Eggplants

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This post is less of a recipe and more of an appreciation of an ingredient. Let me explain. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Canada, precisely in a time and place when meat and potatoes were at the top of the culinary food chain. It wasn’t until I was 20 years old and very far away from home that I tasted my first eggplant. I had been in Greece for a few weeks and had already challenged my tastebuds with the introduction of feta cheese and really good tomatoes. It was almost culinary sensory overload. Unfortunately that summer I developed a nasty infection in my leg that, combined with the stifling heat and lack of care, evolved into a bit of a bacterial crisis. I was rushed into a very third world looking village hospital and next thing I knew I was passed out on gurney. Feeling rather effeminate with my lack of control by passing out, I woke up to the cigarette smoking Dr. slapping my face and trying to explain something to me in Greek. As I began to understand the concept of amputation through the language barrier, the full weight of the potentially permanent consequences hit me like freight train. Luckily for me I had friends that drove me back to Athens to receive proper care at a cleaner and more modern hospital. And yes, I still have the use of two legs. This is where the eggplants enter the story.

My friends decided that it would be best if I remained in Athens to recover, so they dropped me off to stay with a wonderful family while my leg healed. To my horror, as I gazed at the disappearing taillights I realized that (a) I forgot all of my personal hygiene products in the car. (Not cool in 35C+ temperatures. I smelled like a rotting corpse by the end of the first week) and (b) my new hosts knew as much English as I knew Greek (ie. almost none.) I was invited into the kitchen for the evening meal and before me was placed something I had never seen before nor will ever forget. I looked down and saw floating in an oily tomato sauce, three items that resembled grey, slimy banana slugs . It was the most revolting thing I had ever seen. When I looked up I realized that everyone was staring at me, waiting, expecting me to take the first bite. So with a fake smile and the bravado to match, a trembling hand reached down for my fork (phew, at least they had forks.) At that moment I actually said a prayer “God if I get it in, you’ve gotta keep it down!”  I think I winced as the “slug” passed my lips, but I was completely taken aback by what hit my tastebuds. It was actually really good. It was tart, sweet and deeply satisfying. The only way I could communicate my pleasure was with my stupid (relieved) smile. I did not know that what I had tasted was eggplants. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that what I had eaten is what the Greeks call Imam Bayildi. As the memories of that summer fade, this one adventure stands out and I will never forget that first taste of eggplant. From that day forward they have become for me one of those ingredients I cannot live or cook without (much to my son’s sorrow.) The essential trick I have learned to coax the best flavour out of an eggplant is this: you must cook it a long time almost to the point of burning. Whether to roast, fry or grill, you must let them get close to charring to develop the best flavour. So as the summer deepens and the selection of eggplants increases, take my advice, purchase a few, and enjoy them as a welcome addition to whatever dish you create.

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