Saturday, October 24, 2009

Enjoying eggplant, aubergine, in the fall

(This article was published in the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper October 6, 2008.  It is the second article I wrote from France during my sabbatical.)

Fall has arrived in Provence.  Mornings and evenings are chilly, the leaves on the chestnut trees in the small square where the men play boules are changing from green to yellow and brown.  Children at the nearby elementary school can now be heard laughing while playing on the playground, there are fewer cruise ships docking on the Rhone River unloading groups of tourists, and most importantly, the market is changing its fare.  The sky remains a brilliant blue, reminding me of North Carolina in October.
My favorite days in Arles are Wednesday and Saturday when the outdoor market takes place.  Summer market was a brilliant display of brightly colored clothing, cantaloupes, dozens of varieties of tomatoes, sweet red strawberries, apricots, peaches, zucchini and eggplant.  The vendors now have sweaters and jackets hanging in their stalls, with gray and black the predominate colors, a few purple items thrown in.


Purple is the hot color for winter, according to the fashion magazines.  Boots, wool socks, hats and scarves have replaced sandals, espadrilles, gauzy skirts and tank tops.  The last of the summer fruits and vegetables are for sale, with yellow melons, grapes, turnips, potatoes, onion and carrots now appearing in abundance.
We have two weeks of cooking classes scheduled for October.  One comment from clients who come for the classes is that they do not like eggplant.  Chef Vedel takes this as a challenge and usually includes an eggplant recipe.  And he almost always has a story behind his recipes.  He researches the regional cuisine, devouring books about the history of food the way some of us read mystery novels.  When I asked him which recipe I should include in this column, he answered without reservation.  So, as fall arrives and the last eggplants are available, I leave you with the recipe for Papeton d'aubergines.  Legend goes that this dish was first prepared for the Pope during his time in nearby Avignon in the 15th century.  He apparently told his cook that he preferred the food he was served in Italy, his former home.  The next day, the cook served him a molded dish shaped like the Pope's hat, and, when asked, told the Pope that it was a papeton (the French word for pope is pape).

Papeton d'Aubergines with Tomato Coulis
Serves 5-6
For the papeton:
4 eggplants
2 bay leaves
5 eggs
Pinch of salt
Olive oil

For the coulis:
5 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves
Juice from 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp freshly chopped basil
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
Coarse sea salt, to taste

1.  Poke the eggplant with a fork and bake whole, on a baking sheet, at 375 F for an hour.
2.  Peel the tomatoes (Roast them over a gas stovetop flame one by one, if possible-this removes only the thinnest outer skin). Then chop them and move them cup-by-cup into a heavy mortar and pestle and crush them to a pulp.
3.  Prepare the garlic:  on a small plate, squeeze the lemon juice; take a sharp-pronged fork and place the prongs flat on the plate.  Take a peeled garlic clove and scrape it back and forth on the tips of the prongs.  You will produce a fine puree that will be lightly cured by the acid of the lemon juice, making it more digestible and ideal for cold sauces and salad dressings.
4.  Mix together the tomato pulp, the garlic puree, the chopped basil, the olive oil and the sea salt (to taste).  Place the sauce in the refrigerator to chill before serving.
5.  Remove the eggplant from the oven and let cool until you can handle them.  (Handle them by the stems- they do not retain heat.)  Remove the pulp from inside the skins and discard the skins.  Mash the puree until it is smooth.  Place in a colander to drain excess liquid.
6.  Mix the eggs in a bowl with a pinch of salt and add the eggplant puree.  To speed up the cooking process, use a large omelet pan, well-greased with olive oil and pre-cook the eggs and eggplant mixture until it is the texture of very wet scrambled eggs, constantly stirring and turning.
7.  Place the bay leaves in the bottom of a well-greased or non-stick loaf pan.  Put the still soft eggplant mixture in the pan.  Bake at 350 F until browned on top and solid, about 45-60 minutes.
6.  To serve:  remove the papeton from its mold (discard the bay leaves) and slice.  Serve with the cold tomato coulis.

Bon appétit, l'automne!

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