What to Do with All Those Eggplants

eggplantsThis year’s unusually warm, dry spring and hot summer have made for my best eggplant harvest ever. I’ve had plenty of eggplants to pickle, to make gallons of ratatouille for the freezer, and to experiment with eggplant spreads.

Eggplant spreads are popular around the eastern Mediterranean and in eastern Europe. Besides the famous Levantine baba ganoush, made with tahini and lemon juice, there is the Russian baklazhannaia ikra, which combines eggplant with onions and tomatoes, and the Romanian zacusca, which adds red peppers to that mix. In Bulgaria, kyopolou (or kiopolo, or kiopoola) flavors roasted eggplant with garlic, parsley, green peppers, and sometimes tomatoes. Moroccan zaalouk seasons eggplant and tomato with cumin, paprika, garlic, olive oil, and usually a little lemon juice. For ajvar, from Macedonia and Serbia, roasted red peppers are the primary ingredient, and some people say eggplant doesn’t even belong in the mix. But all of the many ajvar recipes I’ve found include it.

These spreads are usually eaten on bread—flat bread, dark bread, or whatever bread is locally favored. The vegetables are usually put through a meat grinder or mashed in a mortar (or a blender or food processor) for a smooth texture, but they may instead be chopped coarsely to serve as a salad.

eggplants, peppers, & tomato ready for roastingThe eggplants are always best roasted over a wood fire, for a smoky flavor, but when I’m in a hurry I use a hot oven, as in the recipe that follows. This recipe is basically one for Bulgarian kyopolou, except that I use ripe, red peppers instead of green ones and add a little toasted cumin. A mouthful of this rich mash silences every friend who asks, “What do you do will all those eggplants?”

 

Eggplant-Pepper Spread

¾ pound eggplant(s), stabbed with a fork in several places
½ pound fleshy, sweet red peppers, such as corno di toro
1 3-ounce meaty tomato
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, minced
1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat the oven to 500 degrees F. Lay the eggplant(s), peppers, and tomato in a foil-lined roasting pan, and roast them in the oven, turning them occasionally. Remove the tomato after 15 to 20 minutes, when it has partially softened and the skin has split. Remove the peppers after about 30 minutes, when their skins have shriveled and darkened in spots. Take out the eggplant, if you’re using a single large one, after about 40 minutes, when it has blackened on the outside and completely softened on the inside. Smaller eggplants will probably be ready at about the same time as the peppers. Cover the hot eggplant(s) and peppers with a damp cloth, and let them steam for at least several minutes.

eggplant mash???????????????????????????????Peel the eggplant(s), peppers, and tomato. Chop them, and put them into a bowl. Add the parsley, garlic, vinegar, salt, black pepper, and cumin. Stir and mash the mixture together. Add the olive oil, and mix again. 

Serve the spread right away, or refrigerate it, covered, until mealtime.

If you miss the smoky flavor you’d get from a wood fire, try adding a little smoked paprika.

eggplant spread on breadAccompanied with bread and some cheese or sausage, this mash will serve four for lunch.

Homegrown Belgian Endive

endive bouquetMy California sweetheart farmer, Rich Collins, came through once again this year with a Valentine’s bouquet of Belgian endive. So I put off harvesting any of my own chicons until yesterday.

chicory

 

 

 

This is how my chicory plants looked in the garden last summer (remember, what we call Belgian endive is actually chicory). The leaves, though edible, were ferociously bitter. I left them alone, thus ensuring that the plants would have the energy to form big roots.

chicory roots, fresh dug

 

In December I dug up the roots. Here they are at harvest.

chicory roots, trimmedTo replant them for their winter growth, I trimmed off their tops and took them to the barn.

I found a plastic box, 13 inches deep and cracked on the bottom, which seemed a perfect planting container; nobody would mind my filling the box with dirt, and the roots would have drainage, if needed, without my damaging the box further. Lacking either sand or light soil as a planting medium, I used some commercial potting mix that I had on hand. I trimmed off the bottoms of the roots so that the tops would be covered with at least an inch of the moistened potting mix. Now I needed to bury the roots further in a light material like sawdust or leaf mold, or more planting mix, but I had already filled the box to the top. So I piled some wheat straw over the roots, inverted another plastic box on top, and secured it with a couple of half-bricks.

chiconsExcept for occasional peeks, I left the roots alone. Our cat Daphne, however, did not. While we were on vacation in late February she managed to knock off the bricks and the top box, leaving the chicons barely covered with straw for as long as six days. When we came home I covered them again—until yesterday, when this is what I found. The biggest chicons, I saw, had grown on the biggest roots. Some of the heads are a bit greener and more open than they should be, because of Daphne’s transgression, or the transparency of the bottom box, or my failure to bury the roots deep enough, or a combination of these possibilities. But no matter—most of the heads are firmly closed, and even the green leaves have hardly any bitterness.

