Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cook the Books Club: The School of Essential Ingredients

Imagine a serene restaurant somewhere in the Pacific Northwest where the gentle instructor guides a small group of food lovers in the art of cooking and not so incidentally in understanding how to solve their own problems in life. Students learn not only to overcome their fears in whacking live crabs for the pot and tackling new recipes with confidence, but come to understand themselves better through their work in the kitchen.

Such a place exists in the great novel written by Erica Bauermeister, "The School of Essential Ingredients", which is the current selection of The Cook the Books club, an online foodie book club. Though each reader will no doubt have different interpretations about what the Essential Ingredients might be in cooking and in life, I came away with the idea that love, acceptance, time and self-contemplation should be part of the mix in cooking for one's loved ones.

Our heroine is restaurateur Lillian, whose own story is about an unsettled childhood in which her mother has retreated into years of obsessive book reading after a bruising divorce. The back stories of the other characters at the School of Essential Ingredients are doled out slowly throughout the novel and it is an interesting cast of people with different backgrounds and problems that unfold as the cooking lessons progress.

Bauermeister writes lyrically and there is much to savor in her sensual writing. I found that I wanted and needed to read the book a second time to fully experience the nuances in her prose and I have to say that I enjoyed the rereading even more. There's poetry in there, and philosophy, and delicious bits of foodie prose too, so it was a thoroughly satisfying read that I would recommend highly.

Cook the Books participants read our selected book every other month and then blog up their thoughts along with a culinary dish (and sometimes a whole feast!) inspired by their reading. I had originally planned a CTB post featuring a special dessert that was slow food indeed, highlighting my special appreciation for TIME as one of Essential Ingredients, but then obstacles to my blogging life started to accrue.

After suffering a spate of technical difficulties this steamy summer with the various mechanical devices in my life (fried hard drive on my beloved ten year old computer, car problems, clothes dryer (air drying hasn't been terribly effective this hazy, humid summer), garden hose nozzle, food processor, digital camera, stove burners) I was beginning to wonder if I would be able to get my blog post up for this round of Cook the Books. I am the host this round, so there has been extra pressure to get cracking, but my primary blogging tools have been altered indeed.

I actually had most of a nice, informative post on making a simple syrup of anise hyssop, which I stewed some stone fruit in for a cool, perfumed dessert one of these hot nights, but my photos and musings were zapped inside my old computer. Fortuitously, I was able to figure out how to use my daughter's camera to take some shots of a new dish inspired by our CTB book and after figuring out how to drive on my new computer and its operating system, my blogging is back in business. I think Lillian would be nodding her head at me in approval right now.

What I present to you all then, as my Cook the Books dish, is a cool eggplant salad, featuring the Essential Ingredient of Love. I made this dish for my husband to consume upon his return from a terrifically sweaty and dusty weekend away with my youngest daughter at a softball tournament. Though we packed Dan up a cooler of gluten-free delights to nosh on during the weekend, he was down to snacking on corn chip dust and water by the end of his travels (concession stands at hometown sporting events are notoriously gluten-packed) and when he returned from his exhausting odyssey I was there to comfort him with sweaty kisses, clammy hugs and a bowl of this cooling salad, made with garlic, shallots and basil from our garden.

This dish is adapted from a much-loved and dog-eared staple in my personal cookbook library, Bert Greene's "Greene on Greens".

Fried Eggplant Salad with Shallots, Lemon and Basil

1 large eggplant
Olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Juice of two lemons
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup basil, thinly sliced

Trim ends off eggplant, and then slice in half lengthwise. Slice each section into 1/4 inch thick half moons. Place eggplant slices in a colander in the sink and sprinkle them liberally throughout their layers with about 2 tsp. salt. Let stand 30 minutes.

Using paper towels, brush as much salt off the eggplant slices as you can and give them a squeeze to drain off excess liquid.

Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large frying pan. Place eggplant slices to cover bottom of pan. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and then fry until lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove eggplant to dish lined with paper towels. Add another bit of olive oil to the pan to coat the bottom, heat and then continue frying up all the eggplant.

When all the eggplant is cooked, pour another 2 Tbsp. olive oil into the pan and heat it up. Add shallots and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and golden brown, about 7 minutes.

Find a beautiful serving dish and layer the bottom with a layer of fried eggplant and then some of the fried shallots and garlic. Sprinkle with some of the lemon juice and sliced basil. Sprinkle with a dusting of salt and pepper. Repeat layers twice.

Serves 6. This seemed tastiest served at room temperature, but we also enjoyed it cold straight out of the refrigerator.

I will be posting a roundup of all the savory and exciting blog posts about "The School of Essential Ingredients" after our deadline, which is tomorrow, July 30, 2010. The author herself, Erica Bauermeister, will be serving as the guest judge for our posts, so tune in to Cook the Books over the course of the next week to see what we all thought about the novel.

For our next book selection, we will be reading Madhur Jaffrey's "Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India". Anyone can join in the fun at Cook the Books; all you need to do is read the book, blog about your thoughts and cook up a dish inspired by your reading. Please join us!