Smart cooks have their little tricks, back-pocket condiments and add-ons that can transform a dish. Chef and former farmer Abra Berens is one of those cooks, and her new cookbook is full of them.
Take her roasted eggplant dish, which includes two components that could each be worth a treatise. As different as they are, the upshot is the same: They take little effort yet make such a difference.
They come from different sides of the flavor and texture spectrum. Garlic-infused breadcrumbs, which you toast in a pan in a matter of minutes, are nutty and deep, with serious crunch. Raisins, which you quickly pickle while you make the rest of the recipe, are half sweet and half tart, with a pleasant chewiness that remains because the pickling liquid isn’t heated. (No plumping here, thank you.) Frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of raisins in general, but pickling them always changes my tune.
Berens focuses most of her book, charmingly titled “Ruffage,” on more than two dozen vegetables, including multiple ways to cook (or avoid cooking) each one. She shaves raw cauliflower, roasts eggplant chunks (in a generous amount of olive oil, rendering them almost silky), grills red peppers — and offers enticing variations for each base recipe. When I started attaching sticky notes to all the recipes I wanted to try, I quickly realized the exercise was futile, because there wasn’t anything I didn’t find interesting.
The breadcrumb treatment is in the book’s introductory material, where she includes her game-changing condiments and other touches. I scaled down her recipe and merged it into the directions for this roasted eggplant recipe. But you’d be smart to make a bigger batch, as Berens does, and do the same with the raisins. Your salads — and plenty of other dishes — will thank you.
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup golden raisins
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 medium (1 1/2 pounds total) eggplant, cut into large chunks
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/4 cup plain panko bread crumbs
1 pound ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into large chunks
1/3 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves, torn
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into chunks
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Whisk together the brown sugar, vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt in a medium bowl. Stir in the raisins, and let the mixture sit/macerate while you make the rest of the recipe.
Toss the eggplant on the baking sheet with 1/4 cup of the oil and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Roast until the eggplant is tender and golden brown on the edges, 25 to 30 minutes.
While the eggplant is roasting, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a small pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of the salt; cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is tender and fragrant, 5 minutes. Stir in the bread crumbs, increase the heat to medium, and toast, stirring, until golden brown and fragrant, 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.
Once the eggplant is done, let it cool for about 15 minutes (to room temperature). Add the tomatoes and mint, tossing to incorporate, right on the baking sheet. Transfer to individual plates, then top with the mozzarella, pickled raisins and garlicky bread crumbs. Drizzle on the liquid from the raisins, sprinkle with the lemon zest and pepper, and serve.
Adapted from “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables,” by Abra Berens (Chronicle Books, 2019).
Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The nutritional analysis is based on 8 servings.
Calories: 260; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 15 mg; Sodium: 330 mg; Carbohydrates: 31 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugars: 25 g; Protein: 8 g.