Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Chinese Eggplant

Let me let you in on a little known culinary secret. The Chinese are simply the best eggplant cooks on the face of the earth. The Italians are the only other major eggplant enthusiasts of which I am aware, and as much as I fancy Italian food, the Italians have nothing on the Chinese when it comes to cooking eggplant dishes. In fact, I hated eggplant and would not eat it until my wife cooked it for me for the first time. Now I'm an addict. Yet the eggplant dishes I have had in Chinese restaurants here in the states have been only so-so; the very best I have had has been cooked by my wife and father-in-law, followed closely by a dish I had once in Beijing. Part of their secret is that the Chinese variety of the plant is quite different from the Western strain. It is elongate and much thinner, with a softer, more tender skin and a lighter, more subtle flavor. In point of fact, Chinese eggplant is in every respect superior to the Western variety, with the possible caveat that it is so tender that it does not hold up well to the heavy cooking usually required to render eggplant edible, and tends to decompose into mush. The fact that the Western variety is still in cultivation baffles me. I regard it as further evidence of the sorry state of man's collective intellect. I'm really not the food enthusiast, but as my wife is pregnant and my in-laws recently departed, I'm now forced to take on the role of the family chef. It is a sad, sad state of things. But I'm soldiering on, and I thought I'd share with you a bizarre hybrid Italian/Chinese recipe that I've concocted in order to conveniently incorporate Chinese eggplant into my diet as often as I'd like. WARNING: Not being a food enthusiast, I am a lousy cook, as the astute observer will quickly surmise. Attempting to follow this recipe is a high risk proposition. I'm lousy at estimation and my culinary judgement is questionable. All units are non-standard, relative, and/or completely arbitrary. That is to say, they are not to be taken seriously. If you think something is way out of line, try it your way. You are probably right. Success may necessitate professional help. Ingredients: 5-6 Chinese eggplant thingys .25-.33 cup olive oil 1-1.5 tablespoons minced garlic .25-.5 cup Chinese cooking wine .33-.5 cup soy sauce 1 capful Chinkiang vinegar (black) 3-4 tablespoons flour or cornstarch 2-4 teaspoons salt .5-1 cup water Penne pasta Serves 3-5 Cook the penne pasta as usual. Place the olive oil in a large pan. What kind of pan? I don't know; they're all pans to me. Like you'd fry an egg in, but pick a big one. Cut the tops off the eggplant and cut them into 5 even cylindrical sections. Split the sections in half (like you'd split a log) and further split down the halves until you have about 10-12 sections from each original cylinder. They should be shaped like ~3 inch pizza-slice prisms. Start frying the garlic, then add your eggplant. Use medium heat, and cover the pan. Stir it up and scrape the bottom every so often with a spatula. Cook it for a long, long time. The eggplant will get very soft. Keep cooking. It will turn mushy and brown. Keep cooking. If you aren't quite sure you've gone long enough, keep cooking. Eventually, you'll have to turn down the heat to keep the eggplant from sticking. Add the flour. Try to brown it, like you're making a roux. It'll probably all stick to the eggplant and disappear. That's okay too. A real cook would know if it was better to do this at the beginning of the recipe. Unfortunately, I'm not a real cook, so I do it near the end just because that's how I've always done it. Add all the other stuff, except the water. I usually add wine first. What kind of wine? I don't know. It is cooking wine, some kind of shade between red and brown, and the label is in Chinese, so your guess is as good as mine. If you're a real cook who's better than I am, and if I were a betting man I'd bet my life savings that you are, you've probably got a better idea than I do. Use your own judgement. What the heck is chinkiang vinegar? I don't know, but it is great stuff. Unfortunately, this is the one ingredient that you pretty much have to get at a dedicated Chinese grocery store. I would guess that balsamic vinegar might substitute, but that is only a guess. Don't hold me to it. It is made with fermented soybeans and gives everything a kind of smoky flavor. You'll be tempted to use a lot of it after you've had a few dishes with it; don't! It is very, very strong. Just use a little. Make sure you taste before you add more. Taste it and see if it needs something. If it is not salty enough and tastes too strongly of eggplant, you probably need some more soy sauce. Anyway, if you cook at all your judgement is better than mine. At this point, it'll be a bit on the dry, oily side. Add enough water to turn it into a sauce. Hopefully your roux will give it some thickness if you give it a stir. Give it a final taste and add whatever it needs, then serve over your pasta. Do you have to use Penne pasta? You can do pretty much whatever you please. I prefer penne pasta because it lends itself well to rapid ingestions, leaving time more time for blogging. I do not like fighting with a tangled mat of noodles, but maybe you do. This recipe is still in the experimental stages and could probably use some help from someone who knows what they are doing. Parmesan cheese might be useful; maybe some other spices. I'm open to suggestions. If you are crazy enough to try it, and come up with an improvement (better units would be nice...) send me a line and let me know.

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