Menu: Ziti with Roasted Eggplant and Ricotta
Local ingredients: eggplant, basil
Maikael and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary, and for the past several years we’ve made a tradition of not going out to dinner to mark the occasion, a decision that was born out of a bad experience we had at a restaurant on our first anniversary. In a nutshell, it was the only time in my life that I’ve followed an expensive meal with a trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru to fill the gaping hole of hunger that gnawed at me. Instead, we stay home and cook a nice dinner, typically a fancy cut of meat that we wouldn’t normally buy, some preparation of corn, which is always at its peak in July, and a bottle of dark red wine. This year I grilled filet mignon and baked little ramekins of creamed corn, and we enjoyed a very nice shiraz that a friend hand-carried back from Australia and gifted to us as we sat on our patio watching the moody clouds that sailed overhead and talking long into the evening.
It felt good to take the time to stop and celebrate the fruits of our labors. Marriages are hard work, as is sharing a life and a home with someone, and inherent in that is a great deal of compromise and bending in the wind. Sometimes I don’t realize how tightly our existences have knitted themselves together until Maikael goes out of town on business and I am left to my own devices in the kitchen. It’s then that I unwittingly find myself eating pesto or eggplant or a giant green salad for dinner, things I happen to love that Maikael doesn’t prefer, and therefore we don’t eat that often. (It goes in the other direction, too: we rarely eat shellfish, or tapenade, or fried rice.) Instead, we focus on food that we both enjoy; this cooperative approach in the kitchen trickles down to most things in our marriage, and it works for us. There are lots of things we could do better as a couple and a family, but I’m proud to say we’re solid negotiators.
Still, sometimes you just want eggplant for dinner, and when Maikael announced he was going to Orlando for a conference I immediately snapped up the slender, deep-purple Japanese eggplants that my friend, Brie-Anne, offered me from her beautiful backyard garden to enjoy in his absence. (Brie-Anne is modest and would tell you that her garden is “not much,” but I would tell you that she is lying.) With some leftover ricotta cheese in the ‘fridge and a prolific basil plant in my own small garden I had the perfect pasta dish in mind. When Maikael’s trip got canceled a few days later the menu was already planned, and although he eyed the stack of eggplants by the kitchen sink with a healthy dose of suspicion, I cheerily announced, “We’re having eggplant for dinner! From Brie-Anne’s garden! With basil! From our garden! And pasta!”
Eggplant can be a hard sell, and I know that Maikael is not alone in it being one of many people’s least favorite vegetables (although, technically, it is a fruit). If you’re down on eggplant I highly encourage you to try the Japanese variety, which is currently in season. Unlike the larger, bulbous varieties that most of us are familiar with, Japanese eggplants are much smaller, yielding a more delicate skin, smaller seeds, and, in my opinion, a milder taste. My favorite preparation of eggplant is roasted, wherein the flesh is rendered soft and sweet and the skin takes on a beautiful coffee color that offers a slightly smoky taste. Paired with pasta, mild ricotta cheese, and tomato sauce, the following dish is a good starting place for eggplant novices.
Last summer Abra devoured this meal, but this time she picked out all the pasta, leaving only a carcass of eggplant behind. Maikael was more solicitous, offering a genuine, “It’s good!” I often return to a key piece of advice that Ellyn Satter offers in Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. “Have your child’s favorite foods sometimes – but not all the time. Other family members have rights too.” The same can be said of anyone in the family unit. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get the Italian pasta mixed up with the Asian rice noodles and everyone loses. But I am reminded that, in my efforts to give and take in the kitchen, I am learning not only how to feed a family but build a family, and intrinsic in that is nurturing the cooperative attitude that we must all learn in living in community with others. Who knows – maybe tapenade will be on the menu soon?