Is fortune fleeting or is teaching terrible? Regardless, last Monday morning dawned on a calendar free of obligation or care. Aka I got fired. Well, that’s a bit dramatic – suffice to say I had a brief return to the Roman job market in search of more stimulating employment. And what better way to spend a rainy day of freedom than wandering around Trionfale market scavenging for the freshest of the fresh and lactose-free sausage (sausage has lactose? news to me!), sampling porchetta, seeking castagnole, and engaging in the occasional avocado haggle (without success, alas). Oh, and deciding what’s for lunch. As we perused stand after stand, a heap of royally purple eggplants rose above the rest like a lighthouse on a mildly rainy afternoon.
At 2 euro/kilo they were not quite a steal, but, well, almost. We loaded up, along with some zucchini, then stopped at the bread man on the way back for a particularly crusty loaf that tasted vaguely of sourdough. Although sometimes I think I get phantom sourdough flashbacks here. Anyone wanna send a starter?
I’m going to do something totally uncharacteristic here, and break off into a tangent for a minute. About eggplants. Where have they BEEN all my life (*cough* MOM *cough*). I mean they’re somehow smoky and fresh and filling but healthy and you can bake them sautee them fry them WHATEVER. True, they can be a little fussy and turn out chewy or spongy if not treated right, but whoa are these quickly becoming a dietary staple. I digress.
Back in the kitchen, I set some onions caramelizing in a healthy glug of olive oil. With a dash of salt and sugar, these cooked down to candy-like goodness. Meanwhile, we sweated the eggplants for a bit, then cubed them and half mooned some zucchini. After browning the veggies for a few minutes, in went the tomato passata, and a 25 minute simmer later we had a pseudo-caponata, and a delicious, hearty, peasant-style lunch. No spoons necessary, you just go at it with a hunk o’ bread, preferably while watching a documentary on Tiberius Gracchus and his peasant-riling ways in the waning years of the Republic.
Still, no matter how hearty the peasant lunch, it was still only 3 in the afternoon, and I was going to need another meal before the day was out. As many of you may know, I have a slight obsession with polpette. I also have some “vegetarian” friends. And on this particular day, an abundance of melanzane. As last week’s mackerelization proved, eggplant holds up well in a stuffing. My not so linear next thought – why not in a meatball? With the stars aligned, I set out to make melanzane polpette. In my mind, this would consist of some cubed eggplant, breadcrumbs, seasoning, and an egg or two to bind it all together.
As we all now know, eggplanting always begins with the slice, salt, and sweat. I was planning to sautee it a bit as a cube before proceeding to the mixing and balling steps. However, before I could cut my eggplant and toss it into a a gently warming pan of oil with some slices of garlic for aromatics, my co-chef suggested blending the eggplant into a nice puree. Which we did. With my immersion blender. And it was super fun. The only problem, and I think this would have been solved by drying out the slices a little better after the post-sweat rinse, was that the mixture was too wet. It took way too many breadcrumbs to hold it together, and even then, the consistency was…damp. Still, I pressed on, mixing in some pepperoncino, and then ill-advisedly not washing my hands immediately after. The burn is almost gone. With the mix set, it was time to ball. As our melanzanette began to take shape, it was clear these were NOT gonna hold. As we plopped them into the oil, the balls looked pretty at first, but any attempt to brown another side led to a serious breakdown. Eggplant mash everywhere. Oil spurting, breadcrumbs flying, it was un casino. But still, we soldiered on. We would fry those little suckers into deliciousness if it was the last thing we did. And once we fried them, we would toss them into an awesome tomato sauce that Katy whipped up from pretty much just garlic, oregano and tomato passata. And once the balls were in the sauce, they would continue to break apart, particularly once we added the bucatini.
But then, something magical happened. As the balls broke down and blended into the sauce, they retained some of their structure, and the whole deal transmogrified into something approximating an eggplant ragu. A few chunky ball bits remained, but for the most part it was a meatless ragu. Talk about how the other half lives…apparently they can live quite well?