Friday, June 3, 2011

Break Your Oil Dependency. Eggplant, Done Lighter.

   One of the questions I'm asked by people most frequently is how/why the hell did you start cooking Indian food? Like a lot of love stories, it's complicated. There were actually a few reasons for me to dive into a cuisine that on the surface was quite outside my comfort zone.
   As a kid I was a picky eater. In fact I was beyond picky, I basically didn't eat. The food I was offered on a regular basis (unless eating Italian at Nonna's) was fairly ordinary and typical of the times. TV dinners, fish sticks or frozen pizza on Fridays. Meat always served triple well done, mac and cheese from a box. However these very American meals were always augmented by either a fresh salad or a steamed artichoke as a first course - I was the only kid on my block who was eating artichokes at that age - and sometimes featured an exotic cheese for dessert unless we were having Py-O-My.. 
   "It's not a pudding it's not a cake it's....Py-O-My Pudding Cake."  Just ask any Soupy Sales fan about it. Warning: Any food item that is described by what it's not... be afraid, be very afraid.
  As a teenager, color me curious. While my friends were hitting Mel's Diner and Zims, I was wandering the back alleys of Chinatown discovering Dim Sum  at the Hang Ah Tea Room...
...and sampling Havabour, lamb shanks and rose petal jelly at Omar Khayyams.
When the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco opened I had to try it. I vividly remember creeping into the spicy darkness of the Taj of India restaurant, now long gone, and sitting by myself in a large banquette, ordering my first ever Indian food. I had gotten a coupon somewhere, I must have been 15. What do I remember about the meal? Only that the flavors were new, strange and amazing and the giant Bengal tiger head on the wall above me. So there was that.
   Another  thing that pushed me in a Vedic direction was getting cancer 21 years ago. I'd been a vegetarian, healthy, never smoked etc. but still I got sick. Along with chemo and all the rest of Western medicine, I decided to move in a macrobiotic direction. I quickly became bored with my food. I mean how much burdock root can a person eat?  And to deny an Italian eggplant?? Criminal, I thought. It was then that my doctor suggested I try an Ayurvedic style diet. In other words, how about Indian food? My sister in law who is an Indologist and had lived and worked in India, stepped in with books and info and I was on my way.
   I recovered but I didn't stop cooking Indian food. It was as though something had clicked  between my brain and my tongue and it didn't matter that I'd grown up on a weird tightrope between  pickled Italian pigs feet and Kraft Mac and cheese It didn't matter I had grown up as fart from India as one could get in oh so many ways. I was home. I had found my cuisine!
  One thing I learned when I first started eating Indian food, let alone cooking Indian food, was the vast amounts of oil or ghee that were sometimes involved. Not that grease doesn't set my taste buds blooming as rapidly as the next guy. It's just I always feel guilty eating too much of it. There is this nagging thought in the back of my head. "This is killing you dummy!" So that was one of the main reasons I started cooking Indian food myself was the desire for the flavor but without all the grease. And so I set about adapting the recipes I came across in an effort to make them lighter and healthier.
   I experimented to find the right balance between how much oil is needed for flavor and how much is just...well too much. My friend and cooking mentor Paula Wolfert has taught me some great tricks about eliminating excess fat and grease from foods while still keeping the flavor, but there are times when just a culinary maneuver won't do. There are times when one has to "Just Say No!"
  So what would you do with a recipe that has 1 quart of oil in it's first line? Whoa! Here's what I did as I adapted the classic Indian recipe Eggplant with Peanuts and Sesame Seeds.

   Traditionally this dish is made with brinjals the tiny little oval Indian eggplants.
However, here in Sonoma I had no such luck, no little brinjals, and I wasn't up for the 50 mile round trip to fetch some, so I decided to use the larger oval Italian-style eggplant found in every market. They worked just fine. Just purchase the smallest ones available. 2 to be exact. Also, about that quart of oil thing? Instead of frying the eggplants, I decided to hold the oil and oven roast them.

