The title of this recipe should actually be:
Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Experiment in the Kitchen.
I got home from work, hungry, tired, and wondering if I should have stopped by Taco Hell on the way home. The only major ingredient I had was some baby eggplant I picked up at an Indian market nearby.
I was not excited about this.
But while feeling my two fattened knees grazing each other as I paced around the kitchen perusing the cabinets, I remembered that Grilled Stuffed Burrito from lunch, I decided to shut up and make do with what I had.
Some of you can think on your feet pretty easily. You can look a pile full of seemingly unrelated ingredients and come up with something awesome. For some, that’s a foreign and daunting concept.
Instead of playing this off like I knew exactly what my end result would be and give you a tidy little recipe, I’m going to explain my thought process. I really made it up as I went, and that’s how most of my cooking goes. If you don’t care about all the little questions and details, just keep on rolling.
For those of you that are intimidated with kitchen experimentation, I hope this gives you a little more confidence.
I started by cutting 1 onion into rainbows. That’s chef-speak for “slicing”. Drop the onions in a heated, oiled pot with a big pinch of salt.
For most of this process, you’ll be cooking on medium-high heat.
*Why Onions? I tend to believe that in a lot of cases, onions provide a base flavor & depth that is both mild and, well, flavorful. It’s an excellent base ingredient for thousands of dishes and a great place to start when you’re experimenting with something like this. Onions=Flavor.
*Why 1? Why not 10? I didn’t want to make a gallon of reduction sauce–just a few servings. And I didn’t want to wait an hour for tons of onions to reduce.
*Why rainbows? Because I wanted a little texture in my sauce. It’s total preference. Mince them if you want- it doesn’t really matter.
*Why medium-high heat? Because I was hungry and didn’t want to wait around all day for this to be done. That’s pretty much the only reason why. Feel free to do all of this on low heat if you want–which would allow the onions to caramelize which is nice, but it’ll take twice as long.
Chop 2 stalks of celery. Drop it in the pot of cooking onions.
*Why celery? My celery was going bad and I didn’t want to throw it away. Complicated, eh? Celery provides another layer of flavor that is also very mild, and provides a great texture. Onions & carrots are 2/3 of what you need for mirepoix, which is 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, 1 part carrot- a great base for thousands of dishes.
Then cut 2 more stalks. Drop it in the pot of cooking onions.
*Why? After arbitrarily deciding to use only 2 stalks, I realized I had another 2 stalks left. I knew that if I didn’t cut them, they’d sit in my fridge for another 4 days till they got nasty and I’d just throw them away. So I decided to cut the other ones up. What harm would it do?
See? That’s a happy bag.
Chop 1 head of garlic.
*What’s with the pre-packaged stuff? I rarely buy pre-packaged ingredients, but Trader Joe’s sells these handy little packets of pre-peeled garlic. Although they don’t last as long as fresh garlic, it’s very convenient to use.
*Why 1 head? Because garlic is awesome, first of all. Also, because since this pack was already starting to go bad, I didn’t want to have to throw it away later because I didn’t use it. And plus, is there really “too much garlic”? If you hate garlic, skip this step.
Mince it up, but don’t worry too much about getting it perfect. It’s about to be cooked to smithereens.
*Why mince? Why not slice? Do whatever your heart desires. I chose to mince it because I didn’t want to chomp down on a slice of garlic. I wanted the flavors to distribute around the sauce more evenly.
By the time you cut the garlic, the onions and celery (and a pinch of salt) should be getting color on the stove. Remember to keep stirring that.
*Here’s a little trick I use all the time. I only like to use 1 pot/pan, 1 cutting board and 1 knife when I cook. Making that work is ALL about timing. So as you can see below, the garlic is just sitting on top. I needed to use the board to cut more things, but I wasn’t ready to get my garlic actually cooking yet.
Just because the ingredient is in the pot doesn’t mean it’s cooking. I put the garlic in on top for about 3-4 minutes while the onions & celery underneath it was still browning up. When I sensed the onions were getting enough color, I then stirred the garlic in.
While that’s cooking, I chopped up what I had left of some roasted red peppers. I only used about 1/4 cup of these, but feel free to use more.
*Why peppers? First, I was tired of looking at this jar in my mini-fridge and I wanted to use them. Also, because I wanted another layer of flavor there. So far, our flavors have been very mild.
I then poured in all of the pepper juice from the jar.
*Why pepper juice? This is like asking “Why chicken stock instead of water?” Because this juice has flavor! Why would you want to throw flavor away? It’s going to evaporate anyway, leaving the flavor of the juice in the mixture.
Ohhhh yeah, you can just smell that.
Add 2 teaspoons of concentrated beef stock or 2 beef stock cubes.
*Why beef? Use veggie stock or tomato paste here if you’d rather. I didn’t have either of them, and I wanted a savory layer of flavor here.
*Why beef stock concentrate? Because it’s easier to use than the big jugs of this stuff. I can also control the concentration more accurately with concentrate. If I had used liquid stock, I would have had to wait a lot longer for the liquid to evaporate before I got the concentration I was looking for. However, if that’s all you have, go for it! It’ll work just fine.
Add roughly 4 cups of wine. This will deglaze the pan and cause lots of nice smells and sounds.
*Does it have to be nice wine? NOPE. This is a great opportunity to finish off your half-empty bottles of wine that aren’t quite good enough to drink, but aren’t quite bad enough to throw away. You’re going to be cooking it down so much, I don’t think it matters very much how great the wine is to begin with.
