I've learned a lot about myself this summer. Some lessons were really just reminders of the "me" that fell into a deep slumber last August 7th, and about embracing my own fearlessness. I've never been afraid to take chances, yet when faced with the responsibility of raising my girls all alone, being the sole decision maker—well, that is simultaneously overwhelming and terrifying.
One of the early conversations Mikey and I had when we met was about parenting. We talked about the immense responsibility that comes with rearing little human beings that will contribute positively to the world as a whole. How to best love them and let them know they're the center of your world, but not the world. Back then he said a test should be required to have children, and I still agree with that sentiment. One glance at a newspaper headline is all you need to understand what he meant.
I thought about this the other night as I watched Away We Go. The next morning I awoke, and the movie still fresh on my mind, comforted and reminded me that the sadness of our past needn't be a hindrance—we are the sum of our experiences. The painful parts have the ability to inspire us to dig deep within ourselves.
Sometimes it's the little things that can unravel my sense of being and purpose, like dealing with fussy eaters. That's especially tough on my ego these days. It's like a game of chicken, me sitting at the dinner table looking at all the plates before us, as my daughters systematically wrinkle their noses at each one. I stand firm, take a deep breath, and calmly remind them that it is the last meal before breakfast. Okay, maybe I say it with a little edge in my voice, and a vein bulging in my foreheard. I never claimed to be Mother Teresa. "You don't have to eat, but it's twelve hours before the kitchen opens again" is often my other line of defense against their stares.
A year ago this didn't bother me. Mikey would come home, see the array of homemade food and exclaim he was the luckiest guy alive. Now my culinary confidence lies in the tastebuds of a four year old and nine year old. What I constantly remind myself these days is that I was a picky eater 30 years ago too. Bear was never on my bucket list of things to eat, but it is something I've tried. I'm pretty sure my 8 year old self would've passed out if she'd been told that would happen one day.
My girls generally cobble enough together to go to bed with a full tummy—this is why my dinner tables always have lots of little plates of vegetables, fruit and often pasta. Every now and then I hit a homerun, like with the meal you see here. It went over so well the first day that not one whine was let out when I heated the leftovers for lunch the following day. Isabella actually squealed with delight at getting to eat the eggplant again—eggplant people! The eggplant caused quite a fuss on instagram too, with pleas for the recipe. I'd never actually written it down. The outside is as crunchy as it appears to be, and the inside gives way to a creamy eggplant center. It's also baked, not fried, the key to its crunchiness being a blast of high heat.
The flour amount is an approximation, since the thought to record the recipe came after I had already started breading them. The panko measurement is spot on because luckily I thought to weigh the amount left in the bag after the eggplant was all coated—talk about quick thinking. Still I decided to keep the ingredients "loose" here—baking needs to be exact, a recipe as simple as this eggplant is worthy of winging it when you don't feel like measuring things out.
As for the rest of our meal, I packed some provisions from home for my vacation pantry. That there is fusili a mano from Caputo's, a local Italian shop near my house in Carroll Gardens. And the sauce—oh my god, you must try Marcella Hazan's recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onions. I know, I am very late to this game. For years I resisted making it because growing up sauce always meant using basil and garlic, and butter never ever made the cut. In recent years, I started adding a knob of butter to my marinara sauce, so I did have an idea of how this would add a creamy texture and flavor. The sauce, unless made in batches and frozen, doesn't work for my everyday busy schedule since it takes 45 minutes to cook. On a lazy summer afternoon overlooking Cape Cod Bay, 45 minutes didn't matter, and the scent of simmering tomatoes bathing in a mound of butter didn't even make me blink at the thought of donning a swimsuit later that day.
Crispy Baked Eggplant
Music Pairing: Orange Sky by Alexi Murdoch with Pete Townshend & Rachel Fuller
2 black beauty eggplants, sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
Sea salt, enough to "salt" the eggplant and to season the egg
Extra virgin olive oil, for coating the pan & drizzling
All purpose flour, about 1 cup (145 grams)
Panko breadcrumbs, about 2 1/2 cups (140 grams)
3 large eggs
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Thirty minutes before you're ready to coat and bake the eggplant, you'll need to "salt" them. This helps draw out excess water, as well as any bitterness from it. Using a regular dinner plate, create layers of the eggplant, liberally salting each layer before adding the next one. Cover the layered slices with another dinner plate or baking sheet, and rest a heavy object on top (a cast iron skillet is perfect, but I can also vouch for using a mega-dictionary).
Let the eggplant sit, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Remove the weight, and don't worry about the brownish liquid that has collected on the slices—that was the goal. Transfer the eggplant to a colander in the sink. Run cold water over the slices, making sure to rinse off all of the salt. Lay the slices single-layer in a cloth towel. Roll the towel up, and set the eggplant aside to dry off for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475F (245C). Lightly drizzle two rimmed baking sheets with some of the olive oil. Place the flour and breadcrumbs each in separate shallow dishes (pie plates work very well).
Add the eggs, salt and pepper to a deep bowl, and beat with a fork to combine.
Coat each slice of eggplant as follows: gently press into the flour, flip and gently press again to coat both sides. Use a fork to dip the slice in the egg and lightly coat both sides, shaking off any excess egg. Dip the slice into the panko, using your fingers to brush some crumbs on top, and gently press the eggplant so the crumbs stick. Place the fully-coated slice on the prepared baking sheet.
About halfway through coating the slices, one tray will be full. Drizzle the slices lightly with some oil. Go ahead and bake those slices for 20 to 25 minutes, turning halfway through, until golden on both sides. You can coat the remaining slices, set them on the second tray and then pop them in the oven once the first tray comes out.**
Transfer the slices to a paper-towel lined plate for 1 to 2 minutes to absorb any excess oil. Serve hot, warm or even at room temperature. Leftovers may be stored in a covered container and heated in a 350F oven for 10 minutes.
**Really, I do it this way for efficiency, plus it allows the first tray to cool a bit, so the kids can dig in without burning their mouths once I bring them to the table. You can certainly coat them all at once, and bake both trays, just keep an eye on them, as you may need to alternate the pans in addition to turning each slice halfway through the baking time.