If you’re in the United States and want to grow Belgian endive, you can buy the seeds from Nichols. For tips on preparing Belgian endive for the table, see my piece from last year, “Playing with Belgian Endive.”

A Fool for Pickled Chard

I finally got around to pickling chard stems again last week, when I needed to dig out several big Swiss chard plants so I could start next year’s garlic crop in a raised bed. These plants were of the Bright Lights variety, with its assortment of beautiful yellows, pinks, and reds.

Bright Lights first proved me a fool me last spring, when the plants had grown about two inches tall. I had expected to find all the various colors on a single plant, as with a capsicum plant whose fruits change according to individual timetables from green to yellow to orange. Not so with the chard. I found some seedlings with yellow stems, and others with pale pink, beet-red, or white stems. Obviously, a farmer sells a multicolored bunch of chard by banding together stems from various plants. Someone with a very small garden who wants multicolored chard may have to choose one color for herself and share other seeds or seedlings among her friends, with the hope that they can trade full-grown stems later on.

Bright Lights turned out to be just as stringy as plain old white-stemmed chard. I was fooled again in the kitchen as I pulled off the strings; as with most rhubarb varieties, the color on those pink, yellow, and red stems is only skin deep, and much of it comes off with stringing. My Bright Lights had dimmed before the pickling began.

I made the pickle as in my prior post on this topic, except in a quart jar this time. The next day I thought I would take a picture of the pretty jar, but now, strangely, the contents appeared uniformly pink. Tipping the jar, I saw that the top ends of the chard stems were all the same color, a very pale pink. Fooled again! The chard had given up its color to its pickling liquid. I might as well have pickled a jar full of white-stemmed chard and slipped in a small slice of beet.

Bright Lights chard in all its lovely colors is still growing strong in the main garden. Until the rains drown the plants or the cold rots them, I’ll search for other ways to bring their beauty to the table.

Roasted Garlic Heads, by the Dozen

When the garlic stalks in the garden began falling over last week, letting me know that harvest time had arrived, I sighed at the sight of several long braids of last year’s garlic still hanging from the kitchen wall, little green sprouts protruding here and there from the heads. Many of the cloves would last until planting time in October, I knew, but while the new crop dried we’d have to speed up consumption of the old one.

Fortunately, we’d have a lot of company on Saturday. How could we fill everybody up on garlic? Robert wanted to roast some heads, but when we roast garlic for parties most people take only a clove or two apiece. Robert was sure, though, that at dinner on Saturday he could get each person to eat a whole head.

On Saturday afternoon, I watched doubtfully as Robert got out a muffin pan and set a big head of garlic in each cavity. I worked some olives and rosemary into my sourdough, and we served the warm bread with the hot garlic, one head per person.

After dinner, I found little to scrape into the compost bucket besides some papery skins. As Robert had predicted, every clove of garlic was eaten.

Here’s how Robert prepared the garlic:

Roasted Garlic in a Muffin Pan

Trim the roots of a dozen garlic heads, peel off the loose skins, and trim off the tips of the cloves. Set the heads in an oiled 12-muffin pan. Sprinkle salt and anything else you’d like—rosemary, black pepper, Parmesan—over the heads, and dribble them with olive oil. Cover the pan with foil. Bake the garlic at 400 degrees F. for about 30 minutes, until the cloves are soft and the fragrance of garlic fills the room.

Better Than Broccoli: Kale Buds

What do you do when your kale begins to bolt? Keep eating!

I’ve made two meals, so far, from two kale plants trying to bloom in one of my raised beds. The buds, along with the thin, flexible stem tips that bear them, are sweet, tender, and not at all bitter. I leave the little leaves attached, because although kale leaves get smaller as they rise up the stalk, they don’t grow tough and bitter like bolting lettuce, but instead stay sweet and tender.

Kale is much less like lettuce than like broccoli, which is supposed to form buds before we eat it. But I think kale buds taste better than broccoli, even if the broccoli is fresh and homegrown.

Here you see kale buds in a stir-fry with beef, onions, and Purple Haze carrots. I also like bolting kale simply steamed and served with drops of tamari.

Hop Shoots for Dinner

Emerging hop shoots

Yesterday, incredibly, the sun shone nearly all day, and the earth dried out enough for me to pull the grass from around our hop plant. I found some hop shoots as tall as a foot and many others barely out of the ground. I wanted to leave only a few sturdy bines to grow, so I cut out the others. The smallest I set aside for dinner. See the short, plump, pale sprouts in the lower right of the picture? Those are hop shoots of the tenderest, tastiest sort, blanched by the cover of grass I’d removed.

I followed the advice of Patience Gray, whose Honey from a Weed is one of my favorite books. In it she describes “SALAD OF HOP SHOOTS. These shoots, picked about 7.5 cm (3”) long, blanched for a few moments in boiling water, then dressed with oil and vinegar, are delicious; poor man’s asparagus. Picking time is April. The shoots can also be used in a frittata.”

