Monday, July 4, 2011

Aubergine Parmigiana

I promised my wonderful husband this recipe for our July 4 celebration dinner, and I really have to commend him for staying up all night with me and listening to my chatter as I cooked. We listened to music too - click the music tab on our new web site and let me know if you like it! - and we had a great time together while preparing this meal to share with you.

Here is my other signature dish - aubergines of course are also known as eggplants or brinjals; now we all may know what to do with those odd purple things. I have been serving it for more than a quarter century ever since I found it, and you will be amazed at how it was found ... it was declared ultra yummy even by a guest who had told me that he was not fond of aubergines - that was before he ate this.

Eggplant Parmigiana is an Italian classic, and the Mediterranean flavours in this dish are truly stunning - this version is a little bit decadent because the eggplant slices are fried rather than grilled before they are baked, but since we do not eat much saturated fat as vegetarians and extra virgin olive oil is extraordinarily good for you, the extra calories can be happily forgiven on a festive occasion such as this.

2 large firm aubergines (or 4 small to medium ones)
extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 medium sized can of tomato puree (1 - 2 small cans of tomato paste can be substituted since tomato puree is harder to find; adjust the quantities by adding more wine to the sauce if you use the more concentrated form)
salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper
.5 - 1 cup red wine
3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1.5 cup dried breadcrumbs
2 organic free-range eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp organic milk
250g grated rennet-free organic mozzarella cheese

Note: soy parmesan works just as well if you are vegan, but make sure it is organic soy if you opt for the vegan version (same goes for your mozzarella) because you do not want GMOs; now we see how hard it is to be truly vegetarian and GMO-free all at the same time.

Soy is a wonderfully versatile commodity but the crop is at present somewhat exploited by global overproduction and it actually can be harmful if eaten in excessive quantities, for reasons too complex to elucidate here. I will admit that rennet-free parmesan is a tall order but if we eat cheese with rennet in it, we might as well eat milk-fed veal; it defeats the point of going vegetarian. One has to become a bit of a "foodie" and learn to hunt down trustworthy and educated suppliers who can provide quality products. Yes they are expensive; we pay for our principles in this life, sometimes dearly. (Have you hugged a local organic farmer today?)

1. Slice the aubergines into 5 mm thin slices.
2. Beat the eggs with the milk to a smooth mixture.
3. Coat the aubergine slices with flour.
4. Dip the slices in the egg mixture; coat them evenly, you do not want any dry patches of flour on them.
5. Coat the slices evenly in bread crumbs - avoid clumps; this is tricky. At the end of the coating process you will have a huge sticky mess everywhere, but it is fun to do if you have someone adorable to help you. This dish takes a while to do and it is nice if you can talk and drink wine and listen to music while you do the prep work together.
6. Heat the olive oil in a pan and fry the slices on both sides to an even golden brown consistency.
7. Layer the slices in a casserole dish.
8. Mix the tomato puree, the garlic, dried basil and oregano, salt, pepper and wine in a bowl until it is evenly blended to form a smooth sauce, not too runny.
9. Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese evenly over the eggplant slices.
10. Drizzle the sauce over the mozzarella cheese evenly on all sides.
11. Sprinkle the grated parmesan cheese over the top of the sauce.
12. Preheat oven to 190°C/375°F/gas 5 and bake for 30 - 45 mins.

Serve with Bocconcini Sidekick salad - a simple Italian salad consisting of mixed greens, sliced tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes, black olives and sliced bocconcini cheese. Toss with a pinch of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.

This recipe was adapted from an ancient treasure found on the label of an All Gold tomato puree can in South Africa more than a quarter century ago. Like the chowder, it has been with me ever since and it tastes slightly different every time, depending on the exact balance of the ingredients used. It is always delicious and satisfying - I told my husband it is better than pizza. I once served sizeable quantities of it to a huge party of wonderful people during my student radical days in which I was, as I am now, a committed vegetarian.

My philosophy teacher from Wits U, Vincent Maphai, who later became the head of SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation, the state television service) was at that party - he taught philosophical logic, a subject I love and which has helped me more in life than any other subject I can think of - and so was my favourite theologian, Jeff Zerbst who wrote the horseracing column in the Weekly Mail as Thomas Equinus. Jeff described himself as agnostic and taught all the coffee and cigarette addicts in Senate House Concourse about the difference between atheism and consistent scientific agnosticism: a lesson I would never forget.

