Quick Eggplant Chicken Curry and How to Cut an Onion - august 19, 2010

We came home late from school, again today. I started Sesame Street at 5:00, hoping to have dinner on the table by 6:00 and finished by 6:15, which seems easy enough, since the kids either gobble it down or don't eat at all. Today's scheduled recipe was eggplant curry, using leftover chicken from tuesday's paella. But, I hadn't salted the eggplant beforehand, and now twenty minutes of letting salty eggplant sit and drain into the sink seems like an awful waste of time.

I have never understood the need for salting eggplant. In nearly every cookbook written before 2000, it says that one needs to salt eggplant and let it sit for twenty minutes, in order to get the bitterness out. But here's the thing - whether I salt and sit the eggplant or not, it doesn't taste bitter. Maybe the bitterness gene has been bred out of modern eggplant, or eggplant from our CSA is too fresh to be bitter, or perhaps I just don't have the capacity to taste that kind of bitter. 

Don't get me wrong - I don't love eggplant or have some special tolerance for bitterness. In fact, in years past, I've been perfectly happy to get only one or two of these vegetables per summer from the CSA box. That is really quite enough for me. But this year, we've had at least ten so far, and the season is just gearing up. Last week I roasted four, letting them collapse into a mushy brown paste, then mixed them with roasted garlic, salt, olive oil, and brought it to the preschool picnic. On crackers, the mush was very good. Even for someone who doesn't like eggplant.

Earlier in the week we ate something with chickpeas and tomatoes and basil and eggplant, from Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, but it was merely OK. Tonight I used one more for the curry, which was pretty tasty. Then four new ones arrived, glistening and globular, in today's produce box. What to do?

But back to the curry. It tasted good and was ready to eat in about 45 minutes, required no prep ahead or special ingredients. I served the kids' dinner up on a four partition plate: rice in the large section, three bites of chicken extracted from the curry, half a banana and a dollop of curried vegetables in the smallest space. Plus a cup of milk and their own access to the salt shaker, under observation. All of it was eaten, except the veggies. My daughter ate one bite in exchange for a second helping of rice. To me, that's success.


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Quick Eggplant Chicken Curry: (adapted from Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India) 

For the rice:

2-3 cups basmati rice, depending on how much your family will eat

1 cinnamon stick, broken into 2 pieces

3 whole cloves

2 cardamon pods

pinch saffron

2 Tablespoons butter

salt (if you use unsalted butter)

For the curry:

4 tablespoons canola oil (or some other mildly flavored variety)

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves

1 half inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger, if thats what you hav

1 teaspoon ground coriander (or substitute 2 Tablespoons curry powder for this and the next 3 spices)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 eggplant

2 poblano peppers (or other mildly spicy variety)

1 or 2 zucchini or other summer squash

2 tomaotes

raw chicken, white or dark meat (as much as you want, 1 chicken breast is plenty)

cilantro to garnish


First of all, start your rice. The easiest thing to do is use a rice cooker. Add as much rice as your family will eat, 2-3 cups or so, add the required amount of water for your cooker, and drop in the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and saffron. Then turn it on. When the rice is finished, add the butter and a little salt (if the butter is unsalted). With a little sugar this could probably be dessert, but my kids love it with dinner. You can use plain old basmati if you'd rather.

Warm the oil in a really big pan. You can use a wok if you don't have a giant pan. When you cut the onion, follow the directions my good pal Chris taught me, after he spent a month learning to cook somewhere in Italy with his Mother: cut the onion in half horizontally. Slice a bit off the round end of each half, so you can get under the skin easily, then peel the papery skin off. For each half, lay it cut side down on your cutting board. Slice the onion, as thin as you want (thicker for chopped, thinner for finely chopped and minced) in one direction, holding it together as you go. Then turn the onion 90 degrees, and slice it again, the same thickness as before. Now, because of the layers of the onion, you are done. Pick it up and throw it into the pot of hot oil.

Give the onion a stir or two, set the heat to medium low, and let it cook while you prep the rest of the ingredients. Be careful not to let it burn, just let it get golden brown. If it gets that color before you are done prepping, just turn the heat off. 

Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch or so pieces, put it in a colander in the sink and toss it with about 2 tablespoons of salt. Or don't, if you're not worried about the bitterness. Core and remove the membranes of the peppers, then chop them into 1/2 inch pieces. Chop the zucchini into 1/2 inch pieces. Chop the chicken into 1/2 inch pieces. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally, then squeeze them over the sink to remove seeds and juice. You might need to squeeze them fairly hard, depending on ripeness, but don't squash the flesh. Then chop them into 1/2 inch pieces. Finely chop the garlic, then peel and finely chop the ginger. 

When the onions are golden brown, add the garlic, ginger, tomato, pepper, spices and a cup of water. Rinse the eggplant in the sink, shake the colander to get off the excess water and add it to the pan. Turn the heat to medium and let it simmer for a while, about 10 minutes or so. When the eggplant is soft, add the chicken and zucchini. If the pan is getting dry, add another cup of water or so and stir. Taste and add some salt. When the vegetables are as soft as you'd like them to be, and the flavors are as blended as you'd like them to be, it is done. Feel free to add more water and salt along the way. 

Serve over rice with chopped cilantro as a garnish.


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