Monday, March 2, 2015

Bonus recipe: Eggplant and String Beans in Garlic Sauce

This isn't going to be my official Recipe of the Month post, since it doesn't really qualify as either a soup or a salad. But it is, nonetheless, a dish that's (a) made almost entirely of vegetables, and (b) so delicious that I couldn't pass up the chance to share it here.

A little background: the H-Mart near our house often has good deals on Japanese eggplants (the long, thin variety). At first, we used these exclusively for making pasta a la melanzane, a very tasty pasta dish with eggplant, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese. At some point, however, we decided that if we were going to keep buying eggplant on every trip to the H-Mart, we should try to expand our repertoire a bit. So we consulted our culinary bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and found a very simple method of cooking eggplant: cut it into slices, salt it if you like, brush the slices with a mixture of olive oil and minced garlic, and then grill or broil them until they're nice and brown. You have to pull out the tray once or twice to turn the slices, but they'll still cook through in ten minutes or less. And they are, we discovered, remarkably good this way—melt-in-your mouth tender, and rich with the absorbed flavor of garlic and salt. You don't have to do a thing more to them; they're delicious all by themselves, or served over a bowl of polenta for a a quick, simple meal.

We've been doing them this way for a month or so now, but on our last trip to the H-Mart, we happened to pick up some string beans as well as the eggplants, and I found myself recalling vaguely that somewhere, sometime, I'd seen a recipe for eggplant and string beans cooked together, in garlic sauce. Maybe that would make a nice change of pace. But we consulted all our cookbooks and couldn't find any such recipe. Perhaps, I guessed it was just something I'd seen on a Chinese menu somewhere.

At that point, I was ready to give up on the idea, but Brian's imagination had been caught by it. He said he was sure he could easily concoct something along these lines, if we could only find a recipe for the garlic sauce. So I turned to Bittman again and discovered a surprisingly simple recipe for garlic-scallion sauce. You simply chop up the scallions and garlic, combine them in a heatproof bowl with a bit of salt, then heat the oil until it starts to smoke and pour it over top of the mixture. The hot oil, it appears, mellows the flavor of the garlic, drawing out most of its sting, without any risk of browning or burning it. And the oil picks up the flavors of the garlic and scallion, which it then distributes lavishly over everything else it touches.

Armed with these two techniques out of Bittman, Brian went to work. He roasted the eggplant in the usual way, and he would have roasted the string beans as well, but the pan wasn't big enough, so he contented himself with sautéing them to tender-crispness in a large skillet. Then he prepared the garlic sauce, denuding our indoor scallion plants of most of their greenery to make up the required volume of green onion. Finally, he added the grilled eggplant to the skillet with the beans, drizzled the garlic sauce over everything, stirred it all together, and served it over some plain white rice.

The result: an amazingly simple, light meal that lacked nothing in flavor and texture. It might have been even tastier if he'd been able to roast the beans as he originally intended; as it was, the beans were rather crunchier than the eggplant, and the contrasting textures were a little bit distracting. But it was still good enough for me to gobble down a whole bowlful and go back for seconds, feeling no guilt about doing so because it was practically all vegetables. Admittedly, there was also quite a bit of oil in the garlic sauce: the recipe called for half a cup of oil to half a cup of scallions, a quarter cup of garlic, and a teaspoon of salt. But distributing the oil over such a large volume of veggies seemed to take the curse off it, somehow. We bought about a pound and a half of eggplant and half a pound of string beans at the H-Mart, and we used all of it—making enough to feed the two of us amply, with one generous portion left over for lunch. And the veggies lost nothing of their flavor in the leaving over; I gobbled them down today with just as much eagerness as I had last night.

This is a meal that practically no one, I think, could have any objections to. It's completely vegan, gluten-free, packed with healthful veggies, and yet simply bursting with flavor. The only possible sticking point might be the amount of oil in the sauce, but Brian thinks he could probably cut that back next time (and there certainly will be a next time) and it would come out just as well. And maybe when we try it again, we'll manage to rustle up a bigger roasting tray, so we can cook the string beans and eggplant all together—saving a step in the cooking process, as well as possibly enhancing their flavor even more. I suppose we could just use a smaller volume of veggies, but then we'd have no leftovers, and that would be a pity, wouldn't it?

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