Eggplant Angst

Eggplant is the vegetable people seem to love to hate and yet it is so versatile and delicious. I suspect the hate aspect is often not knowing how best to cook it coupled with a fear of having to use too much oil. Olive oil is the good oil, so relax; you’ll probably consume more oil with a bag of crisps, mayonnaise or fish and chips and I don’t hear too many complaints about the oil absorbed by those foods. There is also a good dose of the good oil in a simple salad dressing (3: 1 ratio of extra virgin olive oil to vinegar) which is a delight on fresh summer salad greens and tomatoes and enjoyed by many, not to mention its liberal use in skordalia and baba ganoush. What’s too much olive oil if you are eating lots of healthy vegetables? Summer is the best time to buy eggplants, so give them a chance next time you shop. Firstly, make sure you buy eggplants that are shiny and firm to the touch. Dull, soft ones are old, will probably be seedy inside and likely taste unpleasantly bitter. To the sceptics who are oil shy try the barbecue approach and cut thick slices lengthwise, lightly brushing them with olive oil and grill them on medium heat until soft on the inside and golden on the outside. Grill marks add a smokey, Mediterranean touch. Place the cooked slices on a platter and sprinkle (flamboyantly, like an Italian) with extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and chopped herbs and serve with barbecued meats. Alternatively place a grilled round in a burger or used grilled slices in a vegetarian lasagna. For lasagna, eggplant goes particularly well with sautéed mushrooms and onion or tomato and ricotta. 

eggplant and mushroom lasagna

To reduce the amount of oil that eggplant absorbs during cooking, salting the eggplant for 30 minutes will help. Salting draws out the water and tightens the structure before frying. Counterintuitively, after salting the eggplant, you need to wash out the salt under the tap and then pat dry with paper towel. If I’ve lost you at this point, just stick to the BBQ method. For the crumbed eggplant shown, I salted the slices for 30 minutes first and as a result I needed little olive oil to fry them. Just dust the dried slices in flour, dip into egg and then panko crumbs, pressing the crumbs firmly onto the slices. The crumbed eggplant was crispy outside and soft, like melted cheese, on the inside. Putting a handful of grated Parmesan cheese in with the eggs added to that illusion. I made this dish a feature of a vegetarian meal, topping it with a fresh tomato salsa with sides of grilled asparagus and a spiced potato and pea warm salad with Greek yoghurt from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s book, New Feasts. Eggplant can take centre stage and really shine. You just have to show it some love.

Portarlington Mussels

There has been a recent retail seafood trend to sell shellfish, such as mussels and clams, already cooked and packaged in plastic bags. I’m sure the extra shelf life of this packaged seafood is hugely convenient for retailers and exporters but for customers who enjoy cooking their own shellfish it is a real disappointment. I thought the whole point of going to a fishmonger was to buy fresh, unprocessed seafood but it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy a handful or two of clams or mussels. Luckily fresh Portarlington mussels are available from various farmers markets around Melbourne. Mike’s mussels are sold direct from the farm and loosely, so you can have as much or as little as you want. A quick rinse under the tap, tugging and removing the little beard as you go, only takes a few minutes of work and then they are ready for a hot pan with a splash of white wine. I love them simply cooked with white wine and herbs until they just open but every so often I like to make a more elaborate dish of saffron risotto using the mussel cooking liquid as stock which I filter and dilute with water to adjust for saltiness. These Portarlington mussels are sweet tasting and very tender which is only possible if you start with raw mussels.

Check Mike’s facebook page or Melbourne Markets each Thursday for weekend market attendance.

Sat 17 October: Mike’s Mussels will be at Gasworks, Albert Park and Coburg Primary School and on Sunday 18 October at Alphington Food Hub.

Black Sapote

Yes, chocolate pudding does apparently grow on trees in the form of a weird fruit called black sapote. The black sapote is a relative of the persimmon and like its cousin is ready to eat when completely soft and pudding-like. The colour is intensely dark chocolate but the flavour is much more subtle with only a slight hint of chocolate. The texture is lovely and gooey, like a healthy chocolate fondant. In the back streets of Fitzroy there is a small warehouse green grocer complete with market truck parked inside. The Vegetable Connection has produce that is fresh and literally just off the truck and the black sapote was one of the curiosities or more unusual fruits that they also sell. I can’t tell you where else you can buy one but I can tell you to look out for it next time you are at a market or grocer. Spoon the flesh out and serve on top of natural yoghurt with a sprinkle of cinnamon, cocoa or a drizzle of honey. Just for the record there is also such a thing as a white sapote, but is unrelated, belonging to the citrus family. The white sapote is similarly soft with a delicate fruit salad or sometimes banana flavour. Both these fruit trees, although sub tropical, grow well in Melbourne in the right position. I encountered a very fine specimen in an open garden in Caulfield some years ago. The Vegetable Connection 85 Victoria Street, Fitzroy. 94173104.

When completely soft cut the top and spoon out the flesh. There will be about 5 large flat seeds that need to be discarded or saved for planting (Sapotes are a handsome but slow growing large tree that can grow in Melbourne in a North facing position).

