Saturday, March 19, 2011

Manna from my backyard

Autumn. Harvest time for the summer crops, and the crops in my vegetable garden that did so well this season were firm and glossy eggplants, and the ever delightful and reliable tomatoes, filled with summer sunshine.

Our vegetable garden is not that big and you don't actually need much room to produce quite an impressive crops. In fact, its possible to get an impressive amount of produce even from plants grown in pots  on a balcony or a courtyard. If you have sun, organic matter rich soil and some water, you will be amazed at what lands in your kitchen.

Along with my usual herbs,we grew: broccoli, green beans, capsicums, chili and garlic. My vegetable patch is not too big, only about 3 x 7 meters, but the yields are sometimes more than we can eat. This year we used a grafted variety of eggplant which means that they have been connected to the stem of a different plant. The result is that the plant receives more nutrients through the superior stem and these yielded at least 6-8 fruit per plant.

We give some away of course but today when I opened the drawer where my tomatoes ripen, I discovered it was FULL. There was no waiting to be done. These babies had to be eaten today. And what is the best way to use up about 3kg of various varieties of tomatoes and 8 eggplants?

Eggplant parmigiana of course!

So I set about peeling the tomatoes, and cooking them down into a sauce with homegrown garlic, a chili, fresh herbs also from the backyard, and some olive oil and seasoning of salt and black pepper. (We bought the oil though. Sadly we are not that good....not yet anyway!)

Tomato Sauce

2-3 kg fresh tomatoes, skinned, deseeded, & chopped or 4 tins of tomato
3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
1 finely chopped chili
a few sprigs of fresh oregano
2 bay leaves
4 stalks of parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Crumb Topping

1.5 cups fresh bread crumbs
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
4 stalks finely chopped parsley
1.2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt & black pepper

Cooking the tomatoes down needs to be the first step because the big secret of any really good tomato based sauce is cooking it for as long as possible. I heat the garlic, chili and oil up together to soften but not brown the garlic, then add the tomatoes. Add the bay leaves and seasoning. I throw in the oregano still on the stalks and remove them later. I cooked this sauce for 3 hours and that would be my absolute minimum, especially using fresh tomatoes. When I am ready to stop cooking the sauce, I add in the chopped parsley and then turn off the heat.

Then on to the preparation of the eggplants. I always peel strips off the eggplants before slicing, so that I still get some skin but not a whole skin covered slice at each end, and I slice them lenghtwise, about 1 cm thick. You can fry then in a pan if you want but I prefer to brush them in oil and roast them on trays because it takes way less time and makes way less mess. I roast them in a hot oven for 10 - 15 minutes until they are soft and golden but not hard and crisp.
Like pretty much everything with me, I like to add my own twist. The twist here is some very yummy sourdough bread crumbs baked on top. I combine about 2 cups of freshly made breadcrumbs with 2 cloves of garlic, 2 or 3 big pinches of salt, several grinds of black pepper, 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese, and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. 

Once your sauce and eggplant slices are cooked, and the crumbs are prepared, all that remains is assembling the dish for the final bake.
 I don't like my parmegiano too cheesy so I skip the traditional mozzarella and use only grated parmesan sprinkled between the layers. By all means, if you want the mozzarella component, go ahead and add it in.

I start with an earthenware dish and layer with eggplant slices. Then top with some of the tomato sauce, but not too much. It doesn't need to be swimming in sauce. the eggplant, after all, is really the star of this dish, and I don't want it's delicacy overwhelmed with cheese and sauce.

The bread crumb layer is really popular with my boys and I think it gives this dish a textural element that allows it to transcend the ordinary,(as yummy as that ordinary really is already!)
You can serve this with any main course meat dish but its perfectly lovely to have as a main meal with just a vegetable or side salad accompanying. It's also an excellent alternative to the ho hum pasta, rice or potato salad that turns up at BB Q's and
Can you imagine how satisfying it is to go outside and collect a whole load of ingredients and prepare them into the picture above? The only non homegrown ingredients were the oil, cheese, bread, salt and pepper.

Growing any produce, even if it's just a few herbs in pots is so gratifying. In an age where we have a device or a phone app t do pretty much all the thinking for us, going outside, picking something off a plant to throw in a pot for our dinner remains a life affirming action! The amounts I used here would feed a large serving to 6 or 8, which is how many I usually cook for even though its only 2 adults and 2 kids here, because we love leftovers and feel terribly disappointed if there is none left at the end of the meal.

Have you grown anything in your vegetable garden? How much produce did you end up with? What did you do with it all..... Bottling? Gifting? Setting the kids up with a stall to sell it outside the house?
(My boys would love to do that...)

Let me hear all  your veggie patch tales!

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