Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Three eggplants, one curry

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.

The rest:

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.

This is my entry to this week's edition of Weekend Herb Blogging, created by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen and hosted this week by Zorra from Kochtopf.


Johanna said...

that curry sounds like a wonderful adventure. I was at the vic market today and didn't see these but then, I wasn't looking - wish I had been as I am curious. w

hen I saw your curry paste recipe I thought how exotic all the ingredients used to seem and now I don't blink twice :-) Maybe one day those little pea eggplants will be ordinary fare

Anh said...

So lovely! i made something similar once or twice in the past with all the eggplants you used here, too. These eggplants, curry paste and coconut milk are wonderful combination. Love love them!

Ricki said...

Mmmm! I do love a good curry. This sounds fabulous (and you've even made those pea eggplants look very appetizing!). But would Ms. Locks find it too hot, too cold, or just right? Oh, and sorry, but February vanishing is a good thing in this neck of the WOODS (groan). ;)

Suganya said...

OMG, those are cute. Too pretty to eat.

zorra said...

Sounds very interessting. Unfortunatley I don't have access to these eggplants. :-(

Thank you for your participation in WHB. Roundup should be online next Monday.

Lisa said...

I don't often cook with eggplant, but then I see a lovely recipe like this one and I question why that is. Your green curry paste sounds wonderful.

Wendy said...

This sounds divine. Just divine.
More than persuaded to give the pea aubergines another chance. And I've fallen in love with those apple eggplants. How cute are they? :)

Simona said...

Such an interesting read! Thanks for explaining the details of those interesting vegetables.

Callipygia said...

Such gorgeous images. I especially like the pea eggplant set in front of the apple. I love when inspiration busts the ordinary drudge of being. Suddenly one can see color again!

winedeb said...

Lucy, what a fun find! We have nothing like those around here, but they sure are interesting!
They look like a hard berry.

Where did Feb go? Although the weather here has seemed like April weather. It has been in the 80's the past few days, way to warm for Feb in Key West. Global Warming ?

Christina said...

Creative, fun, and just beautiful! I've never heard of the apple eggplants before. Man, I just love eggplants, but I'm having the hardest time getting my eggplant seeds to grow. I'm going to have to start all over on them. Darnit!

Rosa said...

What a beautiful way of using three types of eggplant! I love the idea of layering the different eggplant tastes and textures in a spicy sauce. I've often come across pea eggplants in Thai duck curries, and love them.

Nora B. said...

Hi Lucy,
I can spend hours "window shopping" at the farmers market, so many interesting finds if one looks hard enough. Curry is the perfect canvas for these lovely eggplants. I think I've had pea eggplants in a saucy dish at a Thai restaurant in Singapore. Now I know what it is...thanks for all the interesting info. and the lovely photos. The last photo looks like a heart shaped ginger. :-)

I've never made my own green curry paste, actually, I hardly ever cook green curry at home (so many great Thai take-away places in Sydney, as you know). Now I feel tempted to try.

Hope that your week is going well & that you continue to be inspired.

X Nora

shula said...

Totally with you on paragraph one.

Overnight, the berries have vanished.

I'm very upset.

Susan said...

I may be one of the few on the planet who wouldn't spit out bitter, *but* I would much rather have these tots bobbing in a roiling, creamy curry.

It's doubtful whether I will ever find eggplants as novel as these, but that's what makes food blogging so impossibly fun.

Lucy said...

It was just the adventure I needed Johanna - when I was out the other day though, this month's edition of Gourmet Traveller features...all three eggplants. As Homer Simpson would so eloquently say, 'Doh!'

They are a very good combination, Anh!

Ricki, I reckon Ms Locks would find something wrong with it - she's a picky little girl - but you, would not! Only one day to go...

Almost, Suganya!

Hi Zorra - a shame, though an Asian Grocer may be able to source the pickled variety. Thanks for hosting WHB!

Lisa, go and get thee to the veg store. Immediately! I've been thinkng about the stuffed and 'butter soft' eggplants in Yamuna Devi's book as a first blogging foray into her work.

Wendy, darls, thanks for the inspiration! (Much needed) Isn't the purple intense on those Apple eggplants and, better still, their little 'hats'?

A pleasure, Simona!

And colour, Calli, is as wonderful a starting point as I can imagine.

Deb, I think you're right - they do look liken a hard berry...just the kind that looks as though it may poison you! So you've got oddly warm weather and we have it oddly cold...hmm...does make you wonder, doesn't it?

Christina, I love those Apple ones, though they sadly lose that vibrant colour, but not, however, their crisp texture. Some seeds just won't budge, will they? I tried growing some native greens and not even a pathetic little hint of sprouting from any of them. Good luck...

Rosa, duck curry...don't tempt me!! I'm glad you've had some experience of them - Zorra next door in Germany doubts she's ever find them.

Oh, Nora, curry and egplants go together so well! I love that eggplant becomes a sponge in such dishes, absorbing all that flavour, but diffusing its heat, too. Glad you liked the Valentine's Ginger Hearts - was going to post it on the 14th of Feb but chickened out in the end!

Berries leaving always makes me sad, Shula. I mean, frozen is okay, but fresh raspberries are a thing of such beauty...

Susan, once again, my friend, you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Blogging brings such a wide and exceptional variety of goods into our kitchens, vitually, so that when and if you should stumble across something as odd as this, you will have had 'some' experience with it! Bitter. Yes. You and I must have strong livers - 'bitter' is much out of favour in the West, but lauded in the East as a tonic!

Warda said...

Oh Lucy! your eggplants! Your eggplants are killing me! Along with your writing! I wish I had half your talent my dear.
The curry sounds fabulous. There are three indian stores near where I live. I will take a look for the ingredients. I haven't seen lime leaves before. But who knows!

Anonymous said...

I am devastated too. A few hot days in December, I go away in January, just back home and summer is over! Where did it go?

Cynthia said...

You get such attractive produce! I have never seen the pea-eggplants. Georgeous pics as usual dear.

A scientist in the kitchen said...

I love all those ingredients, I bet this would taste great!


KayKat said...

Those pea eggplants rock! And this curry sounds delicious :)

Kalyn said...

So interesting. I love the sound of pea eggplant; never seen it before that I can remember.

Lucy said...

Warda, the lime leaves are also known as Kaffir Lime Leaves and are a wonderfully fragrant South East Asian ingredient. I hope you find them - they also make a lovely pot of tea!

Vegeyum - how can it be autumn?!!! I turned my back and all he things I'd been looking forward to had gone. Hope you enjoyed your trip - it sounds incredible.

Cynthia, I know just how lucky I am living here! Thanks, as always.

Thanks Gay - even my eggplant-phobic stepson ate it with some relish.

Hi Kaykat - they're quite something to look at, aren't they?

I love coming across something I've no experience with, Kalyn. Sure you do, too!