Saturday, October 08, 2005

Vegetarian Primeval

I hunch over an open flame, watching the crackling, blistering, blackening skin of what will be part of tonight's meal. Wisps of steam appear, accompanied by sharp hisses. Each turn releases smoky aromas. A little while later, I scrape the charred skin, revealing the tender flesh of my....

...eggplant. It took bit of looking at the Berkeley farmers' market to find the slender eggplant that I prefer. There were plenty of varieties that day: softball-sized white ones, baseball-sized green for Thai cooking, and all sizes and shapes of the classic purple hue. I was buying the eggplant to try more of the recipes in my latest acquisition: Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness. In the few weeks that I have owned it, I have cooked over 10 recipes, with 90% of them being excellent and the rest being good. However, I probably wouldn't recommend it to someone just learning how to cook Indian cuisine because the book lacks a sufficient glossary or ingredient identification guide. The ingredients in Indian food can be confusing and mysterious---the many types of similar looking dal, for example---so a book with an photographic ingredient guide might be an important feature for a beginner's book. But if you have been cooking Indian for a while and want a new perspective, this book could be for you.

The smoky eggplant dish is now one of my favorites. It has layers of flavor---spice, smoke from the eggplant, and acid and sweetness from the tomatoes---and a luscious texture. Here's my version:


Indian Smoked eggplant

Ingredients
3 thin Chinese, Japanese or Italian eggplant (or 1-2 large globe eggplant)
1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh ginger
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste (start with about 1 teaspoon)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, or pulverized in a mortar and pestle
1 tablespoon ground coriander, preferably fresh ground
1 teaspoon ground cumin, preferably fresh ground
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon cayanne pepper
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 to 1 green chile (serrano, jalepano, anything small and hot)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Method
Roast the eggplant: Rinse the eggplant. If you have a gas stove, place them directly on the burner or on a grill device with the burner heat on medium. Turn often for about 10-15 minutes, until the skin is completely black and the eggplant are soft. If you have an electric stove, preheat it to 500 F then roast the eggplant on a cookie sheet until the skin is black, about 20 minutes.
After the eggplant are roasted, set them aside to cool. When cool, cut off and discard the stem, then use your fingers and/or a paring knife blade to scape and pull off the charred skin. Chop the eggplant coarsely, then put into a bowl and mash to a paste with a potato masher or other tool.

Cook the base: Heat some vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, then add the ginger and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and salt and saute until the onion softens and gets a bit of brown around the edges. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Next, add the spices, and cook for 1 minute stirring often to avoid burning the spices. Add a few tablespoons of water, and stir, then cook for another minute, stirring often.

Finishing: Add the chopped tomatoes and stir, then add the eggplant. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the mixture for about 5 minutes, stirring often to fully mix the ingredients. Scoop into a serving bowl, then mix in the chopped chile, lemon juice, and one-half of the cilantro. Sprinkle the remaining cilantro on top to garnish.

Based on Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food, with More Than 150 Recipes, by Suvir Saran



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