a way with eggplant
I find the eggplant a somewhat amusing vegetable.
The bulbous, pastel simplicity of its shape charms me, as does its raw flesh: spongy, foam-dense, and generally unappealing to those of little patience and deftness with olive oil.
Being an infinitely impatient person myself, I have had, in my day, several highly unpleasant encounters with eggplants. Typically they involve a brief turn in a blazing hot oven, burnt garlic, and a sadly empty stomach. I think I probably would have given up on the eggplant altogether were it not for the allure of the baba ganoush at my neighborhood Lebanese restaurant back in DC. Smoky, tender, beguiling in its melty silkiness, it upstaged stalwart hummus with little effort, and rendered me quite unwilling to throw in the towel.
Fortunately, I learned that the key to an eggplant dish worthy of burrowing into is thus: time, and brazen lashings of oil. If you are willing to put forth even a modicum of effort, and a pan, you will likely forget about the underwhelming parmigianas of days past, and have quite a lovely meal.
I suppose you could call my impatience laziness, especially with regards to that glorious late-summer stew, ratatouille. While I love a bowl of soft, supple ratatouille, I rarely take the time to coax each vegetable into heady submission, as Julia Child would prefer. Fortunately, Nigel Slater shares my occasional sloth-like ways (I mean this, of course, with the utmost respect!), and one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, while marking up recipes to try in Tender, my gaze landed on a recipe for roast eggplant and chiles, that he noted was “a sort of lazy guy’s ratatouille this, but better”.
It’s really kind of brilliant. A brighter, sharper take on a traditional ratatouille-Slater banishes zucchini and instead welcomes chiles into the fold, which keep the flavors clean and add a bit of heat. Also, it is almost absurdly simple. While your oven is warming up, you basically chunk up the vegetables, toss everything with a good dose of oil, and into the oven they go. Then, pour yourself a glass of wine and watch an episode of Downton Abbey, and daydream that you, too, parade about in a vast English castle and frolic on moors. After an hour, give or take, open your oven, note how all of the vegetables have slumped and tangled together into a big mess, toast up a slice of hearty bread to sop up all the dribbly oily bits, and tuck in.
*I recognize that today’s date is October 2nd, but-quick! To the market! I think we still have a week or two with all of those lovely late summer vegetables. Get this on your table once, if you can.
Roast Eggplants, Chiles, and Thyme
Adapted from Tender: A cook and his vegetable patch, by Nigel Slater
2 medium eggplants
2 large handfuls cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 bell peppers-red or orange, preferably
2 or more large, mild chiles
6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
2/3 cup olive oil (I might scale this back just a tad next time…but really, why mess with a good thing?)
toasted bread, for serving
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Give the eggplants a quick wipe down, and then cut the them into hefty chunks, and inch thick or so. If your tomatoes are on the large side, cut them in half, and then throw them into a roasting pan or baking dish, along with the eggplant.
Peel and crush the garlic and add it to the eggplants and tomatoes. Cut the peppers in half, scrape out all the seeds and white membrane innards, and cut the flesh into nice thick slices. Cut the chiles in half, remove the seeds, and slice the flesh thickly (too thinly and the chiles will burn-beware!). Add to the roasting pan along with the sprigs of thyme, olive oil, and a generous sprinkle of kosher salt and black pepper. Toss everything gently until it glistens with oil.
Bake forty to fifty minutes (or more, depending on your oven), tossing once or twice, until everything is tender and slumped and melding into one another. Some charring is wonderful. Serve, with bread if you wish, and make sure to scrape all of the sweet roasting juices out of the pan. I like to add a poached egg on top, for dinner.
enough for 4