Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Remembering the Old and Appreciating the New: Berenjena (Eggplant) en Escabeche

Cooked eggplant
This summer almost killed me.  Yes, more in a figurative way than anything, but it almost killed me nonetheless.  Nearly ten years of life-changing occurrences happening over and over again, almost always in groups of two or more finally culminated this summer in the unholy trifecta of having a baby / selling our house / and moving to a new state in a two-month period.  It sucked.  I won't rant at length on the shock to the system - even for a relatively organized person - that suddenly having three children is, two of them under 2 years of age.  I've finally gotten over leaving our dear Casa Liberace in Denver, the first house we ever owned and the place that our family grew to be what it is today (we closed on Liberace the same day we finalized Alexander's adoption, Roman started kindergarten there, Linus was born into it, our unexpected, miracle baby).  Nothing against Utah, but it may literally be the last place I ever thought I'd live (because things like moving to Alabama or Mississippi are simply too unspeakable to even entertain in the realm of possible "last places you'd ever end up").  And yet, here I am! In a beautiful mountainside town which quite literally lives up to its name of Pleasant View, right smack dab in the (northern) middle of Utah, wrestling with settling into a new house, new town, new society (sometimes it feels like another planet, if I'm being honest) and relearning how to be a mother because this whole three-kid thing is freaking crazy.  So much adjustment. So much newness.

So yeah, this summer almost killed me.

I'll tell you what saved me, though - and it wasn't really any one thing so much as lots of little things: mostly it was remembering the past.  But also appreciating the present.  It helped remembering random things from my childhood - things my parents did for us, things they cooked, and then contextualizing them into the life I have now and the things I do and cook for my own kids.  Those memories and thoughts are infinitely comforting when you're in a new and unfamiliar place and feeling like you pretty desperately need your best friend or mom or sister to come over and listen to you complain, or have a glass of wine, or just hang out and try that new recipe with you.  They somehow shed a new light on the present newness and make it more exciting, because this is, in the end, my family's adventure - the memories my children will one day draw from when they are lonely or homesick too.

In a moment of nostalgia, and to relax in my favorite way (cooking), I decided to make something I knew my family and friends would appreciate if they were around.  Something I'd serve if I could have them over for dinner on a random weeknight, something that was interesting and different enough that it would delight me to immerse myself in it for just a little while, take my mind off all the newness, but familiar enough that it would take me to a place of comfort and company, as all the best food does.

the finished dish
Luckily, just before we left Colorado, Matt's friend and colleague and his wife had us over for dinner. He is French and she is Argentinian and so, needless to say, their food is always delicious.  Apart from the perfectly grilled buffalo meat and watermelon salad and homemade chimichurri, she served a delicious pickled eggplant dish - in Spanish,"Berenjenas en Escabeche." It immediately piqued my interest for two reasons: 1. I remember my family marinating / pickling vegetables in Mexico in a similar way (mostly jalapeños and carrots and cauliflower if I recall correctly) and 2. I don't really love eggplant, but I could not stop eating this one.

It was the most deliciously incredible eggplant I'd ever had. An oily mix of salty and sour and Oregano-y goodness laced with spicy memories of childhood. I had to replicate it as soon as I had a spare minute in my new Utah kitchen.  And so I did.  I'm glad to have a new food I genuinely like.  A metaphor for Utah?  I hope so.

Here's the recipe I settled on. It's a bit of old and a bit of new - just the right kind of comfort food.

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Berenjenas en Escabeche
Serves 4-6; two jars worth

"Escabeche" is a marinade of European origin - especially common in Spain and France - that eventually made its way to the new world.  It was and is used to marinate or pickle many things but especially fish and vegetables.  The item is left in the fridge overnight or longer and then served directly from the fridge or at room temperature.  This version obviously uses eggplant but you can substitute other veggies - just make sure that when you cook them, they don't get too mushy.  I'm going to try this treatment on some chicken soon as I found an interesting looking recipe for that recently as well. 

The recipes I drew from were largely Argentinian - much like the friend who introduced me to this dish - so I'm guessing it's common there which is unsurprising given the strong Spanish and Italian influences in Argentina.


1 large eggplant, sliced into short strips about 1/2 inch thick
10-15 bay leaves (whole)
3-4 cloves garlic, lightly crushed (not minced)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
1 tbsp dried oregano (Italian not Greek)
1 tbsp crushed red pepper (or the Argentine aji molido if you can find it)
1-2 tsp whole pepper corns (or about 20-40)
coarse salt
2 1-liter jars with lids


1. In a bowl, layer the eggplant, putting a generous amount of coarse salt in between each layer.  Allow it to sit for at least one hour, maybe more.  This draws out the bitterness and extra liquid from the eggplant.  Drain any liquid accumulated at the bottom of the bowl and lightly rinse or shake excess salt off the eggplant.

2. In a pot, bring water, bay leaves and vinegar to a boil.  Add the eggplant and cook, simmering, for 10 minutes or so - until the eggplant is soft and somewhat translucent but not falling apart.

3. While the egpplant is cooking, mix the remaining ingredients as well as salt to taste in another bowl, creating the marinade.  A lot of this depends on your taste - adjust the pepper, red pepper, bay and dried herbs to taste.  That said, I like the quantities listed above :)

4. When the eggplant is cooked, drain about half the vinegar and water, add the marinade and mix well.  Separate into jars, making sure you get bay, garlic and peppercorns into each jar equally and then cover with the marinade.  Refrigerate for at least several hours or, better yet, overnight.  Serve by bringing to room temperature an hour or two ahead of time. 

Serve with: grilled meats or sausages; delicious in a hot pasta dish; use the marinade and chop it up into a cold pasta salad with nice tuna fish; the possibilities are endless!

Please note: This recipe keeps well in the fridge for about one to two weeks but not much longer than that, so use it up!  We did not seal these jars or can this to preserve it so don't keep it on a shelf or try to use it for next summer.  Ain't nobody got time for botulism. :)

The Escabeche

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