Lately I’ve been worn out by my own home cooking. It’s not the toil that’s getting to me; it’s more that I feel fatigued by the familiarity of it: the predictability of my own kitchen habits, the recognizability of my own cooking voice, the monotony of what I always throw in my cart as I zigzag the aisles at the grocery store on autopilot. Everyone I know has had a similar malaise recently — all of us feeling rather short on enthusiasm for this monogamous intimacy with our three-ingredient tendencies and our everything-shoved-on-a-sheet-pan ways, no matter how beloved and delicious the results have reliably been. And so I’ve begun reaching for new ideas, new paths, new routes to new pleasures.
I now shop in my grocery store in opposite zigzags than I did the week before, starting at the exit aisles and making my way back to the entrance ones, walking corridors I normally avoid to see if there’s something on those shelves that speaks to me in a new way. I’ve trekked many extra crosstown blocks to visit grocery stores in neighborhoods farther afield to see what they stock that I might be attracted to. I’ve also been re-employing restaurant techniques that aren’t entirely convenient in the home kitchen, but somehow it hasn’t been wearying; it’s been animating.
For the decades that I’ve cooked eggplant, I’ve cooked it pretty much only this one way, and it’s undeniably fun and still delivers: You take the whole fat globe eggplant, and you set it directly on the burner grate on the stovetop. Set the gas flame to high and scorch it. The skin forms a carbonized black bark — the kind that would usually signal ruin — while the flesh inside steams and softens until it collapses to silken and rather smoky perfection. While the eggplant cools after its scorching, a viscous liquid as dark as brewed coffee collects in the bowl, which steeps the interior fruit in its smokiness. Once strained, this liquid can be kept in your fridge for other uses — it’s a brilliant byproduct. The cooked eggplant is removed from its charred casing with a spoon, just as you might scoop ripe avocado out of its leathery shell.
Usually I finish that bowlful of smoky eggplant pulp by adding a long pour of fruity olive oil and seasoning it one of three ways: salt, microplaned raw garlic and lemon juice; tom yum paste and scallions and sesame seeds stirred in; or a heavy shower of freshly chopped parsley, some crumbled feta cheese and a little red onion.
That smoky pulp responds in the same way that a satin-finish white wall does — uncannily well — to a boldly painted trim. It has been a staple of my cooking for decades, to spread on warm toast, to dip into with bitter Belgian endive spears, to spoon next to a grilled lamb chop.
But my reliable three finishing sets for smoked eggplant have become, to me, almost claustrophobically reliable. So I have begun doing something new: forming, freezing, breading, refreezing and finally frying the mixture into croquettes. These knockouts reflect that elusive next-level quality of cooking that comes from the extra steps and inconveniences restaurant chefs embrace, which I think we have all so sorely been missing these past many months.
You could stop after Phase 1 and enjoy well-seasoned smoky eggplant the way I have for decades. It’s truly delicious, and for you probably not deadly familiar. You could stop as well with these crispy, silken-centered croquettes, which will turn heads at cocktail hour.
But if you want to keep going, there are even further steps to take. After you have your golden fried croquettes, you could also top them with a little tomato sauce and slivers of mozzarella and a grating of Parmesan cheese, run them under the broiler and enjoy a family meal of eggplant parmigiana that dissolves on the tongue and stuns your children into loving awe.
However you choose to do it, I hope the product will bring you the same spark in your home kitchen as it did me in mine — delicious, exciting, complex and entirely new bites from the same old girl who just yesterday was starting to bore herself to tears.
Recipe: Smoky Eggplant Croquettes