Saturday, September 27, 2008

Marcella's Aubergines

Well, you know how much I love eggplant.

The other week, I was browsing in a used bookstore in Tokyo, and picked up a copy of Marcella's Italian Kitchen. It was written by Marcella Hazan, an authority on Italian cooking in the US. The book was published in the 1980s, when people were starting to think about Italian food as something other than spaghetti and meatballs. (Some people. Not me. I was still eating spaghetti until well into the nineties. I think I discovered penne, which I proceeded to drown in bechamel sauce, in university. D'oh.)

I frequently get frustrated cooking in Japan, since in my small kitchen doesn't have an oven. That means that a lot of non-Asian cookbooks are virtually useless to me. I don't know how many times I've flipped through Nigella Lawson's books, sighed, and put them back on the shelf after noting that the majority of the recipes call for oven time. I could go out and buy a small convection oven, but there's simply nowhere to put it in the kitchen. So when I picked up Marcella's Italian Kitchen, flipped through, and noticed page after page of recipes requiring only a big pan and fresh fish and vegetables - I thought I could make it work.

When I got it home and gave it an in-depth reading, I was happy I picked it up. This book calls for fresh ingredients, used simply, without a lot of added ingredients, a philosophy I can get behind. I immediately got out my set of Muji cleartabs (how much do I love cleartabs?) and started colour-coding the recipes by season. Green tabs for summer products - tomatoes and eggplants; Red tabs for fall - mushrooms and kabocha squash. Gray tabs for dishes that can be made from right out of the pantry - dried mushroom risotto, for example. Peter has been begging lately for some non-rice oriented meals, so I decided to try and cook one recipe a week from the book for a year, or until we got sick of it - whatever happens first.

We're at the tail-end of eggplant season in Japan, but my local stand has only had the Japanese market standard - a smallish, thin eggplant around 15 cm long. When I saw the mini eggplants at the market in Takayama, I knew I had to have them. (Peter: "You're taking them to back Kanagawa ken - 400 km away? Think of the carbon footprint!") I'd seen these sized eggplants before, but they were always as a (rather bland, IMO) pickled side dish. I was interested to see what I might do with them. When I unwrapped them at home in the kitchen, rather than opening "Washoku", I decided to open "Italian Kitchen".

I was not let down. She has two recipes for pickled eggplants - one that calls for longish eggplants, and pickles them as wedges. The other calls for thin slices with mint, garlic, and chili; preserved with salt and vinegar. It sounded like a winner, since I had also picked up a pack of long chilis, virtually unseen in Kanagawa. Only I didn't have any mint. So my weedy, sad little basil plant that grows in a cut-off plastic water bottle in my window is now shorn bare, and looking more weedy than ever.

I sliced the eggplants thinly, and layered them with crushed garlic, sprinkles of salt, pieces of chili, and basil leaves, all in a pickle jar (Muji, of course). Then, following instructions, I put a bottle inside the jar, and turned the lot upside down in the sink, for the eggplants to drain for 24 hours. The whole thing looked a little dodgy, since the eggplant quickly went brown, and started to look shrivelled and dry. But I left them alone, and the next day, covered them in (rice; she calls for red wine) vinegar. The instructions then state to immediately tip the lot over again and let the vinegar drain off. It seemed counterintuitive to me, so I let them sit in the vinegar overnight, and drained it off 12 hours later. As soon as I took the bottle off, I was struck by the smell - it smelled so - Italian. The garlic and chili scent was overwhelming, and I sampled one right away, and then regretted it right away, thinking of my poor morning class. The eggplant was sour, peppery, spicy, and deeply, deeply garlicky. They are fabulous. I covered them with olive oil, as per instructions, and they'll purportedly keep in the fridge for up to six months, but I doubt they'll last that long. They're going to be insanely good on a sandwich, or with a glass of red wine before dinner.

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