For three days Mr. Henry stared at three little eggplants lying wistfully in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. On a hot afternoon in the Citarella market they were beautiful, purple and plump, the most attractive vegetables on display. He bought them without a care and without a plan. Then he faced a moment of decision.
Summer is a languorous time of year, a time when there is time to spare, a time for experimentation with short pants and odd vegetable preparations.
Mr. Henry makes a mean Moroccan zaalouk, a fine Lebanese babaganoush, a veritable ratatouille, and a convincing caponata. Although these are not difficult dishes, to roast them requires firing up the oven for a good 45 minutes, or in the case of the ratatouille and its Sicilian cousin caponata, preparing the other ingredients takes at least as long. Eggplant parmesan is even more of a chore. All are best avoided on hot summer afternoons when you don’t want to heat up the house.
Long ago he made a lightly-battered fried eggplant by first soaking eggplant slices in milk to combat the eggplant’s natural bitterness. Now that Mrs. Henry installed her fancy convection oven, what would happen if he simply soaked eggplant slices and then blasted them in the convection oven? Would he get a mushy eggplant ragout that fell apart on the spatula? Would he get an eggplant rigor mortis permanently fused to the pan?
In this perilous world, boldness and cunning have their rewards. Milk may not be an ingredient that leaps to mind when considering the eggplant. In Consider the Oyster, however, the peerless M.F.K. Fisher (John Updike called her “our poet of the appetites.”) lists a dozen recipes for oyster stew (which is not really a stew at all, but that is another discussion). All but one recipe contain milk, and lots of it.
What about buttermilk?? Such a pairing could be interesting. But where to look for spices and flavor ideas? Both buttermilk and eggplant are found in Middle Eastern cuisine. Given that eggplant has been central to Jewish cuisine, perhaps Claudia Roden in her masterful The Book of Jewish Food might have an answer.
Not dissuaded by the absence of traditional recipes, Mr. Henry seized his chance. After all, we live in the New World. Marinating for several hours in buttermilk and a bit of nutmeg, eggplant slices were cooked two ways: half were fried in olive oil, half were baked. Slowly fried in olive oil, slices emerged crispy and perfectly ready to eat. After 15 minutes the baked slices received a topping of grated parmesan and bread crumbs and then went back in the oven for another 25.
Curiously, although the baked slices were good, not mushy, fried slices came out better. They had that desirable crunchy exterior and soft interior. As Kit Pollard remarked in an inspired moment on her blog Mango & Ginger, they remind one of soft shell crab. Indeed, the eggplant is a mysterious playmate.
In the end, however, neither preparation with buttermilk exceeded the pleasure of a first class caponata enjoyed with a Rosso di Montalcino. Perhaps our Old World ancestors knew something after all.