Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Roasted Apricots: Experiments

Given the choice, do you go with the juicy, ripe peach or the cottony apricot? I go for the peach every time, but that's not to say that I haven't been lured by the ultrasuede nubbits of cotton that are sold as apricots. They are only available in Georgia markets for a short time, hence their appeal. I've always thought I didn't get the right apricots, until I read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution food writer John Kessler's recent blog post about roasting apricots.

These apricots sounded luscious - velvety, rich and sweet, everything the fresh apricot is not, so I gave them a try. I bought two pounds of fresh apricots at the store, split them in half along the seam and popped out the stones. I heated the oven to 400 degrees and placed the halved apricots on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. I drizzled just a little bit of vegetable oil on the apricots and slid the pan into the oven. After about 45 minutes, the apricots were a gooey, but tasty mess. I scooped everything together and let it cool in a bowl while I decided how to use this delicious roasted apricot. The first thought was to use it in the almond gazpacho I made for the Salon Kitchen Challenge cold soup story. Almonds and apricots are a natural pairing. I pureed the apricots and used it as a garnish in the soup. The picture turned out kind of pretty.

almond soup

But the taste was not so pretty. My daughter Laura put it this way: "you want it to taste good, but the soup and the apricot together are kind of yucky." So, to Plan B. When in doubt, make sorbet. I made a simple syrup with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water, added the juice of half a lime, stirred in the apricot puree, let the mixture chill then poured it into the ice cream maker. Et viola, as my friends used to say, roasted apricot sorbet. It's quite tasty, if a bit sweet, next time I'll half the amount of sugar. I think it would be quite nice with a ginger cookie, or gingerbread, or some cinnamony, spicy kind of cake. Or maybe on a waffle. I hurried to take the picture - the ice cream was kind of soft serve to begin with, and I'm shooting on a 90 degree day.

apricot sorbet

Text and images © Lucy Mercer, 2010.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation & Learned to Love Chilled Soups

Almond soup with green grapes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Because my girls, ages 4 and 11, drive me crazy while we’re packing for a vacation, my husband and I have learned to pack on the sly and not reveal any plans until we are in the car. We tried this first a couple years ago for a trip to Disney World. We had crossed the Georgia-Florida line before they figured out where we were headed. I got away with the deceit again this year, with the girls having no idea we were leaving until the Saturday morning in June when we woke them up at 5 a.m., told them to get dressed and grab their loveys and blankies and pillows. We pointed the loaded-up minivan east on I-20 and evaded all questions regarding “where are we going?” and “when are we going to be there?”

When the signs outside of Columbia, South Carolina, started mentioning Charleston, my older daughter, Laura, dialed a clue. “Charleston, yay! I want to go to the beach!” My husband and I exchanged glances, but didn’t reveal the true vacation plans. Once in Charleston, we parked the minivan and ate at our favorite hometown restaurant, Jestine’s, home of some dandy fried chicken for me and crab cakes for my husband.

Jestine's Kitchen in Charleston, South CArolina by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Back in the car, we eased onto East Bay Street and Laura started looking for the hotel, which if you know Charleston, is kind of funny, because there are charming little inns on East Bay, but not the big kind of kid-friendly hotel with a beach Laura was thinking about. Down on East Bay, you can see the Carnival Fantasy cruise ship as it prepares for weekly Caribbean runs - I think it’s high time that Charleston is a cruise ship port - we all need another reason to visit and eat in this charming city.

We pointed out the ship to the girls and they noticed the show-off red and blue whale-tail /smokestack and the waterslide on the upper deck. “Doesn’t that look like fun,” we asked. “But where’s the hotel?” Laura replied. “Where’s the beach? C’mon, guys, where are we going?” It wasn’t until we pulled into the “Cruise Traffic” lane that Laura finally understood “We’re going on the boat!”

There are only a few subjects more tiresome than listening to a post-mortem on someone else’s vacation (childbirth stories and the play-by-play for little Janey’s soccer match spring to mind.), so I’ll mention just say that I was kind of cranky when I boarded the boat. Maybe my blood sugar was low - the sweet tea boost from Jestine’s had worn off by late afternoon. My mood dramatically improved once I was fed. I’m easy - just give me starched linens, fresh-faced waiters and a menu without chicken fingers and hot dogs, and I’m content. With the ship pointed south towards the Caribbean, the menu included warm-weather selections such as cold soups. Gazpacho the first night was low-calorie, tart and satisfying. Laura chose the Orange Sory, which I’ve come to believe is just melted orange sherbet garnished with tapioca pearls. Naturally, it’s one of the best things she’s ever eaten. The next night, she chose strawberry bisque, which was like a grown-up smoothie - sweet and pink and creamy. The service for the chilled soup is part of the magic - a soup plate with a garnish in the center placed in front of the diner, then the waiter reaches over with a small pitcher of soup and pours into the plate, from 10 o’clock to 10 o’clock.

