I spent the weekend kicking around the kitchen with some good books, a bag of rice, and the few vegetables needed to make Indian food — potatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant. I learned the proper ratio of spice to use in making saag aloo and found a recipe for the perfect basmati rice, which just about bowled me over when the 20 minutes passed and I was finally able to open the lid.
In other words, I put the thrill of spontaneous cooking aside and dutifully followed some recipes. It was fulfilling, like mastering a sequence of yoga poses. You just have to put your ego aside and do what the nice recipe tells you to do.
I’m not a natural when it comes to following recipes, but I do have a knack for writing them. Last week, I almost won an award for my recipe writing. The Symposium for Professional Food Writers is an impressive, although expensive conference, so I applied for one of their scholarships on a whim. I was awarded a “special mention” in the Chronicle Books Scholarship for Recipe Writing. I was told the judges loved my writing, I scored consistently high, and my final score was close to that of the winning entrant.
And these wonderful writers have platforms. In my category, the winner was Ivy Manning, author of two cookbooks. The special mentions were 1.) Dede Wilson, author of 12 cookbooks, 2.) Faith Durand, managing editor of Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn and soon-to-be author, and 3.) me.
I was thrilled, especially since I never identified as a recipe writer. In fact, I never identified much as a recipe follower. My pantry is my palette. My All Clad is my canvas. Without recipes, my imagination runs free. I close my eyes and go to some higher place in my mind, seeing the color, texture, and taste of a dish take shape. If I’m creating the recipe for publication, I research the heck out of it and write it so clearly any Tom, Dick, or Harry could step up to the stovetop and give it a go.
I love this process. As a writer and editor, I take great pleasure in bringing order to cooking, a process that’s unpredictable, messy, and subjective by nature.
On any regular day, though, my cooking is whimsical at heart, even literary. Saturday, I read much of Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, specifically the essay “Alone In the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” This title was so compelling I had to do what it suggested. This is what the eggplant and I came up with.
However, like Magritte and his pipe, I would stress “this not a recipe.” A walnut is to pine nuts as feta is to parmesan, and herbs are so universally appealing it’s hard to pick just one. All I can say for sure is this is what I do when I’m alone in the kitchen with an eggplant. What do you do?
Makes about 4 cups
Now is the perfect time of year to eat eggplant, showing up all purple and beautiful at the farmers markets. For just 2 bucks, I got three of them. I used two, which yields a lot of pesto — enough for a big family or a party. I’m going to bring it to share for a weekend at a cabin. It’s great for grazing or for matching up with all manner of main courses.
- 2 eggplants
- one handful of walnuts
- two handfuls of feta
- olive oil
- a few cloves of garlic
- juice of a lemon
- every last leaf on one hearty stalk of basil
- salt, pepper, cayenne
Preheat the oven to 325 while you stab the eggplant all over with a fork. Cup one of your hands, pour in some olive oil, and slather it all over the fruit (eggplant is a fruit, you know). Put the fruit in a glass dish and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, turning once half way through. Put them in the fridge. When cool, cut off the green hat and peel off the skin with your fingers, which will slide right off, then pull out the long sinewy clusters of seeds. When you have nothing but eggplant flesh, give it all a squeeze, in batches, to release the excess water.
Put all of the ingredients except the eggplant flesh in a food processor and give it a whir. Add the eggplant and give it another few whirs while pouring in some olive oil. Add to pasta, slather on crackers and pita, or well, just about anything you’d like.