Ahh, the cooler weather is settling in (unless you live south of the Equator; in that case, happy Spring!) and–I know, people don’t get this, there’s such a cult of summer, but whatever–I am glad to see the heat gone. I admit that flip flops are my favorite form of footwear, but I’ll happily trade them for tights and cute shoes and the likelihood that I won’t break out in a sweat when I get up from the couch to get a glass of water.
Cooler weather means a return to using the oven on a regular basis, and the oven is one of my favorite ways to cook. You get your food going, and then? You walk away and let heat do the work for you. Amen.
I already had an eggplant in my fridge, thanks to my mom unloading the contents of her home on us at the end of a visit (“Here, take these eggplant. And some lettuce. These onions. This stepstool. Some recycled newspapers. And the neighbor’s new dog, I really don’t like the yappy little thing.”…and I digress…Love you, Mom!). We had two eggplants at one point, but the first had already been used for parmesan and two large eggplantses parmed up for two people? More than we needed, really. So.
I am here to sing the praise of the braise.
Braising, basically, means “browning your food and then letting it cook for a while, and it’s best if it’s a steady, constant heat”. I grew up eating pot roast; it’s the same principle here, only applied to eggplant and mushrooms. Here’s what you need:
- 1 medium-to-large eggplant
- 1 medium-to-large onion
- 6-7 white button mushrooms (or cremini, if you prefer), coarsely chopped in big chunks
- Approximately one ton of garlic, minced, or a tonne to my UK/Canadian/Aussie friends (honestly, I think I ended up using like 8 cloves)
- 4-5 stalks of Swiss chard, stems chopped, leaves sliced (totally, entirely optional; I had these on hand and wanted to use them and only mention chard because it’s in the pictures)
- 1 large heirloom or 2 Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
- 2 large handsful (3 tablespoons, if you’re a measurer) pine nuts
- 1/4 cup raisins/golden raisins/currants/any combination thereof
- 1 teaspoon sumac (we’ll talk about this in a minute)
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
- 2-3 Bay leaves
- Salt & Pepper to taste (go heavy on the pepper)
- Chopped parsley to garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°.
FIRST, I must disclose: my boyfriend is a fastidious eggplant salter. I don’t care about it at all and think it wastes time and paper towels. If you must salt your eggplant and press it, by all means do it first, do it now, so you have time to let it sit for 20-30 minutes before you rinse it, dry it and saute it. Otherwise, just chop it into a nice dice and set it off to the side.
You need a large pot or Dutch oven, something that can go from stovetop to oven. On the stovetop, start heating up said large pot since you’re going to brown everything first over a medium heat. Once it’s hot add some olive oil and then toss in your coarsely chopped mushrooms. Grind some pepper onto them but don’t add salt, since that will leach the water out of them before you want that to happen. Leave them alone in the bottom of the pan for a few minutes–don’t stir them, don’t touch them…don’t even look at them–and they’ll get all nice and caramelly brown. Only after that can you give them a stir and then remove them from the pot into a bowl you have waiting to serve as a landing pad.
In the same pot, add more oil if necessary and your onions. Give them a few minutes to cook and then add the garlic, chard stems (those red things, upper right, in the picture above) and pine nuts.
Let these cook together for five or seven minutes or so, until the onions get soft and translucent and your ridiculous amount of garlic gets beautifully fragrant. And then? Into the same bowl with the mushrooms, so they can hang out together and start to let their flavors mingle while you get busy with the eggplant.
Now. Eggplant. Your lovely diced eggplant needs to be rinsed and dried if you salted it, or…picked up and tossed into some hot oil if you didn’t. However you prepped your eggplant, add more oil to your pot if you need it, get it nice and hot and toss the eggplant in. Let the eggplant start to saute for a few minutes before moving on to the next step, but once it starts to sort-of stick it’s time to move on.
And moving on means adding spices. Assemble your (clockwise from the top) sugar, cumin, sumac, cayenne and cinnamon.
A word about sumac, which isn’t common in American pantries: it’s delicious, you should get some. It adds a particular tart tanginess to your food and there isn’t really a good substitute for it. But. If you can’t find it/don’t want to buy it, then add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your dish instead. It won’t match the flavor but will bring in the tartness. Only don’t add lemon juice until just before you’re ready to eat, as prolonged exposure to heat can turn lemon juice bitter.
Toss your spices in. Add in some salt and pepper. Right on top of the eggplant. And let them simmer together until the spices get kind of dry and everything starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, which shouldn’t take more than a minute or so. Deglaze with the peeled and chopped tomatoes (the acid in the tomatoes will start to pull up the brown bits on the pan right away) and the quarter-cup of vinegar. Give that a minute or so to cook together, and add the raisins or currants and the chopped Swiss chard leaves. Stir it all together then add the mushrooms and onions back into the mix with the vegetable stock and bay leaves.
Put this in your nicely preheated oven and leave it alone for the next 30-45 minutes. Enjoy the smells, because they will be extraordinary. At the end of its time in the oven everything should be soft and delicious and thoroughly cooked in a rich, fragrant, spicy sauce (you won’t have much sauce, but you will have some). Taste, as always, to adjust your seasonings. Garnish with chopped parsley and enjoy the heck out of your dinner! It makes for some amazing leftovers, too.
We served it with roasted potatoes with rosemary and roasted kale (which I have to walk away from if it’s on the table as I will eat every last morsel of it in one sitting), since we had the oven on so why not? Ohhh, so good. This will go into my make again and again file.
I hope you enjoy! I know I did.