Since our return home, we've experimented with cold soups - I made chilled cherry soup, thickened with a cornstarch slurry. I have plans for a cantaloupe soup once the melons become stinky-ripe, just crying out for a blitz with lime and honey and a dash of chile pepper.

almond soup grapes
Chilled almond soup with green grapes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The sweet soups are nice as a dessert course or a special treat for the girls, but for a starter, I like a savory chilled soup along the lines of almond soup. Sometimes called ajo blanco or white gazpacho, it’s simple and tasty, and no less kid-pleasing - Laura gobbled this serving down as soon as the picture was made. The traditional almond soup uses garlic, but I prefer the refreshing bite of shallots instead. This is light, unusual, vegan, satisfying.

Chilled Almond Soup

I use homemade vegetable broth, a snap to make and useful to have on hand.

Serves 2 soup bowls or 4 demitasse cups (very civilized)

¾ cup almonds, blanched preferred, but whole with skins ok

1 shallot

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh bread crumbs

2 cups cold vegetable broth

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Sliced almonds or green grapes for garnish

1. Toast the almonds in a skillet for a few minutes, remove from heat and let cool.

2. In a food processor, puree shallot, then add toasted almonds. Blitz until finely ground. Add olive oil and bread crumbs and process until combined. With the motor running, slowly pour in vegetable broth through the feed tube. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finish with sherry vinegar.

3. Strain and serve in rimmed soup plates or demitasse cups.

I’ll end with a kid-pleasing cruise ship gimmick - towels folded into animal shapes. Each night, we returned to the cabin to find out what the cabin steward Igusti would create next: There were lobsters, manatees, crabs, swans, pigs and this. Dog or rabbit, you decide.

towel dog
Towel origami by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Vegetable Broth a Snap to Make

Vegetables for Broth by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Vegetable broth is a very useful thing to have on hand, or to put together on the fly. It makes soups sing and is a meat-free enhancement for rice and other dinnertime grains. Canned vegetable broth is usually no better than “ok,” so if you’re the kind of cook who keep carrots and celery and onions on hand, then you can put together this basic broth. Your food and family will thank you.

Roasted Vegetable Broth

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 carrots, peeled and diced ½ inch

1 onion, peeled and diced ½ inch

2 stalks celery, trimmed and diced ½ inch

1 bay leaf

Sprinkle of salt and pepper


In a saucepan over medium heat, heat vegetable oil and add vegetables in stages, beginning with onions and concluding with celery. Add a small amount of salt to aid sweating and stir frequently. When vegetables begin softening, place lid on pot. After five minutes, stir and add water to cover, about 4 cups. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, add bay leaf and let steep for at least 20 minutes and up to 45. Let cool. Strain and use in recipe.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How to Choose a Georgia Watermelon

Watermelon, perfect for a picnic. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Watermelons fresh from the truck by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

In Georgia, we know a thing or two about watermelon. Crisp, juicy, sweet watermelon - green striped exterior, magenta interior. Things like how Cordele, in south Georgia, a drive-by on Interstate 75, is the Watermelon Capital of the World. Just ask any native of Cordele, and they will happily tell you that the best watermelons come from Cordele in the month of June. Is it serendipity that Cordele is the county seat of Crisp County?

Well, here in north Georgia a few weeks into July, good quality watermelons can still be found. Here’s how I choose a watermelon:

1. Find a pick-em-up truck by the side of the road. Look for the signs that read “Two for $5” or “Watermelons $2 each.”

2. Park my minivan and insist the children stay in the car DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING AND BEHAVE FOR 10 SECONDS, PLEASE.

3. Sigh resignedly when the girls insist on getting out of the car and choosing the watermelon.

4. Engage the watermelon guy and remark about what a good year it is for watermelons. All the rain in the spring and hot days in summer.

5. Look over the melons, lift a few and then start thumping. That’s right, go all Ginger Baker on those melons, thumping and drumming, listening for that solid, heavy thrum that means you’ve got yourself a sun-ripened, belly-filling whopper of a watermelon.

