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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two Bits

I ran into a friend  at the farmers' market this past weekend.  She was knee deep in Casey County sweet potatoes, rifling through baskets  for a vegetarian stew she planned to make. Thinking she might be interested in other varieties of sweet potatoes for her stew, I brought  her attention to a basket filled with small white sweet potatoes. Bad move. Information overload.  In an attempt to quell her obvious perplexed response,  I made a complete fool of myself praising the virtues of their uncanny delicate pale white sweetness.  She didn't go for it.  At. All.

Oh well.

As I walked away, a basket of baby purple eggplants caught my eye. They were gorgeous and only 25 cents each. Two bits for an eggplant? Brilliant.  How could I resist? Sold. I picked out a couple of plump purple babies and handed the vendor 50 cents. "Take the entire basket.", he said quietly. "It's the last of my crop. Take 'em all if you want 'em."  Really?  I guess he was tired of hauling them back and forth to the market.  Win. I happliy tumbled them into my bag, thanked him profusely, and stumbled away wondering what on earth  I would possibly do with  1/2 bushel of baby eggplants.

We were rolling in eggplants.

Caponata? Ratatouille ? Baba Ghanoush? Baked, stuffed, or grilled eggplant? While Michael and I enjoy any and all eggplant preparations, we're both suckers for fried eggplant. Specifically, fried eggplant parmesan. So, here's the deal.  I've had some  hits and misses with eggplant parmesan. To avoid any chance of yet another another miss, I decided to look at eggplant parmesan differently and deconstruct it.

I had a blast breaking rules.

I started with the sauce.  For unknown reasons, I had lean ground pork tucked away in the meat drawer of the refrigerator. Using a wooden spoon to break it up, I sauteed the ground pork in olive oil until it was cooked through before adding diced onions and minced garlic. When the onions were translucent, I seasoned the bubbling mix with crushed fennel seeds, salt, cracked black pepper, minced fresh rosemary, and chopped parsley.

I wanted to keep the sauce light, so I pulled several overripe heirloom black brandywine tomatoes from the windowsill, sliced them into wedges, and tossed them with the simmering pork. The tomatoes  immediately collapsed into the meat and released their sweet juices, creating a light pork ragu. I reduced the heat to a low simmer, covered the pan, and let it cook away.

 Funny, I could only salvage six of the baby purple eggplants from my 1/2 bushel. Tired aubergines.  It didn't matter. I wasn't feeding an army.

After slicing the ends from the eggplants, I used a vegetable peeler to remove alternating sections of the bitter skins. I sliced them into 1/4 inch rounds, dipped them in egg wash, and dropped them into well seasoned  parsley-flecked parmigiano-reggiano dusted  breadcrumbs.

I wanted cracklingly crisp eggplant pieces,  so I cranked the deep fryer to 375 degrees and waited for the green light to pop on. Working in batches, I carefully slid the breaded eggplant patties into the hot oil and fried them until they were golden brown. As I pulled each batch from the fryer, I seasoned them  with kosher salt and set them aside on paper towels to drain.

Mise en place.
I poured myself a huge glass of chardonnay and joined Michael in the parlor.

When it was time to eat, I stacked the fried eggplant rounds with alternating  layers of fresh mozzarella cheese and slid them into a 350 degree oven. While the eggplant crisped and the cheese melted, I whipped together a batch of quick cooking polenta.

The polenta was a no brainer. Following the instructions, I cooked the polenta until it erupted into plopping volcanic spurts. I calmed the molten mess by adding 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, a cup of creamy mascarpone cheese, a handful of grated parmigiano-reggiano, and fresh chopped parsley.

I spooned the creamy  polenta onto our plates and nestled the oozing eggplant parmesan stacks into the polenta pillows. I've killed many eggplant parmesans with too much sauce. Trust me. To avoid soggy eggplant,  I ladled the pork ragu  to the side of polenta which allowed the sweet tomato jus to spill around our plates, leaving the crisp eggplant stacks unscathed.  

To tart things up a bit, I topped the fried eggplant parmesan with a feathery baby mizuna salad tossed  in a light lemon vinaigrette. Unconvential. Sassy. Fabulous.

 With hints of anise from the fennel, the tomato-infused pork ragu was surprisingly light, like eating a delicious bite of porky air perfumed with  braised sweet heirloom  tomato essence. Ridiculous. Crazy.

Dripping and oozing with melted mozzarella cheese, the fried eggplant parmesan stacks remained perfectly crisp, breaking the soft richness of the polenta with needed crunch. Reminiscent of veal or chicken Milanese, the lemony mizuna salad provided bright acidity and subtle bitterness. Win.

Two bits for an eggplant?

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