It has been Very Hot of late (hence the capitals); not just regular hot but steamy hot, with the streets of New York cleared, humans turning into wilted, grumpy versions of their cooler-weather selves, and the plants on my fire escape doing the same. I, like many people I know, have taken to avoiding my kitchen, dashing in only to grab a salad, or in moments of desperation, to stick my head into the freezer. The oven has stayed off, as have all other appliances that could potentially cause the temperature in my apartment to rise any higher than the already unbearable heights that it has reached.
Once I sat down to the table with the eggplant balls in front of me and a fan next to me, I felt instantly redeemed.
Until this week, that is, when I decided that I had grown tired of the salads, sandwiches, and cold pastas that have made up my diet over the past month or so. Despite my unbiding love for all things raw veggie, I was in need of something hearty—not to mention that I was beginning to feel like a rabbit. It wasn’t macaroni and cheese or meatloaf that I was after, per se, but a comfort food that showed off the vegetable bounty of the summer and that was filling and full of flavor.
Pledging that heat be damned, I turned to Vegetables from an Italian Garden ($39.95; Phaidon), a new collection of delicious vegetable dishes from the Silver Spoon Kitchen. Organized season-by-season and accompanied by mouthwatering photographs, the recipes are authentically Italian, classic, and delicious. Each season opens with an explanation of each vegetable—its cultivation history, its flavor and uses, what to look for when buying it, and growing and harvesting instructions.
Armed with a bevy of produce from my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) this past weekend, I thumbed through the summer section's recipes to try to figure out what I should make. A lemon and basil risotto caught my attention, though something about cooking with stock in 100-degree temperatures just seemed wrong. Rice salad with cucumber and grapes in aromatic oil was most certainly a contender (and a recipe I am still itching to try) but I needed something a little more substantial. I decided to use my meatiest vegetable, a ripe purple eggplant, to make eggplant balls, polpette di melanzane, a vegetarian take on meatballs. Eggplants, a favorite crop of home gardeners, has an earthy, robust flavor and is a regular stand-in for meat in vegetarian dishes. It’s easily grown in well-drained, compost-enhanced soil, and will reach two to three feet in height with monthly fertilizer and regular watering.
Photo: Katie Mendelson
When I found myself standing over a skillet filled with a steaming half-inch of oil, pouring sweat and shedding layers of clothing as quickly as possible, I began to think that I had made a mistake. Frying eggplant? In summer? Why had I not chosen to make the light and simple rice salad? But once I sat down to the table with the eggplant balls in front of me and a fan next to me, I felt instantly redeemed. The dish (which more closely resembles dumplings than meatballs) was a perfect combination of sweet vegetables (the eggplant, the basil, the garlic) and hearty flavor (the eggs, the cheese, the bread), and a tomato sauce on the side kept it light and fresh. If you, like me, are longing for something a little more substantial in these dog days of salads and popsicles, give this eggplant dish a try (and be prepared to do a little sweating).
Adapted from Vegetables from an Italian Garden.
Prep Time: 40 minutes
¾ to 1 large eggplant, trimmed
6 basil leaves, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
7 slices day-old crusty bread, diced
2/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
all-purpose flour, for dusting
scant ½ cup olive oil
salt and pepper
fresh tomato sauce, to serve
(1.) Bring a pan of salted water to a boil.
(2.) Add the eggplant and cook until very soft, then drain and chop.
(3.) Put into a bowl, add the basil, garlic, bread, grated cheese, and eggs, season with salt and pepper, and mix gently to a soft dense mixture.
(4.) With floured hands, scoop up small portion of the mixture and shape into ovals, then flatten slightly. Dust with flour.
(5.) Heat the oil in a skillet.
(6.) Add the eggplant balls, in batched, and cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, until golden brown.
(7.) Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
(8.) Serve hot or cold with a fresh tomato sauce on the side.
*Note: I think these would be delicious cold with a cucumber-yogurt sauce.
For the sauce: I made a simple tomato sauce with onion, garlic, a can of tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and salt and pepper. Saute an onion in a heavy pan until soft, add a minced clove of garlic until aromatic, add a can of crushed tomatoes, let simmer. Add Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, and a little olive oil to taste.
Katie Mendelson is the assistant editor at GARDEN DESIGN.