At Summer Winter, an upscale restaurant in Bedford, Massachusetts, I sat staring out the window at the on-site greenhouse brimming with organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers. Sure, the local sustainable food movement has taken off wildly in the last few years, but few restauranteurs can harvest right outside their door like Chefs Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, who helped pioneer the “garden to table” philosophy.
The Summer Winter menu is a bit unfair. Absolutely everything sounds divine. Everything, that is, except Strange-Flavored Eggplant. This sounds a bit, umm, strange, but definitely intriguing. How can you not order something with a name like this? Moreover, how can you pass it up when the waiter says it is the most popular of their Small Bites and that people order it in pint-sized containers to take home? You can’t. So I did.
If I were king, I might call this dish Amazing-Flavored Eggplant. It is sweet and spicy, tart and tricky… a bit hard to pin down when you try to describe it. Barbara Tropp published a similar recipe in her China Moon Cookbook back in 1992. She has an explanation for the strange flavor.
It turns out that in some of the more golden eras of Chinese history, the character for ‘strange’ meant a positive-sounding ‘elusive’ or ‘ineffable,’ as in a wonderful combination of flavors that can’t be pulled apart.” … “[It's] a classic name for a series of Chinese dishes that typically employ a mixture of vinegar, sugar and chili…”
This recipe comes from the chefs at Summer Winter, who were kind enough to share their secret with me. Serve it with pita bread as an appetizer, like they do, or live it up and make a meal out of it. Stranger things have happened.
2 large standard eggplants
2/3 cup corn oil
1/4 cup ginger, finely minced
1/4 cup garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons chili paste (Sambal Oelek Rooster brand)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, place them on a sheet tray, drizzle with 1/2 cup corn oil, and sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast until soft.
In a stainless steel saucepan, add the remaining oil and sauté the ginger and garlic until soft. Add the remaining ingredients and combine.
Remove the skin from the eggplants and drain off excess liquid (reserve). Place into a food processor and pureé; gradually pour the reserved liquid back in until full incorporated.
Serve with slices of baguette or warm pita triangles.