February is rapidly vanishing. Just writing the words makes me slightly queasy. How can March, already, be in view? No more cherries, no more nectarines. Frankly, I am devastated. Seasonal cooking, in this most fruitful of seasons, has been a little difficult. Not for want of trying, nor for want of beautiful vegetables to work with; rather for want of opportunity and, more importantly, inspiration. The market was crucial last year for a weekly, albeit indulgent, exploration of fresh, seasonal produce. This year has proven to be harder to navigate, caught between commitments, holidays and work.
Wendy posed an interesting question a week or so ago. A mystery vegetable, floating in her takeaway curry, had both her and her family puzzled. Small and bitter, it was identified as a Pea Eggplant, a pea-sized (obviously) vegetable fruit native to South East Asia. These hard-skinned, bitter little nuggets are an acquired taste, but one worth investigating. An unknown, odd little vegetable muse to inspire; one whose usefulness had me puzzled and nearly stumped.
James Oseland suggests that they are a medicinal addition to curries, cooling ‘hot’, spicy dishes. Biting into one, plucked raw, straight from the sprig, is ill-advised (duly spat out, lips puckered in disgust). Instead, use them as you would an unfamiliar spice, an apt way to describe their flavour, in scant amounts to begin with, building gradually toward something as fascinating as this Sambal Hijau. Occasionally you’ll come across jars of pickled ones, but if you can’t locate them, a splash of Angostura Bitters will mimic at least some of their unique intensity. A welcome, satisfying dig around the market late last week unearthed some very healthy specimens as well as a plastic sleeve of purple and white golf ball-sized Apple Eggplants (another South East Asian native) and a very sexy bundle of taut-skinned, slender Japanese ones. Much needed inspiration, eggplant-style.
I like to think of this as a curry that Goldilocks and her trio of hirsute friends might find amusing – three types of eggplant, of varying size and texture, from which to sample in each serve. The quietly addictive, bitter burst from the Peas and crisp, sweet crunch from the Apples are set against golden, silky slices of more familiar eggplant. Bound with coconut milk and an easy Thai Green Curry paste, this is anything but puzzling. Thanks Wendy - you provided just the leap of imagination required.
Three eggplant curry – for 2-3
What looks like a lot of work is, in fact, not. The curry paste is considerably milder than the Nigel Slater recipe that it began life as – we make it with alarming regularity but have fiddled only a little with it over the years, so delicious is his original version. Wendy has her own great version, too.
Green curry paste:
3 stalks of lemongrass, tender white parts only, chopped
2 long green chillies, deseeded and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
A thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 small red onion, peeled and chopped
Most of a bunch of coriander (cilantro), roots ’n all, well washed
6 lime leaves, chopped (or zest and juice of one lime)
1 tablespoon of tamari, umeboshi vinegar or fish sauce (nam pla)
½ teaspoon each of ground coriander and cumin
1 tablespoon of palm sugar or brown sugar
Whiz to a slurry in a food processor or bash to a paste with a mortar and pestle.
2 tablespoons of oil (not olive)
5-6 long, slender Japanese eggplants
4 apple eggplants
Green curry paste (see above)
A sprig of pea eggplants (about 10)
200mls (a scant cup) of coconut milk
500ml (2 cups) of vegetable stock, cube is fine
1 bunch of gai laan or 3 heads of bok choy, well washed
The rest of the coriander, chopped, to serve
Steamed white rice, to serve
Wedges of lime, to serve
Warm 1 tablespoon of the oil over a medium heat in a large frying pan. Slice the slender eggplants into 1 cm (¼ inch) rounds, on the diagonal looks quite good. Place the slices in one layer and fry until golden, turn them over and continue cooking and turning until they are golden brown and soft. Try to resist the temptation to add more oil – at some point as they steam and cook eggplants release some of the oil they initially soak up. De-stalk and cut each apple eggplant into eight, top to tail, and add these to the pan for 2 minutes, tossing a few times. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.
Increase the heat to high and add the remaining oil to the pan, followed by the curry paste. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes. Pluck about 10 pea eggplants, up to half a cup depending of your sense of adventure, from their sprig and drop them into the pan, stir, and pour over the coconut milk and stock. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the gai laan into short lengths or slice each bok choy head crossways thinly. Add the greens to the pan followed by the cooked eggplants. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve, garnished with the coriander and lime wedges, over steamed rice. An extra splash of tamari, umeboshi vinegar or fish sauce may be necessary to balance things out nicely.