*Boxed wine, seriously? Yeah, okay, I bought this boxed stuff like 2 months ago because I thought it was a money-saving idea. Problem is, I’m not an alcoholic and this crap got really vinegary really quick. It also leaked all over my pantry. Stupid Franzia, geez.
Your pot may look something like this. It’ll be very liquidy. Don’t fret. We’ll be cooking this down to a syrup-like substance. The sugars in the wine will help that to become nice and thick, but feel free to add a little brown sugar to hurry it along.
While the sauce is boiling, go ahead and cut up your eggplant.
*Why in halves? I didn’t want to cut these up so much that I couldn’t tell what they were. I wanted to see the beautiful colors on my plate. I also wanted big bites so it felt more substantial.
*You don’t cut the stems? I didn’t because I wanted the color–but next time, I will. If I was serving this as a party appetizer–a sort of eggplant slider, I would totally keep the stems on. But having them in my bowl at the end was a nuisance.
*Should I eat and giggle at the goiter-type growth if I find one? Yes.
Put the sliced eggplant in a bowl and drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil, a big pinch of salt, pepper, the tiniest dash of cinnamon, and some sweet paprika. Using your hands, mix this together very well.
*Why not just put them right on a pan? Try it with nothing–I’ll bet you that you won’t like it. Eggplant needs something to help it along. It needs a little oil to make it kinda crunchy on the outside. It needs salt to draw out the juices inside. It needs spices to help get color, and the spices need to get hot so it wakes up the flavors.
*Why paprika? Isn’t that just for the tops of deviled eggs? No sir. Sweet Hungarian-style paprika is a staple in my cabinets. That’s what I get for living in central Europe for a year! Paprika has this way of adding this other level of flavor to foods–something that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s mild, and it leaves your food looking nice and browned/caramelized/delicious.
Put the eggplant on a pan, face up. Get your broiler on a low setting and get your oven heated up. Don’t put them in yet. Just get ready.
*Why broil? While we’re at it, why LOW broil? I really, really wanted the outsides of these little guys to be a tad bit crunchy. I wanted texture there, because eggplant has a tendency to get mushy. But I also didn’t want to char the outside before the inside was cooked, hence the low broil.
By this time, your sauce may look something like this. Adjust the heat if you feel it’s necessary.
*What if my sauce tastes nasty? By this time, my sauce tasted flat and grapey. I wasn’t digging it. It needed a lot more. It needed to be saltier, but I wasn’t satisfied with adding just plain ol’ salt.
*So I added some chopped kalamata olives. It added a salty flavor, with a little more depth of flavor. It was perfect.
*And also added some thyme. I cannot explain to you the exact reason why I did this. I needed another layer of flavor, but I wasn’t ready for rosemary or oregano yet. I wanted to try to keep it simple.
*I still didn’t like it. It was still missing something. I stared at my bottle of Sriracha hot sauce, wondering if I had ruined it and if hot sauce could cover all mistakes. Nonetheless, I held my ground and didn’t give in to the hot sauce temptation. So I called a chef friend and he suggested sherry.
AHA! SHERRY! This was my first lightbulb moment in the process. The sauce was not dead yet. I added about a tablespoon. If you try this, start small, as it can be overpowering.
*I don’t know how to explain how Sherry saved the day, but she did. It added yet another layer of something I couldn’t put my finger on. It was starting to become a beautiful, complex sauce.
*As you can see, my sauce in this picture is still very thin. It was not ready to graduate to my mouth. If yours looks like this, just keep cooking. Don’t give up.
*I decided to turn the heat up and get this stuff cranking. I didn’t want to judge the sauce until it was thick enough. If you judge the saltiness of a sauce while it’s very thin, you’re underestimating what salt will do when it reduces. So if you need to rush it, turn up the heat to get that water evaporated out and keep stirring.
*About this time, I put the eggplant in the oven. It will probably take about 15 minutes, and you want to serve these fresh right out of the oven, so this is where timing is important. You can always re-heat your sauce up, but you can’t re-cook roasted eggplant.
*After about 10 minutes of more reducing, my sauce was starting to become a sexy beast.
*BUT. It was STILL missing SOMETHING. When I’m in this situation, I take a spoon of what I’m making, close my eyes, and think of the first thing that comes to mind. When I did that tonight, my first thought was, “BASIL!”. I went with my gut and dropped some in. (Sorry Roommate Erin. You caught me stealing your basil.)
*Immediately after adding the basil, I rejoiced loudly. No seriously, I yelled and danced. This was the missing ingredient. This was the thing to tie it all together, after adding the sherry, olives and thyme. Something in the sauce just clicked, and it was a nice moment.
Let me stop here and say… that moment, the one I just mentioned, is why I experiment. It’s why I always try things I’ve never tried before. That moment when your tastebuds are freaking out and you feel accomplished because you solved a delicious problem… THAT’S the joy of cooking right there.
Anyway, moving on.
*See how thick the sauce is below? This is more like it. Thick and gravy-like. I didn’t want no wimpy, watery sauce on my eggplant.
The eggplant isn’t quite ready yet. I poked it with a knife and it wasn’t tender enough on the inside. But the tops were plenty brown.
*What did you do? Because the outside was cooking faster than the inside, I decided to turn off the broiler and turn on the plain ol’ oven at 350*. This helped the eggplant continue to cook without browning it much more.
Plate them in a nice wide bowl (or line them up on a big plate if you’re serving them as appetizers).
Carefully drop spoonfuls of the delicious sauce over your eggplant and serve immediately. Feel free to serve this as a side item, with rice or pasta, as an appetizer, or as your full meal like I did!
I hope you appreciate the florescent lights from my kitchen tonight. Not sexy! But trust me when I say that this was awesome. I mean… awesome.