For as long as I can remember, the winter holidays with my family are about eating and cooking. And napping. Last year my cousin launched a very serious challenge to my uncle’s status as Nap King. It will be very interesting to see what comes of his off-season training. He’s got the focus but I think it comes down to a matter of discipline. Let’s be honest, Uncle Dave practices twice a day. Anyway, in anticipation of the family gathering, my Dad sent me a tentative schedule for my trip about three weeks ago. The various activity options (skiing, visiting the reptile museum, yes, napping) were complemented with a daily menu. He recommended that I consider training for the eating.
Pff. I didn’t think too much of this. I mean, as the only vegetarian in the household, I assumed I’d just be hoarding side dishes (baring one’s teeth and a good swipe with the paw usually means the grilled mushrooms are pretty much all mine). But I have to say that in the five or so years since I swore off eating meat, my Dad has stepped up his vegetarian cooking game. Spicy tofu and shitake mushrooms, vegetable chow mein, stir fried vegetables with peanuts and bamboo shoots, Sichuan eggplant; I haven’t had so many vegetarian options to choose from since I spent the day with a bunch of trustafarian hippies on their “community farm.” Kids, we’re not in Mississippi anymore. I’m glad I packed my pants with the stretchy waistband.
Eggplant is, as I’ve said before, a wonderful starter vegetable for those dubious about vegetarian eating. Eggplant is very filling, enough so that it can be the centerpiece of a meal. It’s also versatile and available year-round (or rather Kroger’s Cincinnati – wow, it took me five tries to spell that correctly – distribution center always seems to have plenty sitting around). And they come in so many wonderful shapes and sizes. There’s even a little white variety that actually looks like an egg! My Austrian friend once exclaimed in disbelief when I told him the English word for die Aubergine, “An egg?! Like a plant that grows eggs? Why would you eat something called ‘eggplant?!’” He later admitted that the word Currywurst does not necessarily sound like something you’d want to put in your mouth either.
The recipe given here for Sichuan-style braised eggplant is modified from a more traditional one that, like most Chinese food, has pork tucked into it. Leaving it out makes the dish a bit lighter though no less flavorful. If you are the kind of person that misses the texture of ground meat though, toss in 1/4 cup of those Morningstar meatless crumbles along with the garlic and horseradish. There are some other ingredients included in the recipe below that are sometimes hard to find outside of Asian grocery stores but don’t worry too much if you can’t find them (or don’t want to invest in a 64 oz bottle of black vinegar). I’ve left them out with no seriously adverse consequences.
Sichuan-Style Braised Eggplant
Time: 40 minutes total, 30 minutes active
1 1/2 lbs. small eggplants (Asian eggplants if you can find them)
1 Tablespoon salt
3 Tablespoons (or as needed) canola or peanut oil
3/4 cup vegetable broth or water
1 Tablespoon chile bean paste (optional)
1 Tablespoon black vinegar (optional)
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1/4 cup celery, minced
1 teaspoon grated or prepared horseradish
2 green onions, sliced diagonal, both green and white parts
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional)
Slice the eggplants into 1-inch think pieces. When I can find them, I use the long, narrow Chinese or Japanese eggplants and slice them on the diagonal so that the pieces are oblong. Place pieces in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Stir in the salt and weight the eggplants down with a dish so they stay submerged. Soak for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by combing, in a bowl, the broth or water, chile bean paste, vinegar, soy sauce, tomato paste, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch. Set aside.
Once the eggplants are rinsed, drained, and dried, heat a wok or large sauté pan over high heat, heat 2 Tablespoons of the canola or peanut oil until very hot. Working in batches (probably two), add enough eggplant to cover the bottom of the pan and stir fry (so, tossing continuously over high heat) until crisp and brown on all sides, 7-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pieces to a bowl.
Return the pan to high heat and add the remaining canola or peanut oil. Stir in the garlic, ginger, celery, and horseradish. Saute until just golden brown (don’t let the garlic burn), about 2 minutes. Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in the eggplant. Reduce the heat to low and cover until the eggplant is just tender, 7-10 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few more minutes until the sauce thickens to your liking.
Transfer to a warm bowl and serve immediately with green onions and chili pepper sprinkled on top.
And that’s it! I recommend serving with white steamed rice and perhaps some fresh fruit on the side. I’m off to nap. I wish you all the happiest of holidays.
Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .