Making panzanella

25 Jan

Last night’s dinner was a classic kitchen adventure that wonderfully complimented a roller-coaster day. Toes were stubbed, nails bitten, teeth gnashed, and ingredients cursed, but luckily, all improvisations turned out well. Brandon and I made panzanella, or bread salad, combining ideas from a few different recipes with our own judgments. The result was delicious.

Yesterday afternoon, I was assailed by the smell of heated garlic and olive oil upon entering my apartment. Brandon was in the kitchen looking not at all worse for the wear after trying cooking eggplant, a piece of Mother Earth neither of us is very fond of, mostly due to a lack of ability to cook it well. Typically, when we make it, it ends up tasting bitter, even without the skin. Several times in the past, we’d completely written off the preparing of it as a culinary feat that was simply beyond us. However, a recent $1-per-eggplant sale at Central Market encouraged Brandon to once again tred in that taboo arena.

Mark Bittman suggests that, to take the bitterness out of less-than-fresh eggplant, you cover your cut eggplant in salt for about an hour, then rinse off the salt and cook. Eggplant typically tastes bitter when it is not very fresh because, after only a few days, the bitterness of the skin begins to seep into the vegetable’s flesh, irrevocably tainting it for the faint-hearted consumer. Ours wasn’t very fresh; in fact, it had just entered the pre-wrinkle phase of its life on the shelf.  After following Bittman’s prep suggestions, Brandon chose to sautee, following this process: use plenty of oil and garlic and stir constantly for the first 5-7 minutes until the pieces are almost fall-apart tender and have begun to release the oil (that is immediately soaked up by the eggplant). Bittman, as always, could be trusted, and the end result was soggy, melt-in-your mouth delicious vegetable flesh I could swear I had never tasted before. Delicious eggplant, indeed!

As a side note, another way to cook the eggplant using much less oil is to broil it. Brush peeled, sliced eggplant with olive oil, salt and pepper and broil about 4-6 inches from the heat source for about 10 minutes, turning once. Also, you’ll notice in the recipe that I soaked the red onions in ice water for a while. This removes some of the sharpness of the onions and makes them easier to digest for those who have problems with them (such as heartburn…*cough* Brandon *cough*).

The next step in our adventure was preparing the croutons for our bread salad. You can prepare the bread for such a dish many different ways, but we chose to sautee our rock-hard 2-week-old stale bread loaf in oil and garlic rather than toast it (it was plenty hard already, thank you very much!), as some recipes will suggest. After this came the veggies and dressing, and the end result was a delicious, crunchy, spinachy-garlic eggplant salad goulash, the likes of which I haven’t tasted anywhere. Upvote Team Running Chefs!

We prepared this dish with a side of baked sweet potatoes with honey cinnamon butter inspired by a side dish served at Texas Land and Cattle. Sweet potatoes scrubbed and glazed with salt, pepper and olive oil will carmelize beautifully when roasted for an hour. Brandon’s own made-up-on-the-spot honey cinnamon butter was comprised of about 4 tbsp. butter, 1 tbsp. honey, and 1 tsp. Vietnamese cinnamon. Rechilled and then brought to the table at serving time, this sweet, buttery nectar was almost (but not quite) superfluous because of the tender sweetness of the potatoes.

Overall, an excellent kitchen adventure. But beware: for the superstitious among you, this dish may be a lover’s bane. After an evening of romance and brandy (in preliminary celebration of our 5th anniversary as a couple) we made dinner and ate it. As it was digesting, mixed feelings of amorous regard and impatient disgust put an awkward tone on the rest of the night. As such trivial (and perhaps brandy-induced) squabbles rarely last long and ruin an entire evening, we’ve blamed it on the panzanella. Who knows? Try the dish out for yourself, but tred lightly if you make it with a loved one.

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