Every week, a DIY expert spares us a trip to the grocery store and shows us how to make small batches of great foods at home.
On my most recent trip to visit my mother in Italy, she pulled out a murky glass jar from the fridge and presented it to me with a fork. "Try it," she said brightly, nudging me. "Tell me what you think." I gingerly took the jar from her and looked at it, trying to decipher what was inside. The jar was slightly oily and cold and inside, slices of something purply-brown were packed tightly. "It's not jam," I said. "Right? Or is it?" My mother could sometimes be alarmingly cavalier about how she preserved things and a batch of funky sour cherries from the year before had made me a little suspicious of her preservation techniques. "Cretina," she scoffed. "It's eggplant. Try it! It's good. Stop looking so worried." I speared a slice of eggplant with the fork, drew it out and bit off a small piece. It tasted sour and sweet and was velvety-soft. I nibbled a little more, tasting something faintly spicy, and then I finished the slice and speared another. This eggplant was good. Really good. And, I soon found out, it was a piece of cake to make. All you needed was a clean jar, an eggplant, a few aromatics and a bottle of olive oil.
You start by slicing and salting the eggplant, though I have yet to find anyone who can prove to me that salting the eggplant actually has any point at all. Still, I like to follow recipes, so I do it. You can choose not to. When the hour's up, you bring water and vinegar to boil and you cook the drained eggplant slices just for a few minutes, before draining them and letting them dry overnight. This tenderizes the eggplant and infuses them with just the right amount of vinegar to make them punchy and delicious. These are subtle, gentle pickles, after all.
The next day, all you have to do is prepare your aromatics - slices of garlic, a tiny pile of minced rosemary, some hot chile (this is easily left out if you prefer your pickled eggplant not spicy), and torn-up fresh bay leaves. Then you layer everything together -- eggplant, aromatics, eggplant, aromatics -- until the jar is full. The recipe is easily doubled, tripled or quadrupled -- all you need is more jars to fill. Once the jar is full, you pour enough olive oil to cover it all, getting rid of any air bubbles and pressing the eggplant together well. (No need for super-fancy extra-virgin olive oil here. Regular olive oil is just fine.) Then comes the hardest part: Self control. Put the jar away in your pantry for a month. Yes, a month. Distract yourself with other things. Forget about the jar entirely. Then one day when there's nothing in the house for lunch and you've stuck your neck all the way into the pantry or your cupboards to find something, anything, to eat, you'll happen upon the jar and it will feel like Christmas morning. Layer slices on a sandwich, cut them into small pieces and put them in grain salads, put them on hot, crunchy crostini or just eat them cold from the jar, like I did.
Makes 1 jar
1 pound eggplant
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves
5 fresh bay leaves
2 stalks fresh rosemary
1 or 2 small dried chiles
1. Wash and dry the eggplant. Cut into quarter-inch thick slices and put the slices in a colander. Sprinkle them evenly with coarse salt, then weight the slices down with a plate and a heavy can of tomatoes. Let sit for an hour, then brush off the salt and dry the eggplant slices on a clean dish towel.
2. Put the water and vinegar in a medium pot over high heat. When the water is boiling, slip the eggplant slices into the pot and cook for 5 minutes. Drain the eggplant slices and let them dry overnight on a clean dish towel.
3. The next day, have a clean glass jar ready. Slice the garlic very thinly. Break the bay leaves into small pieces and mince the rosemary. Crumble the dried chiles. Place a layer of eggplant slices in the glass jar. Distribute a few slices of garlic, a few pieces of bay, some minced rosemary and a few bits of chile over the layer of eggplant. Cover with another layer of eggplant and the various seasonings. Continue until all the ingredients are used up. Using a spoon, gently tamp down the eggplant and seasonings. Then pour olive oil into the jar slowly, tamping down every now and again, until the eggplant is fully covered by olive oil and there are no air pockets in the jar. Close the jar and put in a cool, dark place for one month before using.
Luisa will be answering questions about pickled eggplant on the Hotline for those of you who want to take on this project at home. For the quickest response, go to her recipe and ask a question from there -- we'll email Luisa your question right away!
Tune in next week, when Rivka Friedman will be showing us how to make our own labneh at home.