I love hanging out in the produce aisle of a grocery store. Baskets of smooth-skinned, waxy yellow potatoes lure me; piles of Anaheim and jalapeno peppers interspersed among papery white domes of garlic inspire an entire week of meals. I like the cool feel of the misters on my hands as I select nubby carrots and bright radish jewels. My children, Kai and Rory, enjoy plunging their hands in the tall barrels of shell-on peanuts, cupping the peanuts and letting them drop back into the barrel one by one: Plink! Plink! Plink!
Occasionally, we run into someone we know, which happened last week with a local acquaintance and gifted potter named Joe. Joe and his wife, Lee, operate a pottery shop in the neighboring town of Spring City. I have purchased several of their creations since I moved to the area, among them a brown, high sheen pitcher patterned with little bird wings. I use it for serving things that elevate, such as gravy, wine, or sometimes gravy seasoned with wine. I think that one of the nicest things about where we live is that I know a little about Joe and Lee; I know and admire their daughters too. They know that I like to write and take pictures of my food to post on Eater Provocateur. Friendliness is a small town perk.
On this day, Joe and the produce manager, Randy, were engaged in discussion, so Rory and I wandered in their periphery while they talked. Rory is quickly ascending the kitchen ranks from assistant to right-hand sous chef. Her duties include offering suggestions about what produce I might like to buy and the supervision of a small, wheeled shopping cart.
“Do you need some tomatoes, mom?” she asked, pointing to clusters of the vine-ripened variety. I have a weakness for fragrant tomato leaves, so I did need some of those pretty red orbs. I deposited a cluster in her cart.
“Ooh, mom, how about eggpwant!” Rory’s suggestion instantly awakened a craving for eggplant parmigiana.
“Look at them,” I said, striding in their direction. Their skins shone – lovely, deep aubergine, with a top hat of delicate green stalk – but the flesh felt too soft to my touch. Eggplants should be used quickly (they don’t respond well to extended time in the fridge); these were so close to going bad that they didn’t offer any turnaround time, so I didn’t buy one. The depth of my disappointment surprised me.
Joe stood on the opposite side of the aisle by the lemons and limes. He smiled, his eyes crinkling. “Looking to make something provocative?” he asked, with a friendly wink. I told him I was definitely scheming.
Botanically speaking, eggplants are tropical fruits that originated in Southeast Asia. The Science of Good Food reports that eggplant is “one of the more benign members of the notorious nightshade family” that is “neither addictive nor poisonous like its relatives tobacco leaf and deadly nightshade,” though it does contain “more nicotine than any other vegetable” (or fruit, as the case may be). Other delicious members of the nightshade family include some of my favorite foods: potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums and chilli peppers (such as jalapeno, serrano, poblano, habanero, and Scotch bonnet), and tomatillos, all of which happen to be fruits (with the exception of potatoes, which are tubers).
Eggplant etymology is equally alluring. Elsewhere in the world, the luscious meaty fruit is known as an aubergine, which is also the name for the purple color of its skin. Though it is a fruit, the eggplant is frequently treated as a vegetable, much like its relatives. In 2008, the New York Times featured an article called “The Misunderstood Eggplant,” which gives detailed instructions for roasting an eggplant, an excellent way to counteract the “heaviness” commonly associated with dishes like eggplant parmigiana or the delightfully named Imam bayaldi, which translates to “the priest fainted.”
Ever scheming, I found a suitable eggplant at a different store the next day. Using a roasting method adapted from Molly Wizenberg’s ratatouille recipe, I cooked the eggplant that afternoon with halved tomatoes and shallots from a friend’s garden. It was delicious.
Serves 2 as a side dish, or 1 for a main course
1 medium eggplant, sliced in ½” rounds
4 medium tomatoes, halved
Shallots to taste, sliced in ½” rounds
Olive oil for brushing
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spread a thin layer of oil on a baking sheet to minimize sticking. Arrange eggplant, tomatoes, and shallots in a single layer on the sheet. Use a brush to apply a light coating of olive oil on all the veggies (or fruits). Flip veggies and apply olive oil to the opposite sides. Apply a heavier layer of oil on the shallots to prevent them from burning as they caramelize. Season the veggies with salt and pepper to your preference.
Roast for 40 minutes, flipping everything once at the halfway point. Transfer to a serving dish and arrange alternating slices of eggplant and tomatoes for a pretty presentation. Garnish with shallots and torn, fresh basil leaves.
This dish is wonderful topped with fresh mozzarella and broiled for a few minutes – a healthy, satisfying alternative to eggplant parmigiana.