6. Act all demure and girlie hoping the watermelon guy will offer to carry the watermelon to the car. Ignore the preschooler who offers to carry the watermelon. Continue to ignore the preschooler who is saying repeatedly “I can carry it! Let me! Let me! Let me!“

7. Carry the melon to the car, trailing baby ducks. Place watermelon carefully in seat, place seat belt around it. Buckle all children into their respective car seats. Admonish everyone to “PLEASE BEHAVE! IT’S ONLY A SHORT DRIVE HOME!”

8. Arrive home and remind the little angels “you know that watermelon is no good unless it's cold, we’ve got to put this guy in the fridge for a few hours so it will be good to eat.”

9. Get all the kidoodles out of the car, and lastly the precious watermelon and heave it into the “watermelon fridge” the extra refrigerator that seems to exist for restaurant leftovers, bottles of IBC root beer, the Thanksgiving turkey in defrost mode and watermelons in the summer. Offer kids popsicles from the freezer.

10. Forget about the melon for a day, maybe two, and then have at it - wash and dry the watermelon first, then cut it in half across the equator. Quarter the halves, then remove the flesh from the rind. If you’re clever, cunning, resourceful or cheap, or maybe have just read “White Trash Cooking” by Ernest Matthew Mickler, then save the rind for watermelon pickles. Otherwise, save it for the compost heap.

We eat a watermelon a week each week from June through July and into August. Mostly, we keep the slices in the fridge and eat them as snacks, but I’ve been known to serve watermelon alongside a supper that may not pass muster with the kids. (“Sweetheart, give me three bites of cauliflower, and then you can have watermelon.”)

I’ve mentioned before that my children are culinary savants - wanting to try strange concoctions that sometimes taste good - a rich double butter peanut butter toast and a sweet-sour marmalade concoction deemed “marmadip” are two memorable inventions. My children’s creativity with food doesn’t come from me, however - I’m a big fan of recipes and cookbooks. They get the inventiveness gene from my husband, who, upon finding out that this week’s Salon Kitchen Challenge category was watermelon, said “You know what I’ve always wanted to try. Now, you’ll think I’m crazy, but hear me out. I want to try making ahi tuni poke with cubes of watermelon.”

This sent me scrambling to Google to figure out what poke is, and it’s not Gumby’s faithful sidekick. It’s pronounced “poh-kay” and it’s a Hawaiian tuna tartare, part of the great fusion of Hawaiian cuisine. Fresh sushi-grade tuna marinated in a gingery, garlicky soy sauce with a wallop of pepper and chile offset by crisp, juicy sweet niblets of watermelon. Well, we gave it a try, and all I can say is that they laughed at Picasso. Maybe, like his 1906 painting of Gertrude Stein about which a viewer remarked that the portrait looked nothing like Stein, Picasso famously responded “she will.“ My taste buds have grown to crave this - all contrasts- sweet, crisp melon; salty, soft tuna.

Watermelon ahi tuna poke by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Georgia -Style Ahi Poke with Watermelon
Tell the nice person at the seafood counter that you’re making sushi and ask for the freshest ahi tuna available and watch them as they go to the back. Be sure to smell the fish before you buy - if it smells even remotely fishy, ask for another fish or go to a different store.

1/2 lb. ahi tuna, cubed

¼ cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon grated ginger

2 teaspoons green onion

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon sesame seed

¼ to ½ jalapeno, minced no seeds

Salt to taste

½ cup diced watermelon, in pieces the same size as the tuna

1. Combine all ingredients except for salt and watermelon. Taste for seasoning before adding salt. The dish needs a bit of salt, but remember the soy and sesame contribute to the sodium load.

2. Make sure the marinade completely covers the fish, place in a sealable container and put in the coldest part of the fridge for a few hours up to a day. Before serving, fold in watermelon. Serve with chips, avocado, pickled ginger and sriracha, or like me, chip-sized slices of watermelon.
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Birthday Cake

"God is good,
God is great,
God created chocolate cake.
He's a righteous dude and
He gives good food.
Rub a dub dub,
Three men in a tub.
We thank you, Lord, for such good grub.
Amen, amen, amen, amen.

(Sing with attitude, finger snaps and spirit hands.)