Atheism, he explained, is a form of religion in that it is based on an article of faith: the statement that God does not exist. Atheists believe themselves to know this for sure without any actual evidence to prove the non-existence of God; therefore atheism conforms to the definition of a religion - unlike, for example, existentialism or Buddhism (in translation Buddh means "good" so it can be translated simply as "goodism") which are philosophies rather than religions.

I was agnostic myself at the time, simply because I thought that if God had anything to do with apartheid He either could not exist or something else was wrong with what I had been taught. I strongly suspected it was the latter rather than the former, so I could describe my student self as a somewhat reverent agnostic, although we all routinely, and rather irreverently indulged in the habit of mocking all the religions on the face of the planet. We used to sing "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama Rama Soft" in the Concourse - a brand of margarine in SA was called Rama Soft and for some reason this gave infinite rise to hilarity. You had to have been there. We were never above accepting free vegetarian food from orange-clad visitors to campus though, and I was fascinated by the free copy of Bhagavad-Gita that was handed to me in the process ...

The Dutch Reformed church (the institution bearing responsibility in my book for my childish confusion) subsequently discovered to its apparent collective amazement that God never did "vote Nat" as they said. The things that are ascribed to God by human beings are sometimes so outrageous that if I were God, I definitely would pretend not to exist just so I can have a good laugh at their expense instead of having them laugh at me all the time in my apparent absence from their poorly defined excuse for an existence.

I believe that we humans owe God a massive apology for all the garbage in our history and in our oceans and lakes, and that when we eat, the best way to say grace is to think about the wonder of the biodiversity that is still on this planet despite the destructive impact of humans upon it, and to thank God for the versatile soybean, the powerhouse tomato, the awesome aubergine and everything else created for our benefit and enjoyment.

Let's face it: despite the efforts of the Monsanto madmen to "patent" the genetic sequences of our food after messing with the natural patterns in dangerous ways, we humans did not create our food and we have no copyrights to its building blocks; we found it here - it was conveniently here for our consumption before we understood any part of its DNA, almost as if a thoughtful parent had left it here for us to eat.

Halaal food is blessed by saying "Allah uAkbar" (God is gracious) and kosher food is defined by a set of intricate dietary laws that are remarkably scientific in their foundations when we consider that the ancients supposedly did not know any of the things we know about food today, for example the fact that pork carries a very dangerous parasite that is capable of destroying the human brain. Pigs are genetically so close to humans that pork is dangerous for similar reasons as to why we do not eat our colleagues and friends - brain damage is a well-known consequence of that habit. Islamic law forbids pork for the same reason; how did both religious traditions become informed about these things in the absence of the scientific knowledge that is at our disposal today, and what is the source of their information? Of course all meat is dangerous and likely to cause degenerative brain conditions (what passes for "Alzheimer's" in today's medical language is very often the human version of mad cow disease, but big agribusiness does not want you to know that, and for some reason the medical establishment cooperates with other powerful establishments - Gigi does not know why!) ... and so how can a merciful God "allow" such conditions to plague the human race? Why, because it is a lawless race: the consumption of meat causes us to break a fundamental universal spiritual law - "thou shalt not kill." The Bible teaches that the consequence of such lawlessness is physical mortality - but, for those who do not understand or respect spiritual laws it is all a big mystery.

I used to say during my student days that I was vegetarian strictly for compassionate reasons - nothing in particular to do with health. However, health and compassion go hand in hand, and compassion includes passion rather than excluding it as falsely taught by many ascetics who believe in self-denial as a path to understanding.

Gigi does not believe in self-denial or in the virtue of suffering; I believe in embracing the gifts God gave us and achieving understanding by seeking pleasure in a gracious way. Our enjoyment of the things that are given to us by a loving Creator is in fact key to the Creator's own happiness. And there you have it: the meaning of life! (Did I hear someone say like Monsieur Creosote in that meaningful movie ... f* off, I'm full? Gigi giggles ...)

- DJ Gigi


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