If you live anywhere close to the East Coast, this weekend sure was a kick in the pants. It wasn't even fun to wear shoes with no socks, leave the Arctic puffy at home, and stroll in Central Park smelling the spring-like air. Where were the apple-cheeked children, the chilling gusts of wind and the restorative cup of cocoa that should have warmed our reddened hands after a brisk stroll under the icy sun, wrapped in our warmest woollen layers? Gone the way of the Polar bear, I suppose.
But when the heat seemed to have gotten into the heads of the people publishing recipes in one of the nation's best newspapers, I found myself at a particular loss. When they find it no problem at all to print recipes calling for such warm-weather staples as "fresh" basil leaves and "ripe" plum tomatoes in the depths of winter, tell me, dear readers: what am I supposed to do?
My answer as of now is to roll my eyes, sneer at the Holland tomatoes lying plumply in the grocery displays, submissively acquiesce to overpriced basil only to find it dead and blackened by the next morning, gnash my teeth, and then come to complain about it here. Aaaah yes. Relief.
In December, Marian Burros wrote a piece in the New York Times about the healthful recipes tucked away in several of 2006's popular cookbooks, including a recipe for tuna burgers from Michel Richard that has my salivary glands in full-swing (though it calls for both fresh basil and a ripe tomato - on December 20th, no less) and an eggplant parmesan culled from the pages of Jamie Oliver's latest book, which, incidentally, is a total delight.
Written in the same appealingly slapdash voice as his previous books, with David Loftus' gorgeous photography featuring luminous Italian scenery and people, this book is a treat. It feels more passionate than Jamie's other books, perhaps because he's on a mission now to educate and empower people to know more about where their food comes from and how to truly nourish their families. His missive on page 210 in Jamie's Italy about how out of touch we are when it comes to our food's provenance resonated deeply with me (am I getting to be a bore with this whole topic? It's just that I'm feeling evangelical about it.).
And let's be honest, it's a thrill to have such a popular food star actually taking a stand on these issues - how to be a responsible carnivore, how to be a good role model when it comes to your child's nutrition, how grocery shopping can be a political act. Can you see Giada or Rachael tackling these subjects? With their massive fan base, I wish they would.
But I digress. The book is also full of some delicious food (the rich-tasting and intense radicchio-arugula salad will be my go-to dinner party salad from now on). The eggplant parmesan was chosen by Burros as an example of a notoriously heavy dish lightened by Oliver's deft touch. Though I should point out here that you would be hard-pressed to find breaded and fried eggplant, covered with a slab of melted mozzarella and doused in marinara sauce anywhere in Italy. But let me stop myself before I get pedantic again (gawd). The dish is a medley of warm, stewy flavors and textures. It's heaven eaten with a heel of crusty bread, and is a firm contender for Best Next-Day Reheated Food. Those flavors don't run.
You cut up slices of eggplant and bake them in a hot oven, brushed with a bit of oil (though in summer, you could also grill them - sans oil) while you simmer together a plain tomato sauce (here's where the fresh basil comes in - or not at all, depending on what time of year it is and just how grumpy you are about buying that stuff out of season). Then the eggplant slices and the tomato sauce and a microplaned pile of fluffy Parmigiano are layered together before being topped with a fragrant pile of oregano-infused breadcrumbs.
Some of you might be cooking for people who need a bit more than a pile of stewed vegetables and some crusty bread for dinner, but I think it's no problem to serve this a side dish alongside some simply prepared fish or chicken. And what I plan on doing when I'm sick of eating it straight (Ben doesn't like eggplant so this casserole is all mine, all week) is boiling up a handful of pasta and tossing that with the leftover vegetables, along with a judicious splash of starchy pasta water. Pasta alla Norma redux or whatever.
Maybe, if the weather finally returns to normal later this week, that will be my ray of Sicilian sunshine.
Serves 4 or 5 as a main-course
3 medium-large eggplants, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 28-ounce can no-salt plum tomatoes or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ cup (packed) fresh basil leaves (or not)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or as needed
1/3 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves, optional
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil, and place in a single layer on two or more baking sheets. Bake until undersides are golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes, then turn and bake until other sides are lightly browned. Set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.
2. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add onion. Sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and dried oregano and sauté another 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and their juices, breaking up whole tomatoes with your hands. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Add vinegar, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Into a 9-by-9-inch, 10-by-5-inch or 10-by-6-inch baking pan, spoon a small amount of tomato sauce, then add a thin scattering of parmigiano, then a single layer of eggplant. Repeat until all ingredients are used, ending with a little sauce and a sprinkling of parmigiano. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs and oregano, if using, with just enough olive oil to moisten. Sprinkle on top. If desired, recipe can be made to this point and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking.
4. Bake until eggplant mixture is bubbly and center is hot, 30 to 45 minutes depending on size of pan and thickness of layers. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Recipe can also be reheated.