Last year, when it was dry and hot early, I had an extraordinary season of peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. This year, the peppers and cucumbers were not particularly abundant. The heat came too late and the rain has been too inconsistent for them to thrive. The eggplants, though, were ecstatic this year. Every week brought at least two and sometimes four. When cooking for one, it is easy to find two eggplants a week far too many. It was a relief to go to Santa Fe, where I could eat seasonal vegetables that did not include eggplant.
I was delighted, though, knowing I was about to host a party, to come home to five eggplants almost ready to be picked. What better base for a potluck party dish than eggplant? Knowing the crowd, I anticipate baba ghanoush by the bucketful; could not make that. The tomatoes are not longer succulent enough for caponata (they must all become sauce); that was out. I chose, then, eggplant caviar. Not a bad pick. What could be a better offering for a party in Washington DC at this time in history than what is often called poor man’s caviar?
I do not know the historical basis for it being named poor man’s caviar. It does not look like caviar. Not really. It does not taste like caviar. You can put it on bread or crackers the same way you would serve caviar, but that certainly does not further the explanation. It is, though, a delicious and festive dish that pretty much requires only having eggplant growing in the backyard (or a trip to the farmer’s market) and the time to take care of it.
Eggplant caviar is a dish that reminds me that with only a little space and the willingness to provide nurture and pay attention for a season and to cook a simple dish slowly, I can experience what it is to enjoy and share little luxuries without being entirely dependent on money. I am finding that comforting and encouraging. (I do recognize that there are those for whom a little space and times are luxuries they cannot even imagine. For me, choosing the simpler luxuries allows for more to share and offer. Going entirely without comfort would not help much of anything. As for sharing and giving, I certainly do hope those help.)
Recipe (adapted from Thomas Keller’s Eggplant Caviar in “New York Cookbook,” Molly O’Neill)
Take 3 to 5 eggplants, depending on size of eggplant and number of portions desired. Cut them in half, score the flesh and salt it. Let the eggplants drain cut side down, weighted by a heavy plate or pan, for 45 minutes to an hour. Rinse and squeeze out the eggplant. Roast, cut side down, until very tender. (In my convection oven, that’s about 25 minutes at 350F). When cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and chop coarsely. Drain again in a strainer for 10-15 minutes.
Meanwhile, wisk together olive oil, pressed garlic cloves, and dijon mustard to taste (to be local, you could use walnut oil, and it would taste excellent; I expect, however, that there may be party guests who are allergic to nuts).
Squeeze out the eggplant pulp and mix it with the remaining ingredients. Best if sits overnight or at least a few hours. When ready to serve, adjust the salt and pepper.
Variation Make with mushroom. Skip right to roasting (or even just mince finely and saute until juices evaporate).