Back in July, I wrote about the little garden that Dan and I typically grow every summer in northern Michigan – or perhaps I should say “attempt to grow every summer” because the unusually cool weather has not been kind to our veggies this season. Many of our herbs shriveled early, and the cucumbers were less than promising. As usual, our zucchini thrived – a few even grew to record size – and the cherry tomatoes, though late, have been consistently delicious for the past few weeks. But the big surprise this summer has been one of the plants that I’ve been tending. Every season, I try something new – and this year, it was – you guessed it – eggplant!
Early in the summer, Dan had had his doubts. The wee card embedded in the potted eggplant that we’d bought at the hardware store promised that this particular bush could produce up to fifty eggplant in one season. Dan scoffed at such a number, but the prospect intrigued me – and served as a challenge to my nonexistent gardening skills. In Dan’s defense, neither of us had attempted to grow eggplant before. But, since I’ve been on an eggplant kick lately – perhaps recalling the delicious eggplant parmesan I’d had at Mona Lisa, a quaint Italian restaurant in the French Quarter – I was determined to watch it grow... and grow it did. In June and July, it did little more than stay alive, but by August, the lavender-hued blossoms were beginning to transform into purplish-black pods – like something out of a “body snatcher” flick.
I was so bloody excited the day that I noticed my first eggplant “pod” – and soon, there were seven little pods of various sizes. One, in particular, looked pretty darn healthy. It grew at the base of the stalk, eventually growing too long to hang. For a long time, it lay atop the potting soil, getting longer and bigger every day. Concerned about rot, I checked it regularly, but I was emphatically told by my mother (via a long-distance phone call) not to pluck it until it was tender. I felt it daily for signs of a change in texture, but it just continued to grow. Eventually, I broke down and bought a full-sized eggplant from the grocery store (pictured here beside my little homegrown one). I know it seems like a betrayal, but I was dying for a nice plate of grilled eggplant. If you must know, Karma got its revenge – I ended up burning the store-bought eggplant on the grill. Sigh.
As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “I hate waiting.” And yet, that’s exactly what I did. I waited and I waited and I waited some more, and finally my low-hanging eggplant seemed ready to pluck. It was on the small side – compared to those found in most produce sections – but it definitely felt right when I squeezed it – and another one of the seven was close on its heels, almost ready to be plucked as well. Visions of eggplant parmesan began dancing across my inner sanctum. I had promised Dan for weeks that I was going to prepare eggplant parmesan, but as usual, I procrastinated and Dan eventually decided to make it without my assistance – which, while I felt bad about breaking another cooking-related promise (for, yes, this was hardly the first time), was ultimately a good thing.
After all, Dan is the chef in the family – and he’d actually been proactive enough to find a recipe that included red, orange, and yellow peppers (the very peppers that were waiting patiently in the refrigerator to be eaten).
“What?” I said. “Peppers in eggplant parmesan? Who would do such a dastardly thing?”
Apparently, Giada De Laurentiis, the Food Network’s lovely Italian vixen, would. It was her recipe he’d found, and then, being Dan, promptly manipulated. And even though I’d never before spotted a single pepper piece in a dish of traditional eggplant parmesan, I was more than willing to give it a try. For one thing, Dan was eager to cook in my stead. For another thing, I trusted his judgment – and I pretty much like everything that Giada makes.
So, though I offered to help him slice the peppers and eggplant, he shooed me into the bathroom to take a shower. We were, after all, having dinner with his parents, and it’s usually polite to be clean for the occasion.
“But, Dan, will two eggplant be enough for all for of us?”
He sighed. “Yes, more than enough. I’m making sausage, too, you know.”
Naturally. The Martones are Italian, after all; there’s almost always meat at a family dinner. In fact, I think I might have been the only one to have ever eaten eggplant parmesan as an entrée.
Without another peep, I dutifully shuffled into the bathroom. By the time I’d emerged, Dan had already sliced and grilled the eggplant. Then, I watched him as he lay the thick eggplant slices on a layer of tomato sauce, followed by a handful of shredded mozzarella and parmesan, more sauce, and rows of vibrant pepper slices, above which he added more cheese, more sauce, and, of course, more cheese. Didn’t I mention we’re Italian? (Well, for the most part anyway.)
I have to admit that, after all my skepticism, Dan’s eggplant parmesan turned out pretty good. It was delicious, in fact – and, as with most dishes he prepares, the best I’ve ever had. He was right, too, about the amount. With the stewed sausage, there was plenty of eggplant parmesan to go around. In fact, there were enough leftovers that I was able to have three more meals’ worth over the course of the week. I’m more than happy to admit that he was right about the recipe – if only Dan were willing to admit that he was wrong about my poor little bush. It might not have produced fifty eggplant as promised, but it gave us seven more than he expected, and that’s reason enough to be happy with “the little garden that could.”
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