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Cooking Off The Cuff: The Early-Autumn Market Yields Something Resembling A Chinese Dinner

09/26/2017 17:43 EDT | Updated 09/26/2017 17:55 EDT

At our farmers’ market last week Jackie and I saw peppers at the height of their perfumed ripeness and eggplants/aubergines just starting to get a little seedy but still sound and flavorful. These could have been the foundation for a fine Mediterranean dish, but one grower was selling young, juicy ginger. Not much ginger is grown near New York, and it is always a surprise to see it. We bought some, and that pushed our dinner in a more Asian direction.

As I said last time, I feel safer qualifying my Asian-style cooking as “faux,” and this time it was to be faux-Chinese, because Chinese eggplant dishes are among our favorites. And what might be our favorite of favorites comes from the late Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cookbook: Dry-fried Chinese eggplant nuggets. It is a balanced, zippy dish, with sweetness and tartness in just the right equilibrium.

But I took the basic idea and flavors beyond the borders of the Middle Kingdom: I brought in another vegetable (those beautiful peppers) and some meat (ground pork) to make this a dish that, with rice, would stand on its own; and I used lots and lots of ginger because I was so tickled by the idea of it having been locally grown. The result was almost over the top, but it was delicious and worth sharing.

For three main-dish portions, I first prepared the sauce that would be used at the very end of cooking. This was almost pure Barbara Tropp, apart from my use of sherry vinegar: she specifies balsamic (of the mass produced kind), which is better than the Chinese vinegars that are available where I shop. And sherry vinegar is even better. I stirred together 3 tablespoons each of good soy sauce and brown sugar; 1-1/2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar (or you can use everyday balsamic); a teaspoonful of toasted-sesame oil and 2 or 3 tablespoonsful of hot water. Set this sauce mixture aside.

I also made an aromatic mixture that would start the main part of the cooking: 4 tablespoons of finely chopped ginger; two tablespoons of finely chopped garlic; the white and some of the green of a small bunch of scallions (spring onions), cut fairly fine – there should be a heaping half cup (120 ml by volume); one tablespoon Chinese chili sauce – I used the kind with fermented beans, but see what you have in the fridge; and a half tablespoon of fish sauce (I used Japanese ishiri, but any fermented fish sauce will add the desired flavor – you might even try a squirt of anchovy paste, or you could omit this ingredient). I set this aside too.

With these two foundation elements ready, I cored two medium-size sweet peppers and cut them into 3/4-inch (2 cm) lozenges – dice, but cut on the bias. Dice would be fine too, or half-inch strips. I fried them in a scant tablespoonful of peanut oil (a neutral oil would be fine) over medium-high heat, along with a couple of teaspoons of chopped fresh ginger, until nearly done. Depending on the peppers and the heat, this could take two minutes or three. I set them aside. (This and the next step could be done in advance.)

Next, I stir-fried about half of the reserved aromatic mixture in a tablespoon of oil over medium heat, just until it was fragrant. Then I added half a pound (225 g) of ground (or hand-chopped if you have the energy) pork, and fried it until cooked through and no longer pink, breaking it up with a wooden spatula as it progressed. I transferred this to a bowl and set it aside.

I now moved on to the main ingredient: about a pound (450 g) of long rather than bulbous eggplants. These could be the small “Japanese” variety or longer ones like those in the accompanying photo – or it could be tiny ones, such as Fairy Tale eggplants, which you’d merely cut in half. The problem with big, round varieties is that they are hard to cut it into chunks all of which have some skin – and the skin provides some of the texture you want.

To form chunks, I “roll cut” the eggplant (which will work only on elongated varieties): this entails making a diagonal (ca. 45º) cut, then rolling the eggplant a quarter turn (90º) and making another diagonal cut and continuing to roll and cut until done. There are YouTube movies illustrating this.

As with the meat, I stir-fried the remainder of the aromatics in oil until fragrant, then added the eggplant and cooked it over medium heat until tender but not reduced to a mush, adding oil when it began to look a trifle too dry. This took 10 or 11 minutes, but “Japanese” or Fairy Tale eggplants will take a little less time. You may wish to cover the pan for a couple of minutes during the cooking time; this will help with even cooking.

Nearly done. Over medium heat, add the cooked pork and stir well to combine; half a minute later stir in the peppers, and when warmed through add the sauce mixture. Reduce it slightly to form a glazy but still liquid sauce, probably no more than half a minute. Finish with a big handful of cilantro/coriander (optional for those who hate it) and another of chopped scallion greens.

Serve with lots and lots of plain rice. So much flavor: spicy from the chili sauce but also from the large amount of ginger; a well rounded sweetness from brown sugar; sourness from the vinegar; savoriness from the meat – and pure, juicy joy from those delicious peppers and eggplants.

As part of a less faux Chinese meal – one comprising other dishes as well – this would serve six people easily; eaten as the sole dish, the three of us were happily full by the time we’d finished it.

Edward Schneider
For this eggplant dish, the first thing to be cooked is ripe red peppers
Edward Schneider
Beautiful eggplant and locally grown ginger (!) determined dinner
Edward Schneider
Cut the peppers into lozenges: think of dice on the diagonal
Edward Schneider
Briefly sauté the peppers with chopped ginger
Edward Schneider
The aromatics: scallions, ginger, garlic
Edward Schneider
Once the peppers are done, use half the aromatics to flavor your ground pork
Edward Schneider
Roll-cut the eggplant into one-bite chunks
Edward Schneider
Cook the eggplant with the remaining aromatics (including Chinese chili sauce from a jar) until tender
Edward Schneider
When the eggplant is tender, return the meat to the pan, then the peppers
Edward Schneider
Nearly done
Edward Schneider
Off the heat, finish with scallion greens and cilantro
Edward Schneider
The finished dish