Saturday, May 25, 2013
Eggplant Dirty Rice: The tipping point
Eggplant is not a very sexy vegetable.
It doesn't beckon one with its awkward, bulbous shape, nor draw the eye in with its tired grey color when cooked. And that's before even considering the texture. Spongy, occasionally offensively mushy, it isn't easy to like, let alone love, at all.
My early experiences with eggplant weren't particularly inspiring. I would eat around the too-firm, piercingly bitter chunks in the soup au pistou I used to order habitually from Doughboys on West Third Street when I first moved to LA. I loved the soup and, at the time, considered the restaurant to be the highlight of my WeHo-adjacent neighborhood, but the offending, texturally unappealing eggplant became the singular sensory association I had of the nightshade. And it was a bad one.
For years I avoided eggplant, never dreaming of ordering it independently as a side or as the crux of a dish unless provoked by more enthusiastic dining companions. Yet it was somewhere in this period that I encountered a few versions that began to chisel away at the negative association I'd developed from the soup. While these iterations usually involved Japanese eggplant, which is, incidentally, significantly less bitter than its Italian cousin, it was enough to make me reconsider the vegetable in its entirety.
Even though I've reached a point where I will purchase eggplant from my local farmers market for specific recipes, I've still never been particularly excited about it. I don't think, "Oh boy, eggplant!" when the first crop begins popping up at my favorite vendor's stand. Or at least not in the same way that I do when fava beans and English peas appear for a brief breath during spring, or the first ears of sweet corn start nudging up against pert bunches of asparagus during summer.
So it's a wonder that I endeavored to make this recipe for eggplant dirty rice at all. Principally, because of the abundance of eggplant, and additionally, because it didn't contain a signal kernel of quinoa.
Yet somehow I found myself drawn to it when flipping through the pages of the May issue of Food & Wine a few weeks ago. It seemed to be challenging me - challenging me to change my perceptions of eggplant once again, and challenging me to push outside my safety zone of quinoa, kale and Brussels sprouts.
So I set about sauteing my onion, celery and green pepper, and, with a raised eyebrow, added in the obtrusive nightshade, peppering it with thyme and, well, pepper. I opted to use a longer-cooking red rice instead of the white the recipe called for, and as it simmered away in my oven, something alarming happened.
A scent wafted through my apartment. A dark, swanky, intoxicating scent that accosted my nostrils and engendered a feeling I'd never before experienced with eggplant.
I could barely sit still as I waited, desperately, for the rice to cook through. I wanted to rip the lid from my skillet and attack the fragrant dish with a spoon, letting the eggplant-saturated rice coat my mouth with an intensity of flavor that I've scarcely encountered before from a vegetarian entree.
Because this heavily spiced, textured rice is the tipping point to not just liking eggplant, but loving it.
Every little sexy cube.
Eggplant Dirty Rice
Adapted from Food & Wine, May 2013
Notes: As is to be predicted, I took a few liberties with this rice. I halved the recipe to make it more reasonable for consumption by a single person, and used red rice instead of white, which greatly increased the cooking time and required additional broth. (If you are in a rush, you can parboil the red rice for 10-15 minutes before baking - just be sure to reduce the liquid accordingly.) I also omitted the white pepper since I didn't have any on hand, and increased the proportion of garlic. Finally, I added some fresh parsley both during the cooking process, and at the end to finish it. Feel free to leave it out, but I liked how the herbaceousness cut the richness of the rice.
I've eaten this with a few chickpeas tossed in, but imagine it would be great with grilled chicken or even poached chicken. (I am obsessed with the idea of white slices of chicken strewn over the top of this obscenely black rice.)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon tomato paste (from a tube - I used Amore)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3/4 cup red rice
2 cups vegetable broth
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, divided
Hot sauce, for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat olive oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed, oven-safe pan over medium-low heat. Add the celery, green pepper and onion, a good pinch of salt, and sauté over medium-low heat, stirring frequently for 15 minutes, or until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are lightly browned.
Add the eggplant, thyme, black pepper and another pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat until the eggplant is softened, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and tomato past and cook for another minute. Add the soy sauce, and scrape up any lingering bits from the base of the pan. Stir in the rice, broth and half the parsley, and bring to a boil.
Cover and bake for approximately one hour or until the rice is just tender. Remove from the oven, fluff with a fork and serve, topped with remaining parsley. Pass hot sauce for those who like additional heat.