Let's talk about eggplants," I suggested to Spencer Hill at his Arcata farmers market stall on the eastern side of the plaza. We were talking over baskets filled with a number of eggplant varieties he and his son Jules grow at Small Fruits, their farm in Hoopa. Spencer's face lit up and he started detailing his favorite recipes faster than I could get out my notebook.
In a farmers market brimming with the brilliant yellows, oranges and reds of tomatoes and peppers, eggplants — from white varieties on one end to dark purples and black on the other — round out the color spectrum. And in terms of shape, food writer and columnist Russ Parsons writes in his book How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table, "An eggplant is a thing of rare beauty. Its form ranges from as blocky and solid as a Botero sculpture to as sinuous and flowing as a Modigliani." As to their performance on the table, "The flesh is at once luxurious in texture and accommodating in flavor," notes Parsons. Indeed, eggplant is one of the most versatile ingredients in the kitchen: Roasted, fried, grilled, stuffed, layered or mashed, an eggplant lends itself to many uses.
Back at the Small Fruits stall, I picked up an elegant, bright orchid-hued eggplant shaped like an elongated teardrop and asked for its name. "Dancer," Spencer Hill answered. It is perfect for his recipe, a simple, light spread — "think baba ganoush, without the tahini."
After we finished talking about the dancer, Hill introduced me to the meatball, a portly variety with matte dark purple skin. It felt heavy in my hands — an eggplant of substance, ideal for eggplant patties. I jotted down Hill's recipe, then, back in my kitchen, decided to take a detour and develop a gluten-free version, using a mix of ground chia seed and flaxseed meal instead of breadcrumbs. I loved the result.
A couple more notes before moving on to the recipes. My practice with eggplants is to cook them as soon as possible after purchase. If you need to store them, Parsons suggests you do so "in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, in a plastic bag with a crumpled-up sheet of paper towel to absorb excess moisture."
Finally, Spencer and Jules Hill grow more than eggplants at Small Fruits. Their production includes Charentais melon, sweet peppers and miniature heirloom bell peppers with the look and size of candies, chilies, watermelon, Asian pears, Thompson seedless and Concord grapes, persimmons and more. They sell at both the main season and winter markets on the Arcata Plaza.
There are many ways to roast an eggplant: Score the skin and then barbecue, grill, cook it in a skillet or oven-roast (see my preferred roasting method below). Whatever the method, cook it until the flesh is soft.
Ingredients (all to taste):
One medium dancer eggplant or one of the bell-shaped Italian varieties with glossy black skin
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Fresh lemon or lime juice
Balsamic vinegar (optional)
To oven-roast the eggplant, heat the oven to 375 F. Pierce the eggplant in several places with a fork and place it on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or aluminum foil.
After 30 minutes, turn it and gauge how much longer it needs to cook. Roast until the eggplant is soft and easily pierced with a blade.
If you are like me and not crazy about raw garlic, wrap 3 unpeeled cloves in foil and place on the baking sheet next to the eggplant for 20 minutes. Peel the roasted garlic cloves and mash them in a bowl.
If using raw garlic, simply peel and press or finely mince one clove.
Cut a cross at the bottom of the cooked eggplant and let it drain in a colander for 10 minutes. Cut away the green calyx at the top of the eggplant, then peel off the skin. Work slowly, strip by strip, so only the skin comes off.
Roughly chop the eggplant then mash it well with a fork. Add the garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper and juice to taste (optionally, a tiny splash of balsamic vinegar).
Serve with sliced baguette, crackers, crudités or crumbled fresh chèvre.
This recipe doesn't include salt because the harissa spice mix I use contains it. When serving, I top the patties with a bit of crumbled fresh chèvre. Warm tomato sauce is also a great accompaniment. Makes 12-13 patties.
1 meatball eggplant (11 to 12 ounces)
1 large egg, preferably from pastured poultry
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons ground chia seeds
2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leafed parsley, finely minced
1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely minced
½ teaspoon harissa spice mix
1 ounce freshly grated cheese, such as Manchego or cheddar)
Flaxseed meal for breading (the golden variety gives a nicer-looking result)
Olive oil for shallow-frying
Prep all ingredients. Spread a layer of flaxseed meal on a plate.
Cut off the calyx and peel the eggplant with a potato peeler. Grate the eggplant into a bowl using the extra-coarse side of a hand grater.
Add all the other ingredients and mix well.
Warm up a well-oiled 10-inch skillet over medium heat. This will allow you to cook 5 to 6 patties at a time. If you are comfortable with it, you can get two skillets going at the same time.
Take 2 tablespoons of eggplant mixture and delicately form it into a patty. Gently bread it on both sides with the flaxseed meal. Place the breaded patty in the hot skillet.
Cook patties for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden and crisp. Flip each patty using a spatula and cook another 3 to 4 minutes on the other side until golden and crisp. Transfer the patties to a serving plate and keep them warm. Repeat until all the eggplant mixture is used.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.