My baby is back from camp and we celebrated her 12th birthday with a chocolate layer cake.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Baked Aleutian Cupcakes & HMFPIC

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
"HMFPIC - You Know Where"

If you hold Macon, Georgia, near to your heart then you recognize the acronym HMFPIC from the classified ad placed in the Macon Telegraph & News each June 1st. The ad didn't announce a clandestine meeting, but an ice cream event - Homemade Fresh Peach Ice Cream at Len Berg’s restaurant on Post Office Alley next to the Federal Courthouse.

Macon is close to Fort Valley in nearby Peach County, home of the Blue Bird Bus Company and the sweet Georgia peaches at Lane Southern Orchards. When the first peaches were picked and brought to Len Berg’s, they were churned into a creamy vanilla custard ice cream. To get the word out, each June 1, Maconites could look in the back pages of the Telegraph, not in a display ad, but the classifieds, for the cryptic message: “HMFPIC - You Know Where.”

Len Berg's was an original - in business from 1908 until it closed just a few years ago. The building was small, with unusually low ceilings, but the location, especially to feed the lunch crowd, was great - in the downtown business district close to both the Federal and the County courthouses. The menu was classic meat-and-two-or-three, with excellent Southern vegetables. I managed to get to Len Berg’s a few years before it closed. I had some tasty fried chicken and a pimento cheese sandwich - this is kind of a Macon thing, like chicken and waffles everywhere else. And we concluded with HMFPIC.

peach ice cream
Peaches and cream ice cream by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I make my own HMFPIC and the key is to use dead ripe peaches, the soft fragrant fruit that is just hours from being compost. Here’s my version of peach ice cream, using these gorgeous California peaches - I know, I should be ashamed, but the market had California peaches, not Georgia ones. They are pretty, though, aren’t they?
Georgia Peach Ice Cream
I have a tried and true custard recipe for vanilla ice cream, but this recipe, adapted from "Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches" by Savannah food writer Damon Lee Fowler, is divine in its simplicity. This is truly peaches and cream, frozen with sugar and salt and vanilla, simply delicious and easy.

4 large, ripe peaches
Juice of one-half lemon
1 cup sugar, divided
1 quart heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Peel the peaches, halve and rough chop. Place them in a food processor and pulse a few times until the mixture is a coarse puree. Place the peaches in a bowl, sprinkle with lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar. Let sit at room temperature for one half hour.
2. In another bowl, dissolve remaining 3/4 cup sugar in the cream. Add a pinch of salt and pour the cream over the peaches, stirring to combine. Let this mixture sit in the refrigerator for a minimum of two hours and up to a day before freezing it in an ice cream maker. Follow manufacturer's instructions for freezing the ice cream.

I use a Krups ice cream maker, the kind with the canister that goes in the freezer. I’ve had many kinds of ice cream freezers through the years, beginning with the hand-crank kind that required ritual layering of ice and rock salt. I found this cute ice cream maker at an estate sale for $4. I’m hoping the American Pickers will stop at my house and offer $10, then I’ll know I did well. Hey, Paul Hinrichs, betcha don’t have one of these!
ice cream maker
Hand-cranked ice cream maker by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
You can finish reading the story here, but if you’re the kind of person, like me, who enjoys a culinary challenge, then get ready to make the coolest cupcakes you’ve ever seen - Baked Alaska cupcakes, or as I’ve come to call them, Baked Aleutians.
Baked Aleutians
Baked Aleutian Cupcakes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
This is my year of Baked Alaska. I turned one out in February for the SKC Frozen Treats category, in honor of the Jamaican bobsled team of the Calgary Olympics. It was a Roasted Banana Coconut Ice Cream with Blue Mountain Coffee Ganache in Pound Cake smothered in a marshmallowy Italian Meringue. It was exquisite and yummy and a glorious pain in the patootie to make - cake, ice cream, ganache, meringue. Take a picture and eat.

Upon seeing that the category for this week was ice cream and that frozen desserts such as Baked Alaska were welcome, I emailed Francis Lam informing him that I had made my Baked Alaska for 2010, but (I’m not sure where this even came from) I might make a Baked Alaska cupcake. Just off the top of my head, I wrote that it would have to be called Baked Aleutians. Francis’ reply - if I made Baked Aleutians, that would be genius. That my friends is a gauntlet, the glove on the ground that I can’t ignore. It was time to don my apron and attack the kitchen.
oven mitt
The gauntlet: my oven mitt. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Baked Aleutians with Fresh Peach Ice Cream
Baked Alaska and Baked Aleutians require three elements: cake, ice cream and meringue. The cake and ice cream are baker's choice; the meringue is fairly straightforward. Here's how to put it together:
1. For one dozen cupcakes, you will need pound cake baked in muffin tins with paper liners. After they are baked, scoop out a small portion of the filling so the ice cream has a cup to hold it.

