The eggplant represents everything that is my ancestral past. When I hold one in my hands it pushes me to create. Is this some ancient responsibility beckoning from my Southern Italian roots? Melodramatic, you say. Yes. True to my heart. Yes. I see eggplant as a rich base note above which much of the cooking of the Mezzogiorno rises. Right now the Greenmarket is full of eggplants, huge purple black ones, types with violet and tan stripes, some smooth and white like lacquer, tiny bright purple ones, and the big round Sicilian variety that sits kind of squat.
I recently bought some blue-black ones that were shaped like Japanese eggplants, long and slightly curled, but thicker, with a more substantial skin. I was told they were a Chinese variety. Their insides cooked quickly and released sweetness.
As I guess you know, I’ve been experimenting with low-carb Italian cooking in the past few months. Many of you have responded positively. I think a huge culinary hurdle in fashioning low-carb meals is coming up with side dishes, for fish or another proteins, that aren’t automatically potatoes, rice, or refined grains. Our minds go there. They’ve been programmed to. That doesn’t have to be.
I had these long, curved eggplants, and I purchased fennel bulbs and beautiful September tomatoes. The combination suggested to me a type of ciambotta, but the fennel got me thinking of the Provençal dish La Bohémienne, fennel and zucchini cooked “gypsy style.” No one quite knows why it’s called that. Seems it’s a Marseillais version of ratatouille. In any case, I used my eggplant and fennel, added the tomato and other things that felt right, and came up with a soulful side dish for just about any simply prepared meat. Or have it on its own, maybe followed by a green salad and a chunk of young caciocavallo cheese.
Eggplant Braised with Fennel and Fresh Tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 summer onion, chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and diced
4 or 5 medium-size Asian eggplants, skinned and cut into cubes
2 summer garlic cloves, sliced
½ tablespoon ground fennel seed
1 medium sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
A few large sprigs of tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
Set up a large skillet over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it get hot. Add the onion and the fennel, and get them softening for a few minutes. Now add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s about halfway cooked. Add the garlic, fennel seed, and rosemary. Season with salt and black pepper, and cook to release their fragrances, about a minute. Add the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, until everything is just tender and the tomatoes have released some liquid. Add the sweet vermouth, and let it boil away. Add a splash of water, and cook another few minutes. There should be a bit of liquid left in the skillet. When everything is tender, turn off the heat and add a few drops of the vinegar and the tarragon. Taste for seasoning. Now add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot or at room temperature.