It’s true that my mother was a splendid cook, but that doesn’t mean I liked everything she made. One dish that I particularly detested was eggplant casserole, though my parents both enjoyed it immensely and viewed it as a special treat. In my estimation, eggplant casserole didn’t have a lot to recommend it, being less like a casserole and more like a green mush. Moreover, it was made from a vegetable I didn’t like even before it was mixed with butter, breadcrumbs, onion and eggs. The best part of the casserole was the cheese melted across the top of it.
If you’d like to see an illustrated version of eggplant casserole, just look at the old “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip where a green glob of food comes to life on Calvin’s dinner plate and hurls taunts at him, daring him to consume it.
I have never made anything with eggplant, specifically because I hated my mother’s eggplant casserole. I have enjoyed the occasional eggplant Parmesan and baba ghanoush, but I do not seek out the eggplant; rather, it accidentally comes to me at a dinner party or Middle Eastern buffet. I have not sampled eggplant chips or pickled eggplant. Although I’d be game, I’m not going to go out and buy those items any more than I’d buy pickled pigs’ feet or headcheese. (At least eggplant, in its defense, doesn’t oink and have toenails.)
However, when I came across my mother’s recipe for the dreaded dish, I felt nothing but a fond sort of nostalgia, tinged by curiosity. Was it really as terrible as I recall? What would happen if I tried to make it? Would I hate it, or would my tastes have changed enough that I might relish it in the same way my parents did? Moreover, would my husband and daughter praise me for creating this culinary delight or fling kitchen implements at me in horror of the bloblike thing besmirching their Blue Willow plates?
There was only one way to find out: Get in the kitchen and get cooking. It’s the right time of year, since eggplants ripen in July, August and September. You may be growing eggplant in your garden or you may see them at the farmers market and think, “What can I do with that big weird purple thing?” It’s actually a berry of the nightshade family, botanically speaking. Why is it called eggplant when it doesn’t look remotely egglike? It’s because in 1763, when the word “eggplant” was first recorded in England, the cultivar eaten in the British Isles was small and white like a chicken egg.
There are other varieties and other names, since eggplant is eaten all over the world. In France, you may eat an aubergine. When you’re in Italy, you’ll eat melanzana, or “crazy apple.” When vacationing in the Caribbean, you’ll eat a brown jolly. The eggplant you see in local grocery stores is most likely the American globe variety, but you may also encounter the elongated, purple Japanese eggplant, the pumpkinlike Turkish eggplant, the small, green Thai eggplant, the striped zebra or Sicilian eggplant or the tiny, cherrylike Indian eggplant. Some eggplants do have a bitter flavor but other varieties are sweeter, like the purple-and-white fairy tale eggplant.
Peel a medium-large globe eggplant and cut in ½-inch slices. I have to say, about 30 seconds into this task, I was already deeply skeptical. The eggplant was spongy and mottled with tiny yellow seeds. Was I supposed to take the seeds out? I didn’t know; I decided to leave them in. I put all the eggplant slices in a big pot of well-salted water and boiled them until they seemed tender. (This took about half an hour. I passed the time by eating cheese.)
I drained the eggplant, noting that it had turned a peculiar gray-green. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and mashed it thoroughly with a potato masher. While it was still in the pot, I mixed in ¼ cup butter, 1 cup breadcrumbs and 2 beaten eggs. The eggplant retained some liquid but the breadcrumbs soaked it up nicely.
At this point, I got curious and had a tentative bite. It was delicious. I thought, “Where have you been all my life, eggplant casserole?” Waiting for me to grow up, apparently.
I took another bite and realized I’d forgotten the onions. I diced half an onion and sauteed it in olive oil, rather than throwing it in raw, as my mother’s recipe instructed. I am not ashamed to say I also grated and sauteed about 1/2 cup zucchini with the onions. (The zucchini situation at our house is dire. The garden produces two or three zucchini a day and we’re using them for paperweights and doorstops.) I mixed the onion and zucchini with the eggplant and it tasted even better. Mom’s recipe said to add salt and pepper to taste, but I used lemon pepper instead of black pepper and I threw in ½ teaspoon each minced fresh oregano and thyme.
I spooned the mixture into my Corningware Cornflower 3-quart baking dish and covered the casserole with slices of cheddar-Jack cheese. Muenster would also be good, I thought, or spicy pepper Jack. I’d be interested to know what smoked Gouda might taste like, or a mellow Swiss or even goat cheese or feta. You know what? Just put any cheese on there that you like.
I baked the casserole at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the cheese bubbled and the kitchen smelled wonderful. The recipe just goes to show anything can taste delicious with enough butter and cheese.