September is a bit confused in the deep south — technically, autumn begins on the 23rd, but other than what feels like a relatively cool day (i.e., the temp only reaches 94º) interspersed here and there, it still feels like summer. Because of this, I’ve been having a hard time choosing a fruit or vegetable to showcase. There are a few that come to mind, but I covered tomatoes last month (they’re past there prime here, anyway) and I mentioned in a previous post that I cannot bring myself to speak of summer squash — I’ve simply consumed too much.
Last weekend, I was given a bag of superfluous bounty from an acquaintance’s garden, and mixed in with the usual suspects was my inspiration for this post: the eggplant. Of course! It’s technically in season from July – September, but is available year-round (as in, it is successfully trucked from Mexico or California all winter), and, unlike tomatoes, is actually palatable in all seasons. Quite flexible, too: it can be grilled in the late summer (that’s what we did with ours this weekend), fried in the fall, and stewed in the winter. It can taste relatively light in a curry, or rich and filling in Eggplant Parmesan; roasted and pureed in baba ghanoush, or fried up for an open-faced sandwich melt. It has seemed to me to be the perfect transitional vegetable from summer to winter; its flesh — rich, dark, aubergine — seems to precede and hint at the turning of the earth’s foliage into all the hues that define Autumn.
Eggplant also has nostalgic significance for me — it’s one of my first memories of a favorite food. When I turned eleven or twelve, my dad started a short-lived tradition of taking me out to eat on my birthday. I can’t remember who picked the restaurant the first time — I’m guessing it was him, since I have no idea how I would’ve known of any (our family did not eat out much) — but we went to a quaint Italian place called Cerami’s. It was located in an old white southern cottage, just off the Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson, Mississippi. There, I somehow managed to order eggplant parmesan. I have the distinct memory of having never heard of an eggplant, so I’m not really sure what caused me to be so adventurous. But it rocked my world, and for the next 5 or 6 years, if I was ever asked to name my favorite food, it was not pizza, pancakes, or Krispy Cremes, but very specifically The Eggplant Parmesan At Cerami’s.
Many years later, I started to make the dish myself. There are countless ways to make it, but the gist is fried eggplant slices layered with marinara sauce and a combination of mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I do have a favorite version, via some Christopher Kimball publication (surprised?), and I’d share it if I had access to my cookbooks and could find it (they are currently packed away in the new house that we cannot yet reside in — but that’s another story for another blog). But it’s also a labor-intensive recipe, and for that reason I usually just wing it when making my pre-pubescent favorite dish. If you look up a version in your own cookbook, and it suggests “salting” the eggplant (a method of drawing moisture and bitterness out of the fruit), I do suggest following that step. While I’ve read that the bitterness is not that prominent when you skip the step, it does help the texture and pliability of the slices when you pan-fry them.
Have a favorite eggplant recipe? Please, do share!
Since I did manage to mention the new house in the last paragraph, I’ll take that segway and also make note of my utter excitement as I look forward to this weekend. If all goes according to plan, I’ll soon be cooking my first meals on our lovely new gas range. More to come.