Big Red Cabbage Ball

Shopping at farmers markets under the COVID-19 restrictions means I’m pointing at vegetables I want from some distance. Conscious of the lengthening queue behind me I recently nodded approval to a whole head of red cabbage not realizing until I stashed it in the backpack that is was the size of a large medicine ball. Crickey, I thought, how am I going to deal with such a huge, imposing sphere for a household of two? Fortunately I love red cabbage and my go to recipe is one in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Companion. The shredded red cabbage is slowly cooked in a heavy pot on the stove with apple and brown sugar and then finished with some red wine vinegar and butter for a bit of bite and gloss. It’s great with roast meats and grills but it hardly made a dent on that medicine ball, so I had to start being a bit more inventive. I then cooked a similar, spicier version without all the brown sugar and tossed through a shredded cooked smoked ham hock, creating a sort of red cabbage porky casserole any Eastern European grandmother would have been happy with. For an end of the week bangers and mash I fried some Italian pure pork sausages adding heaps of shredded red cabbage and red wine to the frypan. Despite these efforts every time I opened the fridge there it still sat like a giant puppy wanting some love. It was unavoidable. What to do next? Pivoting to Asia I made a simple cabbage pickle and had it with a raw salmon rice bowl. Using red instead of green cabbage worked surprisingly well but as with all things Japanese it hardly made any impression on reducing the size of my medicine ball. Two weeks later I still have just under half a red cabbage (good thing it keeps so well in the fridge), so I thought I needed to tackle it with greater determination and include some lunchtime meals of this cabbage. That’s when I came up with my red cabbage, pumpkin and freekeh warm salad. I think it’s delicious and while I kept it pretty simple you could easily jazz it up with walnuts, pinenuts, more fresh herbs, caramelised onions, feta or goats cheese. I still have 750 grams left of that medicine ball but I reckon a couple more freekeh salads should finally make it disappear. Next time I will ask for a small one, half maybe.

Red Cabbage, Pumpkin & Freekeh Salad

For Two

  • 1 cup freekeh (Mount Zero or Greenwheat Freekeh brands are good)
  • half a small red cabbage
  • 500 g pumpkin, cut into small cubes
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • salt
  • 2 tbs red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbs pomegranate molasses
  • handful chopped parsley

Rinse the freekeh, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 20-25 minutes, adding a little more water as needed. Drain through a sieve leaving it to drain well and cool. Cut the red cabbage into narrow wedges and place on a roasting pan with the pumpkin and cumin seeds. Drizzle liberally with olive oil and roast at 170°C for about 25 minutes or until tender. Add the cooked freekeh to the roasting pan and sprinkle with salt, vinegar, molasses and parsley and toss to coat the pumpkin and cabbage. Serve warm or at room temperature.

I still have 750 grams to go towards the freekeh salads

The World Of Oysters

In France it is illegal to sell an oyster which has not been opened to order. Think about that for a minute and what it could possibly mean. The oyster is a living thing, clinging to rocks in its secure rock-like shell as the ocean tides surge and retreat. Once collected from its natural home or oyster farm frames it is still a living thing, able to withstand the wide temperature ranges it is normally exposed to during changes in sea level. Kept unopened and cool the oyster is in a natural package ready to be immediately enjoyed in the numerous simple brasseries around Paris. When freshly shucked you not only get a plump fresh oyster but the salty taste of the sea. In contrast, oysters here are sold opened in trays of a dozen, the ocean juices long washed away and the oyster sagging, drying out and long dead. The question then arises how long has it been dead? Do I trust this establishment not to keep opened oysters for too long? The opened oyster now must be kept fridge cold to prevent further degradation and the risks of eating a bad one and getting sick is higher. There is now also a need for dressings to improve flavour. The simple enjoyment of a fresh oyster tasting of the sea is lost. Restaurants here really need to up their game and open oysters to order. Some good establishments clearly do and that’s why we pay $4 a pop for the privilege. At 1980’s legendary North Melbourne restaurant, Jean Jacques, a squeeze of lemon juice would cause the oyster to retract to the acid. At how many places can you see that degree of freshness? When one oyster bar opened to much fanfare in Melbourne a few years ago oysters were not opened in front of the customer, instead trays of opened oysters arrived on a trolley from some other food preparation location, totally defeating the purpose of an oyster bar. A cocktail bar would not operate this way; customers expect the bartender to mix and shake and create something wonderful.

While choosing your restaurant carefully is an option, what can you do about this state of affairs at home? Simple. Ask for unopened oysters at fish markets, invest in an oyster knife and start getting some opening practice. Check out youtube for instruction. It is really not that hard, my teenage nephews mastered it after a couple of goes; not a bad thing to add to their life skills set.

Oysters Australia recommends: From their harvest date, unopened Sydney Rock Oysters should be kept close to 20°C for up to 14 days and unopened Pacific Oysters at 5°C for up to 7 days. So that they can breathe and keep cool, wrap or cover oysters in a damp cloth. Storing in plastic, in water or on ice will kill them! This is a good guide but their youtube demo suggests storing live oysters in the fridge. This is fine for Pacific Oysters but Sydney Rocks, which like warmer waters, a cool place like the laundry is a much better choice. Once opened eat them straight away.

For the best oysters I recommend heading to our local farmers markets and chat to John The Oyster Bloke and get a net or two of his beautifully sweet Sydney Rock Oysters. To see which markets he will attend check his facebook page.

After a few goes at opening your own the world is your oyster.
The phrase the world is my oyster actually comes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff says, I will not lend thee a penny. To which Pistol replies, Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open
We use the phrase to mean that there are opportunities and rewards to enjoy, not with the brute force of the sword, as suggested by Pistol, but with a little application (of a small oyster knife). Enjoy.