Last foods of summer

  • Tinky Weisblat holds eggplants in her Hawley kitchen. FOR THE RECORDER/PETER BECK

  • Ratatouille FOR THE RECORDER/TINKY WEISBLAT

  • Baba Ghanouj FOR THE RECORDER/PETER BECK

  • Roasted eggplant. FOR THE RECORDER/TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder
Published: 9/14/2021 2:52:51 PM

“’Tis the last rose of summer, left blooming alone. All her lovely companions are faded and gone.”

I’m sad to see flowers disappear at the end of our local growing season, although fortunately we’ll have asters and chrysanthemums a while longer. I’m even sadder to see many local vegetables disappear.

While they’re still with us, I plan to gather the foodstuffs while I may. Luckily, neighbors and farmstands still offer a number of late-summer vegetables as fall approaches and encroaches.

For a little while longer, we can gorge on tomatoes and corn. Zucchini and peppers have not entirely disappeared. And eggplant is readily available.

In this area, in fact, we can’t really get eggplant before August or September. This plant, also known as aubergine, originally came from India and China and requires a long growing season. Consequently, it is to be treasured now and only now.

Eggplant — so named because early versions of it in Europe were small and pale and shaped like eggs — loves to absorb herbs and spices. Indian cuisine often uses it as a sort of meat substitute and pairs it with such flavors as curry, coriander, and cumin.

It is also a meat substitute in the Eggplant Parmesan beloved of Italians and Italian Americans. There it is cooked with herbs, cheese, and tomato sauce.

In Greece, eggplant becomes part of the filling in Moussaka. And in the Middle East, it is used in a variety of ways, perhaps most famously in the savory spread known as Baba Ghanouj (or Ghanoush or any of a number of spellings).

That name translates roughly to “spoiled father,” and most fathers I know would probably feel spoiled if they were served it.

Although at one time eggplant was thought to be poisonous, over the centuries it has been treasured for its texture and its adaptability. In Arizona’s Cooperative Extension of Maricopa Journal, master gardener Linda Trujillo related the following lore:

“In China, as part of her ‘bride price,’ a woman must have at least 12 eggplant recipes prior to her wedding day. In Turkey, ‘imam bayeldi,’ a tasty treat of stuffed eggplant simmered in olive oil is said to have made a religious leader swoon in ecstasy.

“When first introduced in Italy, people believed that anyone who ate the ‘mad apple’ was sure to go insane.”

I have my own eggplant-related lore: When I was a girl spending summers in Paris, the parking meter maids in that city were known as aubergines, thanks to their lovely purple uniforms. It seemed very French to me to imbue a relatively boring job with a hint of glamor and gastronomy.

To celebrate eggplant and other end-of-season delicacies, I offer two recipes here. One is for a version of the Provençal stew known as Ratatouille. I use the word “version” because just about every time one makes this dish it is different.

The recipe below reflects what I had in the house when I made it most recently. Feel free to add or subtract vegetables and herbs depending on what you have available.

My other recipe is for Baba Ghanouj; it is lightly adapted from a version served to me by Tim Jernigan-Smith of Charlemont. Like the Ratatouille, this dish can be adapted according to your pantry and your taste.

Tim didn’t include the cumin I used, but I appreciate the depth of flavor it adds. Smoked paprika would also be delicious in this dish.

Feel free to taste both recipes as you make them and to vary them according to what you think they might need. The formulas are guidelines, not blueprints.

Ratatouille (a.k.a. Late Summer Veggie Medley)

Ingredients:

1 medium eggplant, cubed

extra-virgin olive oil as needed

1 large onion, sliced thinly

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 3 bell peppers of differing colors (I used purple and green because that’s what I had from my farm share.)

1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (to taste)

salt and pepper to taste

2 small zucchini, or 1 zucchini and 1 summer squash, cubed

2 large or 3 medium tomatoes

2 sprigs basil

2 sprigs parsley plus chopped parsley for garnish

Instructions:

Place the eggplant cubes in salted water to soak while you start some of the other ingredients.

In a 4-quart Dutch oven heat a splash of olive oil. (You can always add more along the way if you need it.) Add the onion and garlic, and sauté, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the peppers, the pepper flakes, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring, for at least 4 minutes more. Turn off the heat.

In a separate frying pan heat a little more oil and sauté the squash pieces for 4 to 5 minutes. Add a sprinkle of salt and throw the salted squash into the onion/pepper mixture.

Drain the eggplant pieces and sauté them in more oil in the same pan you used for the squash. After about 4 minutes, add a tiny bit of salt, and toss them into the vegetable medley.

Add the tomatoes and the herb sprigs, and stir. Cook all the vegetables over low heat for 45 minutes, partially covered, stirring every 10 minutes. When you are ready to serve the medley remove the wilted sprigs of herbs. Place the vegetables in a serving dish and toss chopped parsley over all.

Serves 4 to 6. Ratatouille can be used as a side dish or as a main course with a starch like pasta.

Baba Ghanouj

A note: You may certainly grill the eggplant here instead of baking it; that will give it lovely flavor. I’m not a frequent griller so I roasted my eggplant in the oven. If you grill it, it will require frequent turning.

Ingredients:

1 12-ounce eggplant (Adjust the other ingredients if your eggplant is larger or smaller.)

1 tablespoon olive oil plus a little for rubbing on the eggplant

3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup tahini

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed (For more mellow flavor, roast a whole head of garlic and use some of that; see instructions.)

about 2 teaspoons sea salt

1/2 teaspoon cumin (ground or in seeds), or to taste

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Instructions:

If you wish to roast the garlic, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pull the outside skin off the head of garlic, but leave the individual skins around the garlic cloves.

Cut off the tips of the garlic cloves. Place the garlic head in a small baking dish. (An ovenproof ramekin does nicely.) Drizzle oil over the exposed parts of the garlic, using your fingers to make sure the oil touches all the visible garlic. Sprinkle salt and pepper over all. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil.

Bake the garlic until it feels soft, about 30 to 40 minutes. (You may bake it at the same time as the eggplant; see below.) Allow the garlic to cool until you can touch it; then squeeze the individual cloves out of their skins and into a bowl. Mash the garlic with a fork.

You won’t need all of your roasted garlic for this recipe, but it’s great to refrigerate and save for other dishes.

For the eggplant, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the eggplant in half so that you have two long pieces. Lightly oil the sides that don’t have skin.

Roast the eggplant in a baking dish for 40 minutes, turning it halfway through cooking. If it smells done in fewer minutes, check it; if it is soft and looks caramelized, it is done. Take the eggplant out of the oven, allow it to cool for 10 minutes, and then peel it and cut off the stem.

If the eggplant is soft enough, you may be able to scoop out the insides instead of peeling it. Don’t wait more than 10 minutes to peel/scoop; those actions will get harder as the eggplant cools.

Chop the eggplant into pieces; then puree them in a blender or food processor. Blend in most of the lemon juice, and slowly add the tahini.

Take the raw garlic or a quarter to a half of your roasted garlic paste, and combine it with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Add that mixture and the cumin to the eggplant and tahini and blend well. Taste and add more seasonings as needed.

Blend in the tablespoon of olive oil and most of the parsley. Put the spread in a dish and serve it with a little more parsley as a garnish. Or refrigerate it, covered, until you’re ready to serve it. Make sure it comes to room temperature again before serving. Serve with pita bread, crackers, chips, or veggies.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.




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