Monday, September 5, 2016

Incredible edible eggplant

Like Oil Braised Spring Bamboo Shoots, today’s dish is often grossly misinterpreted by restaurant chefs, who take the “oil” part of the name too literally and drown these babies in less-than-stellar oil. And it’s a real shame when that happens, for that just makes them soggy and dulls the flavors. 

When made right, the eggplants are quickly pan-steamed to open them up for the sauce, and then slowly braised in an oil-free blanket of soy sauce and seasonings. Only when they are about to be removed from the heat is a smidgen of toasted sesame oil allowed to round out the textures and add a touch of nuttiness.

Another of this region’s brilliant members of the pentoucai brigade, these Oil Braised Eggplants are super simple and simply super. We used to enjoy them at our old favorite Yangtze region restaurants in Taipei, where they would sit expectantly in the fridge at the front of the shop, their lovely shriveled bodies promising rich flavors and melting tenderness.

Edible silk
We always ate them slightly chilled, for eggplants are at their absolute best in late summer and fall, when the heat is raging and the summer vegetables are in their final stages of glory. Really, eggplants are meant to be eaten now. 

I used to devour cold ratatouille all the time when I lived by myself in Taipei, usually as a big scoop straight out of the icebox. Cooling, delicious, and nutritious, it made me a happy camper of the first degree.

But Jiangsu just might have the jump on Provence here, for these splendid denizens of the Yangtze River area are the real deal. Even if you are not crazy about eggplant, something like this just might change your mind.

Oil braised eggplants
Yóumèn qiézi 油燜茄子
Zhejiang and Jiangsu
Serves 4 to 6

4 Chinese eggplants (about 20 ounces / 800 g), left whole with the tops still attached
½ cup boiling water
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots or onions
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
A long, elegant Chinese eggplant

1. Rinse the eggplants and cut them in half or thirds crosswise, so that you have fat batons or more or less the same size. Place them in a wok with the boiling water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook them covered for around 10 minutes, or until most of the water has boiled off. Toss them around gently so that all sides are cooked.

2. Remove the cover and add the soy sauce, sugar, and shallots or onions. Shake the wok to evenly distribute the seasonings, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Adjust the heat to maintain a good bubbling, but you want to give the eggplants time to cook down, release all of their moisture, and yet not burn, so adjust the heat as needed. Shake the pan occasionally, but don’t use a spatula, as the eggplants are going to turn very soft.

Utterly delicious
3. Check the wok every 5 minutes. This step will take longer than you expect because although you only added 3 tablespoons soy sauce, the salt will cause the eggplants to release their juices, and so the liquid will look pretty constant while this happens. When the soy sauce has finally cooked down to a sticky slick of only a tablespoon or two – around 45 minutes – the eggplants will have shriveled and look like your fingers when you’ve stayed in the bathtub too long. They will be very, very fragile at this point. So, drizzle the sesame oil over them, shake the wok to distribute the oil, cook the eggplants uncovered for a minute or two to further reduce the sauce, and then use a spatula or chopsticks to nudge the eggplants out onto a serving plate. (If you refrigerate them, do your best not to squish them down, as eggplants this done are rarely photogenic as it is, and pressure = mush. Still tasty, but...) They can be served hot or chilled and served cold the next day.

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