Friday, June 26, 2009

Puttering About in a Small Kitchen

Chinese, Japanese, and Italian eggplant

my notes...

Earlier this week I went a little food crazy.

Chris was working late one night when I decided to tackle the lemon-blueberry yogurt cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen that I had stumbled upon during my blueberry recipe search. There were some perfect blueberries lounging
in my kitchen that needed to be put to good use. I'd happily eaten many straight from the bowl, but was in the mood to bake something with the rest. I proceeded to dirty a few bowls, measuring cups & spoons, and a bread pan. I changed very little in the recipe. I subsituted whole wheat flour for 1/3 of the white flour and added the lemon juice and powdered sugar glaze mentioned in her list of other ideas for the cake.

Of course, baking a cake wasn't enough. I felt some sort of magnetic pull toward using each and every bowl, pan, and utensil in my kitchen. I didn't fight it. It reminded of the night my mom and I decided to bake an apple pie. The mood did not strike until midnight. We decided to just go with it and headed out the door toward a nearby 24-hour grocery store. We were sleepy and silly, yet muddled through the recipe and were happily enjoying our homemade pie a few hours later. It's one of my favorite memories.

There were leftovers I could have eaten. It could have been an easy and low key night, but instead I felt inspired to remain in the kitchen and make something with the eggplant stash I'd purchased earlier in the day. Chris and I had been perusing the stands at the Tuesday market following an exceptional lunch at Boulette's Larder--they do everything right and this day had been no exception. We turned a corner and found ourselves standing in front of a table piled high with eggplant of all sorts, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian. I was studying the different shapes and sizes and trying to decide which type I preferred when Chris suggested Why don't you buy all three. Cook them all and see which you like best. I said Oh yes yes, The Eggplant Challenge. Good idea! I bought one of each.

At this point I'd prepared the batter, but the cake still needed to bake for 50 minutes. My eggplant challenge would have to wait. I only have one oven in this small kitchen you know... Luckily, I'm almost opposed to kitchen gadgets and appliances, so the small size of my kitchen isn't much of an issue (although I wouldn't mind a south facing window in front of my sink...). I'm a back-to-basics type when it comes to the kitchen and see most gadgets and appliances as superfluous. I just need a few good pans, a sharp knife, and a cutting board.

So, while the cake baked, I decided to prep the ingredients I'd need for my challenge and the ingredients for a pasta dish I was concocting in my head. The pasta dish had been inspired by an eggplant based recipe I'd seen on The Wednesday Chef the prior week. My version ended up a little different from Luisa's and Melissa's, but the core of the original recipe remained fairly intact. I switched to whole wheat pasta (Eduardo's whole wheat penne), went back to Melissa's lamb versus beef (for some reason I was in such a lamb mood this week...3 meals w/ lamb!), added some grape tomatoes, used three types of eggplant versus one, substituted cilantro for mint, and swapped out yogurt and melted butter for Parmigiano-Reggiano that I grated on top (sometimes I'm so predictable).

The cake was set to cool and I was finally able to cook the eggplant. I diced each eggplant into cubes of about 1/2-3/4", tossed them in olive oil, garlic (just a little), and salt before spreading each variety onto its own pan and placing those pans inside a 500 degree oven. The eggplant cooked quickly, in about 15 minutes. I let it cool slightly and then grabbed my notepad and pen and began tasting and taking notes.

The Japanese eggplant was soft and creamy, it almost melted in my mouth. This sounds nice, but frankly I enjoyed the other two more firmly textured varieties over the melt-in-your-mouth variety. It was a little sour. The skin was slightly bitter and the thickest of the three, but it did crisp up a bit and that was nice. I was surprised because I'd anticipated that the Japanese eggplant would be my favorite. It ranked 3rd (aka - last).

The Italian eggplant had the "eggplant taste" with which I am most familiar. It turns out that most familiar does not equate to best, not by any means. The skin was chewy, but not as thick as the Japanese. The skin did not crisp up at all. The seeds of the Italian eggplant were most prominent. It held its shape during cooking better than the Japanese, but not as well as the Chinese. The taste, especially when compared side-by-side with the Japanese and Chinese varieties, fell very flat. It was quite bland and I'll reiterate that this bland taste appeared after being tossed in olive oil, garlic, and salt. This not a good thing. The Italian eggplant ranked 2nd.

The Chinese eggplant held its shape during cooking. It had the thinnest skin. There weren't any bitter or sour notes noticed during the tasting. The skin was thin and unobtrusive. It absorbed the olive oil, garlic, and salt nicely. This eggplant was firm yet soft on the inside, and lightly crisp on the outside. There was a hint of sweetness in the flesh. The Chinese eggplant was the clear winner.

By the time I'd baked and glazed the cake, performed the eggplant challenge, and prepared my pasta dish, it was quite late and I was almost too sleepy to enjoy my creations, but I didn't mind. It was worth it. It might not be every girl's idea of a good time, but I actually enjoyed my evening of puttering about in the kitchen for hours on end.

Just as I finished my bowl of late-night pasta, Chris walked in the door. We sat down at the kitchen table together and ate slices of sweet cake before collapsing into bed and falling quickly into a deep and restful sleep.

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