2. Scoop of ice cream. I used Fresh Peach Ice Cream for a dreamy taste of Georgia summer.

cupcakes with meringue
Hollowed-out cupcakes ready for ice cream. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
3. A generous swirl of meringue. This is a glorious thing to have in one’s repertoire. Shirley Corriher’s Italian meringue from "Bakewise" is tried and true and will launch this dessert into the stratosphere.

4. You can be fancy and pipe the meringue, but I used a spoon and swirled it onto the ice cream. If you're the kind to use a pastry bag, you probably have a brulee torch on hand, too, and that does a beautiful job. The assembled cupcakes toasted in an oven set on 375° for 10 minutes.
I served the Baked Aleutians in a sea of caramel sauce.
caramel sauce aleutian
Baked Aleutians Cupcakes with Peaches and Cream Ice Cream and Caramel Sauce by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

With special thanks to Abrawang, who left the Aleutians joke as a comment on my previous Baked Alaska story.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Aubergine: Eggplant by Another Name

Aubergine, or eggplant by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

If soft, luxurious silk were a food, it would be eggplant. Maybe not just eggplant, but aubergine. American English can be harsh to the ear; I like the way the Brits use the French aubergine, it even sounds silky. Like silk, the regal eggplant, which is botanically classified as a fruit, is classic in many cuisines: The French have ratatouille, the Italians have Parmigiana, the Greeks have moussaka.

Of course, I can't think of eggplants without remembering the charming writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote an essay entitled "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" nearly 25 years ago. In "Home Cooking," her collection of essays, many of which appeared first in Gourmet magazine, in between "The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine"and "How to Fry Chicken," she extols the versatility of eggplant and how she cooked it in her Greenwich Village apartment "approximately the size of the Columbia Encyclopedia." She did this without a kitchen, just a two-burner hot plate.

"When I was alone, I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook's strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over, I ate it cold the next day on bread."

She goes on to write "I ate eggplant constantly: with garlic and honey, eggplant with spaghetti, eggplant with fried onions and Chinese plum sauce." (Hmmm, eggplant with garlic and honey...)

Just a few years after I first discovered her books, Colwin passed away suddenly at 48 years old. She was known primarily as a novelist during her lifetime, but her food writing has endured, with "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking" remaining in print nearly 25 years later. Colwin's homey style lives on in the current trend of food blogging - read Colwin, then Molly Wizenberg on "Orangette" and you see that the apple fell off the tree and kept rolling. Although I majored in journalism and wrote all kinds of stories, it was when I read Colwin that I said to myself "this is what I want to write." Marcel Proust relived his past as he contemplated a madeleine; I read about Colwin's eggplant and imagined my future as a food writer.

Back to eggplant: it's a little early in Georgia for the Asian varieties to make it to my supermarket, but the globe variety is plentiful, with the characteristic burnished patina. The Asian eggplants are smaller and have fewer seeds, thus not requiring the salt "degorging" treatment to release the bitterness.

I use the smaller Asian eggplants in late summer to make redneck ratatouille when the overripe homegrown tomatoes threaten to spill their juices all over the kitchen windowsill. Eggplant, peppers and other tasty items from the crisper drawer round up to yield their goodness to the pot. This early in the season, without a tomato worthy enough of the ratatouille ritual, I turn to other preparations, this time to the tried and true Southern Eggplant Souffle. This recipe takes advantage of eggplant's texture, subtle taste and adaptability.

Forgive me while I tell a brief story about my initial encounter with eggplant souffle. When I was a young woman with a promising future, I worked for six months for a hot-shot p.r. firm in Buckhead, the tony business district in North Atlanta. Actually, it was on the outskirts at the time, in an area called Brookhaven and it was right next door to a Mary Mac’s to Go where sweaty ladies in white aprons and hairnets scooped Southern classics into styrofoam boxes. The food was divine. As I pointed out my selections, I came to an unfamiliar casserole. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the yellow, quivering mass. "Why that’s eggplant souffle," the cafeteria lady replied. It didn't look like eggplant, at least not what I was used to - gray or fried. I’d never heard of it, but it had to be ok, because everything in this building was good. I remember a lunch of eggplant souffle, turkey and dressing, and corn. At the conference room table, I opened my clamshell to reveal all yellow food. And it was delicious.