If you’ve ever licked a hop flower, you know that hops are among the world’s most bitter foods. But the new shoots have no bitterness at all, even eaten raw. Their flavor is mild and earthy. And although the older bines, like the stalks of hop’s cousin Cannabis, are tough enough to make into rope, the new sprouts are tender—again, even eaten raw.

Robert and I decided against adding the shoots to a tossed salad, a risotto, or a frittata. We wanted to taste them on their own. He dropped them into a little pot of boiling water for about twenty seconds and then dressed them with a few drops each of red wine vinegar and roasted hazelnut oil.

Our little harvest of hop shoots amounted to only an appetizer, but we’ll probably have another picking or two before new sprouts stop emerging. Maybe this modest spring treat will ease our wait for the heaps of rich man’s asparagus to come.

Sauerkraut Tips

If you mostly eat your kraut cold, don’t can it; just store it in the refrigerator or another cool place. A cellar, outbuilding, or porch may suffice, depending on the time of year and on your climate. Uncooked kraut retains its vitamin C and live microbes that can aid digestion.

If you can your kraut, use the low-temperature pasteurization method. Put the covered jars into a canner of water heated to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and continue to heat the water until it reaches 180 degrees. Maintain the temperature between 180 and 185 degrees for 30 minutes, and then remove the jars. This method helps keep the kraut from softening and also helps prevent the loss of liquid that’s so common with boiling-water processing as well as pressure canning.

Always thoroughly dry your washed crock, and especially the stoneware weights, in the sun.

Early-Summer Aioli Platter

Just as the tomatoes and peppers are timidly stretching their rootlets into the (finally!) warming soil of the main vegetable garden, we’re filling baskets with produce from the raised beds. Every mealtime provokes a variant of the same question: What shall we do with all the cauliflower/peas/artichokes /scallions/turnips?

On a warm day, my choice is often an aioli platter. Aioli is the finest way to celebrate the garlic harvest, which also happens about this time. At the moment, our garlic stalks are just starting to bend; we’ll probably harvest in a day or two. Fortunately, the garlic we grow keeps well for more than a year, so last week I twisted a bulb from one of the last of 2010’s braids hanging from the kitchen wall and started mashing a few cloves for aioli.

Aioli is the Provençal word for an emulsion of olive oil, egg yolk, salt, and garlic. Common also in Catalonia and elsewhere in eastern Spain, where it’s known as allioli, this sauce is almost certainly the original mayonnaise (whose name comes from Mahón, Menorca). Aioli goes well with many foods, but we usually have it with boiled or steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.

To make aioli, you must mash the garlic thoroughly; fresh garlic is preferred for its ease of mashing as well as for its flavor. I smack three or four cloves with the side of a chef’s knife, peel the cloves, and then either smack them again and mince them or else pound them in a mortar. I combine the garlic with about 1/4 teaspoon salt and an egg yolk—or, if I’m feeling lazy, a whole egg. Then I get out the olive oil. I use extra-virgin, but not the best; I prefer the flavor of aioli made with fairly bland oil. Or, for a very different and even more delicious taste, I substitute roasted hazelnut oil.

I have often sat on the floor with a small bowl between my bare feet and beaten in the oil with a whisk, drop by drop, but if I start with a whole egg or two yolks I can use a hand blender, running it on high speed while pouring in the oil, about 1 cup. I stop blending when the aioli is very thick. This happens in less than a minute with the hand blender, and perhaps 10 minutes with a whisk.

If I beat in a little prepared mustard and lemon juice, I have mayonnaise. But usually I prefer plain aioli.

I chill the aioli while cooking the vegetables and eggs. Last week I steamed artichokes, cauliflower, potatoes, and snow peas. The artichokes went in one pan, with about an inch of water, for an hour. I put the cauliflower, broken into florets, on top of the artichokes for the last 10 minutes of cooking. In another saucepan, I simmered small new potatoes, with salt and about 1/2 inch water, for 20 minutes; I added snow peas on top of the potatoes for the last 4 minutes. I boiled eggs in a third saucepan, this way: I covered the eggs with cold water, put the lid on the pan, brought the water to a boil, and then turned off the heat. The eggs were ready in 15 minutes. I rinsed them in cold running water. Usually I’d peel them in the kitchen, but on this lazy day we did the peeling at the table.

I don’t chill the cooked vegetables or boiled eggs for aioli. They are best when still slightly warm.

The last, nearly essential ingredient of an aioli platter is bread. It can be brown or white, toasted or not. For me, aioli and good bread alone can make a satisfying meal.

Last week’s aioli platter was a fine one, but my mouth is watering now for the one that’s coming soon, just after we pull his year’s fresh, juicy garlic from its bed.