sort through. Fondly, chicken’ pickin’ is a chance to sit down and attend to sorting out the bones and the good meat (no cartilage), which I look for in every nook and cranny as time allows. Good meat goes back into the broth with chopped carrots, potatoes, etc, while the bones & scraps can get boiled a second time for more broth. Remember not to give chicken bones to pets, as they can splinter and be dangerous.

For beef, use up bones leftover from t-bone steaks, or find some soup bone cuts (which are usually cheap & are cut open to reveal marrow), chunks of chuck stew meat or other tougher cuts, pot roast, heart, or tongue all make very tasty broth. Beef bones take longer than chicken bones and don’t really break down as much. These bones I prefer to start boiling as soon as I wake up, or if you have a crock-pot or safe setup for overnight boiling, I recommend 10-14 hours for beef bone stock, stirring & adding more water every hour or few.

Roasted Sweet Potato & Garlic Soup:

Cube sweet potatoes into 1-inch pieces. Place them in one layer (not too crowded) on a baking sheet pan, and into a 350-degree oven. Roast for about 40 minutes, watching for that sweet spot in doneness that has the potato cubes caramelizing and browning but not burning. During the potato roasting time, take a few (to taste, which for me is a lot) whole, peeled garlic cloves, and toss them in a bit of olive oil and onto a pan for roasting about 15-20 minutes, until they soften and turn golden. When both the sweet potatoes and garlic are done, scrape them and all the yummy oil/caramelized goodness you can from the pans into a soup pot. Add salt to taste and a chopped sprig of fresh rosemary, and water to cover and boil until the roasted items start to break down and wash all their yummy roasty caramel goodness into a broth. Employ a potato masher to break up the contents even more, and boil, stirring, until the broth becomes silky and thicker with still a few chunks of sweet potato left. Savor that sweet spot.

Another vegan roasty-goodness soup – made with roasted green peppers, green tomatoes, chickpeas, and cilantro:

Chop up the green peppers any old way, removing the core and top. Only jullienne if you feel like it 😉 Toss in oil, and roast on a baking sheet in a 325-degree oven until soft and starting to brown, about 35 minutes. Chunk an equal amount of green tomatoes into small pieces, and chop a couple handfuls (to taste, of course) of fresh cilantro. Add all ingredients to a soup pot, cover with water, add a can of chickpeas, salt and pepper to taste, a pinch of coriander & cumin, and boil til soft, about 1 hour. Puree the soup using either a food processor, blender, or immersion blender til smooth as possible. The soup should be a lovely green color! Garnish with more fresh cilantro on top, and enjoy this savory-sour treat!

Stay tuned for more soup recipes, including creamy chowders, borscht, mushroom rice noodle soup, and a discussion of regional soup traditions. In the meantime, here is one more delicious & easy vegan soup recipe I created with Twin Oaks Tofu: http://twinoakstofu.com/bridgets-tom-kha-tofu-soup