To this day, I can close my eyes and see down the hallway of B/H/Y Public Relations towards my boss' office. The hallway was lined with sliding glass doors, and every now and then, if the planets aligned properly, someone would ping off a closed door, like a bird trying to attack his reflection. And if I I put my mind to it, I can smell the chicken frying next door at Mary Mac's.

eggplant souffle
Eggplant Souffle by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Southern Eggplant Souffle

Imagine my joy upon finding Mary Mac's eggplant souffle recipe online. This is my adaptation and you'll notice that the recipe is more of a custard than a traditional French souffle. Here in JAW-ja, seemingly everything is a souffle, pronounced SOO-flay.

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 slice white sandwich bread
3/4 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon grated onion
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium saucepan, bring to a boil water and salt.

2. Add eggplant, bring to a simmer and let cook, covered, for 10 minutes. Drain eggplant and mash, yielding about 1 1/2 cups pulp.

3. In a medium bowl, tear bread into small pieces and soak in milk. Add eggs, onion, melted butter, salt and pepper. Add eggplant, mixing well, and pour into 1-quart buttered baking dish.

4. Bake at 350° for 35 to 45 minutes, or until "set" in the middle. Serve warm.
adapted from Serenbe Style and Soul with Marie Nygren.

eggplant 3
Aubergine, or eggplant by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I've written before that my world is small, but my kitchen is big. By that, I mean that I know I'm not particularly well-traveled or well-educated, but I can explore new worlds and learn new techniques in my kitchen. If there's anything I learned from Laurie Colwin's essays, it's that there's magic in the everyday foods that we prepare for our families and that sharing food and recipes builds bonds of friendship.

After making the souffle, I had three additional eggplants and decided that the world of aubergines deserved more exploration. Enter Cookstalk Classic and Evelyn/Athens. This is a message board that I began participating in about three years ago. Most of the members started at Fine Cooking's Cookstalk board and migrated to Delphi forums. This is a generous group of cooks willing to share their lives and their knowledge - there is a staggering amount of expertise between the professional and home cooks. I could name a few friends and many impressive cooks that I've met through Cookstalk, and I will someday soon, but today I want to mention Evelyn/Athens, a former Canadian now living in Greece. I've never met Evelyn face to face, but this much I know: she is a devoted mother and a first-class cook. She posts her recipes on Recipezaar and they are inspiring and reliable.

A search of Evelyn's eggplant recipes revealed 17 different preparations. I chose Hunkar Begendi, which translated to "Turkish Eggplant Cream," and essentially, it's an eggplant souffle, down to the thick, buttery roux and cheese. Greek cheeses other than Feta are hard to come by in my corner of Georgia, so I subbed Parmesan, with Evelyn's blessing.

sultan's delight
Hunkar Begendi, or Sultan's Delight by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Hunkar Begendi (Turkish Eggplant Cream)

This is Evelyn's headnote for the recipe: "This literally translates as 'the Sultan's Delight', and it is that! The first time I had it, I fell in love. Mild, rich, buttery - it perfectly complemented the braised beef (in tomato sauce) that it was meant to accompany. This is a very subtle dish. If you want FLAVOUR, look elsewhere. This is flavourful in a more refined way, and also a lesson to our overly-spiced palates." I agree.

3 medium eggplants
Juice of one half lemon
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup to 1 cup hot milk, as needed
Grated fresh nutmeg
Grated fresh Parmesan cheese (1/4 to 1/2 cup)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Wash eggplants and using a paring knife, prick the skin all over each vegetable. Place on baking sheet and let roast for up to one hour. The eggplants will look like giant shriveled raisins when ready. Remove from oven and let cool.

2. When vegetables are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, remove the seeds and chop up the remaining
pulp and place in a saucepan.

3. Add lemon juice to eggplant mixture and simmer until very soft, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan.

4. In saucepan, melt butter, add flour to it and stir to make a roux. Add eggplant and stir to combine. Slowly add hot milk until mixture resembles mashed potatoes. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper.

5. Correct seasoning, adding more lemon juice and nutmeg, if desired, then stir in Parmesan cheese. (Kasseri and Kefolateri are Evelyn's Greek cheese recommendations.) Serve warm with additional Parmesan.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
The quotes are from "Home Cooking" by Laurie Colwin, published 1988 by Knopf. Buy it. Read it. Often.

"Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" is also the title of a food writing collection edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. It's a delightful book that includes Colwin's story and another by her daughter, Rosa Jurjevics. Published 2007 by Riverhead.