Saturday, November 8, 2008

Spicy Peanut and Eggplant Soup

As fall sets in in newly blue Indiana, soup starts looking better and better. During one of his recent farmers market forays, Iv brought back a late-season eggplant for me, which I turned into the Spicy Peanut and Eggplant soup (p. 147).

You start out by sauteeing some sliced shallots in peanut oil, an idea I was immediately on board with since crispy shallots are a frequent addition to stews in southeast Asian cooking. Once the shallots are brown, but not yet crispy, you remove them and add some cubed eggplant.

I have to take issue with the way Terry and Isa suggest dealing with the eggplant:
  • Peeling eggplant is pointless. Don't bother.
  • Brining eggplant is not completely pointless, but I've never found it to be worth the effort. The idea is to reduce some of the eggplant's bitterness, but I've always found that if you're cooking the eggplant long enough and/or putting it in a highly flavored dish like this one, the bitterness cooks away. Don't bother.
  • The one advantage brining the eggplant brings is that much of the water will already be leached out, so the cooking time on the stove will be a bit shorter, which means you can actually get away with the 1 tablespoon of oil Terry & Isa suggest. You'll want at least two tablespoons when you're starting with raw eggplant cubes.
Anyway, you cook the eggplant. It will look like this when you're ready to pull it off the heat.

Finally, you add a bit more oil to the pot, and add your onions, ginger, hot pepper, and spices. But let's stop here for a minute, because you don't want to follow the book's directions, here, either - and this spot's a bigger deal than the eggplant brining issue. See, Terry & Isa suggest starting out frying the ginger and chile for 30 seconds, then adding, the dry spices and cooking for another 30 seconds, then adding the onion and cooking until soft. If you do it this way, you will curse them, because you're dealing with a relatively high quantity of spices (~1 1/2 tablespoons, all told), a relatively small amount of oil, and relatively low water content in the ginger, pepper, and onion. So what you'll end up with doing it this way is a dry mixture that sticks to your pot while you're trying to cook. Even if you end up not burning the spices, cooking them this way adds significantly to their intensity, and you run a pretty strong risk of an excessively bitter dish, which may not be the result you intend.

Do it this way instead (this is my preferred technique, learned from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking):
  • Fry the onions till soft
  • Add the ginger and chile pepper, cook for an additional minute
  • Add the dry spices, cook for an additional 30-secs to one minute -- you just want them to get very fragrant
Then, and you need to be speedy here, add the diced tomatoes. Terry and Isa tell you not to drain them, but do it...just reserve the juice. You'll cook the onions, spices, etc. with the tomatoes till they get a bit saucy. Then, you can add the juice, the vegetable stock, tomato paste, green beans, eggplant, etc.

And now we're back on track with the recipe. Whew!

After all this mix has boiled for a few minutes, you take out a bit of the broth and emulsify it with 1/2 cup of peanut better, then add it back to the pot and stir it in. This step may look a little unintentionally evocative.

You cover this and let it cook for 30-45 minutes, then serve in bowls with cilantro, lemon juice, and roasted peanuts.

This is good, rich stuff, ideal for a cool night. Nicely spicy, but not too much so. The eggplant retains its form, but virtually melts in your mouth. The peanut butter adds a nice, deep creamy texture, but the quantity is small enough relative to the other ingredients that the peanut flavor is actually pretty subtle. It was even better for lunch the next day.


Kris said...

This soup is currently simmering and it smells delicious! I love your idea, as a fellow omnivore I think this cookbook does an excellent job of pulling in people who might not otherwise give vegan food the time of day.
Would you freeze this soup? I'm not terribly up on the physics of freezing but I'm not sure I can eat the whole pot in the next couple of days.

we just like vegetables said...

I think this soup is freezable. In my experience the freezer is pretty forgiving to high-fat soups, which this one definitely is.