HOW DOES HER GARDEN GROW?
My husband comes from a family that spends weekends discussing trees and plants, insects and birds by their actual real names. What was spotted this week, what’s in the garden, who’s stealing the cherries or sneaking into the yard. They read books on plants, encyclopedias of animals, stare at images of insects and bats and whatever creepy-crawlies they can come across. Okay, I grew up with herons and seagulls, storks and egrets, raccoons and armadillos, these last mostly in the form of Florida road pizza, but still, what else would I really have needed to know? I mean, he teases me by pointing out the car window saying “Look! Bird!” in his caveman grunt. Or on forest walks he’ll stop me and say “Look! Bug!” I get it, stop the sarcasm. No I am not able to name names, species, genera nor necessarily recognize prints (foot or nose) in the mud or guess whatever furry creature left behind piles of whatever they have left behind, but I do know the difference between a, well, a stork and a wood heron. And forest walks, for me, mean strolling hand-in-hand, smelling the clean, fresh air, and then stopping for a picnic. Not snapping pictures of flying things or staring through binoculars at feathery things or analyzing snout furrows crossing the path. Yes, it is interesting, but don’t ask me to memorize anything.
And as far as plants go, I can indeed name some beyond the rose bush. I love gardenias and my parents had two beautiful bushes bordering our tiny strip of front porch. Hibiscus flowers are gorgeous, their luscious petals in all of their magnificent, ostentatious glory strutting and tumbling down paths in bright yellows, pinks and oranges. Bougainvillea and rhododendron, all of those hardy, brilliant, colorful plants and trees of my native Florida. I love to stare, love to admire, love to breath in the heady fragrance of these stunning beauties basking in the hot Florida sun.
But hand me a trowel and turn me in the direction of the dirt and all is lost. I walk into a room and just look at a potted plant and it wilts. Vases of flowers curl up in the fetal position to protect themselves. Basically, I am a Plant Serial Killer; they run screaming from me, grab onto JP’s lapels and beg for help, drag themselves towards the door trailing leaves and bits of dirt after them, every man – or plant – for himself. I am indeed Mrs. Black Thumb.
And now, I will introduce you to my charming, talented better half, Mr. Green Thumb. You can call him Green. Not only can this man cook, turning out dish after fabulous dish, but he is truly magical when it comes to growing things, like an elf out of a fairy tale leaping from mushroom to daffodil to mound of moss through the lush, green forest or dancing through some hidden garden at night, watering can in hand, leaving behind him a trail of silvery leaves and dew-kissed buds. And that, my friends, is my good luck! Darling husband, keeper of all things green, swept me off to the nursery outside of our beautiful city a mere week after we had finally settled in our new apartment and bought what to create a lovely little kitchen garden. Basil and rosemary, chives and mint and throw in a pot of thyme. Once home, spade in hand, digging down into the rich, dark, earthy soil, lovingly patting it down around each tiny plant, he hangs them outside my kitchen window where I simply need to turn the handle and pull, touch the delicate, tender leaves and choose. For, after all, plants to me are for snipping, chopping, stirring, simmering, cooking.
And in this season when the basil leaves are plump and flavorful, my fingers dance through their soft summer field of green, feeling like a little garden gnome, and pinch off leaf after luxurious leaf, heaping them up on my kitchen table, knowing just what they were destined for.
I adore eggplant, brilliant, deep violet skin like the darkest of garnets or a rich, ruby red wine. Voluptuous eggplants, firm, dense and curvaceous, hinting of Old World decadence and gorgeous, fleshy women draped sensually across red velvet sofas. Slice through them and breath in the fresh scent, stare at the white, white flesh. Once considered dangerous, thought to induce insanity or, worse, to be a powerful aphrodisiac, I love touching these gorgeous beings, ogling them, stroking them and cooking them. I have been dreaming of a luscious Eggplant Parmesan, the eggplant thinly sliced and flash fried snuggling down deep in a thick, heady, fragrant tomato sauce, layered between meltingly hot, gooey cheese. I was inspired by the gorgeous photograph of Elra’s Eggplant Parmesan on Elra’s Cooking, the original recipe coming from Angela of Angela’s Food Love, although I tweaked it just a tad. And it reminds us of Italy once again.
For the homemade Tomato Sauce :
1 small onion, diced
2 shallots, diced, giving you about 2 heaping Tbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
15 – 20 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Dash Cayenne Pepper or a pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
3 x 15 oz (about 450 g) cans crushed tomatoes
Good glug or 2 of red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Eggplant Parmesan :
The homemade Tomato Sauce
2 large, firm eggplants
1 ½ cups grated mozzarella or enough to make 2 layers of cheese slices – I used 2 logs
1 – 2 cups grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, as desired
Flour for dredging
Vegetable or olive oil for frying
Make the Tomato Sauce :
Combine onion, shallots, garlic, basil, Cayenne or red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid. Simmer for five minutes over medium heat, stirring, and then add the crushed tomato. Add a glug or 2 of a good red wine (one that you will serve later with the dinner). Season with salt and pepper and let simmer for about 30 - 40 minutes with the lid on but allowing about ¼-inch to allow steam to escape. It should be flavorful and thickened. Set aside until you're ready to layer it with the eggplant. The sauce is best when it's made in advance.
Prepare the eggplant :
Peel the eggplant and slice off and discard the 2 ends of each. Slice the eggplant lengthwise evenly into ¼ to ½ - inch slices, salt both sides, then let them sit for 20 minutes. This draws out the moisture. After 20 minutes, rinse, and then pat dry with a kitchen towel.
In a large skillet, heat about half-inch of oil. Dredge each eggplant slice in the flour, coating both sides and shaking off the excess. Fry the slices in batches, a couple of minutes on each side, until golden. Remove slices to a plate while you fry the rest of the batches.
Prepare the Eggplant Parmesan :
If using balls of mozzarella, slice thinly. If using a chunk of cheese, grate.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
In the bottom of a large baking pan or dish, spread one ladleful of Tomato Sauce to cover the bottom. Layer, overlapping, half of the eggplant slices on top of the sauce.
Ladle on half of the remaining Tomato Sauce, spreading to cover the eggplant slices evenly.
Sprinkle on half of the grated Parmesan cheese then layer on half of the mozzarella to cover.
Repeat with the rest of the eggplant slices, then the rest of the sauce, the rest of the parmesan and finally cover it all with the remaining mozzarella.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 – 30 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and golden.
A gorgeous dish, a wonderful meal. Serve it with crusty bread to sop up the sauce and the rest of the bottle of red wine.