Absentee gardener gets creative in face of eggplant invasion

HAPPY EATER

August 31, 1994|By ROB KASPER

You get back from vacation and the hordes descend. Hordes of junk mail, hordes of tomatoes, and hordes of eggplant.

The arrival of the eggplant throng proved a theory proposed by an acquaintance of mine. Namely the best way to get your garden to grow is to get out of town.

It worked on my garden this year. After weeks of puttering at below-average pace, the garden went into a growth spurt the minute I left the city limits.

When I got back, bright red tomatoes and purple eggplants were weighing down the plants.

There were some conventional-size tomatoes, one big beefsteak that was so ripe that I washed if off and wolfed it down right there in the garden.

But my favorite tomatoes were the small ones, the cherry tomatoes. First of all, the cherry tomatoes were compliant. They were easy to pick and made terrific snack food. One of my goals in life is to find the sweetest tomato on earth, and right now the cherry tomato is the leading contender for that title.

The eggplants, however, were as prickly as a tax assessor. They nicked in unexpected ways. Their gray, thorny collars pricked my son and me as we cut them off the plants, and they got in a few licks when we got them home and washed them. They looked smooth, but until I cut off their spiny collars, the eggplants were a feisty lot.

Once I subdued them, the question became how to fix them for supper.

Ordinarily I simply slice the eggplant into slabs, coat the slabs with salt and olive and oil and cook them on the barbecue grill. Cooking eggplant this way makes them taste somewhat like french fries, at least to me.

But since I had some spare time and plenty of eggplant on my hands, I looked around for a new way to cook the vegetable. I paged through cookbooks.

I found the let-it-swim-in-Parmesan option, also called baked eggplant Parmesan; the clean-out-the-garden treatment known as ratatouille, and a variety of add-eggs-to-it recipes which basically involve coating eggplant with an egg batter. I had tried all these before. I was looking for a brave, pioneering treatment, a new, but not too challenging, adventure in the world of eggplant.

That was how I hooked up with Roasted Eggplant With Balsamic Vinegar. It came from a Californian, Diane Rossen Worthington, who presides over a food-talk radio show "California Foods," on KABC in Los Angeles and is the author "The Taste of Summer" (Bantam Books 1988,$20).

As someone who has also made some ventures into the world of food-talk radio, I know a major component of the job is making something ordinary sound interesting. In other words Ms. Worthington seemed ideally suited to deal with eggplant.

Her approach was to bathe pieces of chopped eggplant in a marinade made of balsamic vinegar, shallots, garlic, olive oil and basil, then bake them in the oven. Since I had all the ingredients, I was willing to give this recipe a try. It turned out all right. It was not a dish that inspired me to flip a few somersaults. But vegetables rarely make me somersault, especially eggplant. I found the flavor of the vinegar too strong. So when I make this dish again, I will cut back the amount of vinegar.

And I know I will make it again. The eggplant hordes demand it.

Roasted Eggplant With Balsamic Vinegar

Serves 6

4 eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds each, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch pieces

2 teaspoons salt

MARINADE:

6 medium shallots, finely chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 bunch basil leaves, finely chopped

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place eggplant in large colander and sprinkle with salt. Drain over a bowl for 30 minutes, tossing once or twice.

In large roasting pan, prepare the marinade combining the shallots, garlic, vinegar, olive oil and pepper. Dry the eggplant with paper towels. Place in marinade, tossing to coat evenly. Place eggplant in the oven and roast until soft, about 45 minutes. Toss with large spoon every 15 minutes to cool evenly. Remove from oven, let cool.

Add basil and season to taste.

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