Eggplant With Tomato

   Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
Wash the eggplants and halve them. Then quarter them and quarter them again.
Spray a cookie sheet with non stick spray or brush it lightly with vegetable oil.
Place the eggplant pieces on the cookie sheet and brush them lightly with vegetable oil.
Pop the eggplants into the oven and roast them for between 30 to 40 minutes.
 When they're tender and roasted, take them out and set them aside.
 In a large skillet or kadhai heat 2Tbs of oil (2 not 1 quart)
When the oil is hot add in:
  2 thinly sliced red onions
Saute them until they start to turn golden.
Take the onions out and drain them on a paper towel and set them aside.
 In a small skillet dry roast one at a time:
  1 and 1/2 Tbs of sesame seeds
  2 Tbs of peanuts
  1 Tbs of grated dried coconut
  3/4 tsp of white poppy seeds
Dry roast each of these until they start to turn color or get aromatic.
Put the dry roasted ingredients into a blender or spice grinder, add 1/2 cup of water and blend it all into a paste.
  Grind together 1 seeded green chili
   1 inch of thinly sliced fresh ginger
   1 shallot
   1 or 2 Tbs of water into a paste
 Meanwhile back at the kadhai or skillet, heat the oil again. When it's hot add in:
  1/2 tsp of brown mustard seeds
  1/4 tsp of cumin seeds
  1/4 tsp of fennel seeds
  1/4 tsp of black onion seed (aka kalonji or nigella...not that Nigella)
  A pinch of fenugreek seeds
 Saute everything until it starts to brown then toss in:
  The ginger, chili, shallot paste
  10 curry leaves
Cook everything down about 5 or 10 minutes then add in:
  The cooked drained red onions
 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
 1 and 1/2 tsp coriander
 1/2 tsp cumin
 1/2 tsp Kashmiri chili or 1/4 tsp cayenne mixed with 1/4 tsp of paprika
 3/4 tsp of salt
Let everything cook down for about 4 minutes.
Add in:
 2 Tbs of tamarind  or if you don't have tamarind substitute lemon or lime juice
 1/2 tsp of jaggery or light brown sugar
Let that cook for about 2 or 3 minutes then add in:
 The coconut spice paste
Cook everything until it's thoroughly blended then turn down the heat  and add in:
 1 cup of water
Bring it to a boil then add in the eggplants.
Cook for about 4 or 5 minutes and serve it up!

   With a chapatti and some spinach on the side, lunch is served. The dish is a tasty blend of the sweet and tangy, and who doesn't like that? It's even better the next day, which is always a good thing, but keep your eyes on it. It has a way of disappearing. I also have to confess while eating this I had fantasies of taking the eggplant and using it as a pizza or flat bread topping. In fact I'm pretty sire I'm going to try that. I think it would be outstanding.
 Coming up next, taking advantage of fresh spring spinach and the earliest corn. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori


  1. This really looks fabulous and I love eggplant nice change of the usual!

  2. These are definitely done right! Love those little eggplants!

  3. This sounds absolutely delicious with all those spices. I am with you on the usage of oil in some of the dishes. I use as little as I can get by and so my curries are not as red or brilliant as they should be when the oil floats to the top. I figured I can do without that and looks is not that important.

  4. Can you come up with a way to get less fat in my hog jowel dishes?

  5. @Janis,
    I think we could probably take it down a lot using the method Paula told me

  6. I have to try oven-roasting eggplant. I love them deep-fried but my bulging waistline is calling out for action...

  7. @frank,
    Yes it really works just as well it might even be a way to do eggplant parm lighter

  8. I love this recipe of yours..Even the paratha/ bread with the aubergines look so inviting...I wish I had made this for dinner tonight ....looks very yum and is guilt-free too!


  9. Great recipe. For me eggplant is more luscious and appealing when fried. Whether in olive oil (Mediterranean) or peanut oil (asian).
    My fav way is to make a paste of garlic,ginger and chillies, with a little tumeric, dhania jeera and salt. Fried in a generous amount of oil till crispy. Unfortunately I usually do grill or bake them for health reasons. Cheers Dillon

  10. YUM! I love Indian food and on the weekend had some friends over for a full-on Indian meal...all were very satiated at the end of the evening and the house smelled of spices.



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