I’ve always liked the idea of eggplant, but – you know there had to be a “but” coming – eggplant and I have never really gotten along. For a long time it has officially taken a spot right next to cilantro on the “foods that I find absolutely repulsive” list. And I have found, just as I have with cilantro, that there are eggplant lovers and there are eggplant haters. But I want to like it so much. People who like it completely rave about it. You can use it as a meat substitute in certain dishes, grill it, bake it, fry it, and turn it into baba ghanoush. I feel like I’m missing out on something big but each and every time I’ve attempted to make eggplant for myself I find it to be what I would imagine slimy sponges would feel like in my mouth.
The most depressing thing is to come across a recipe that sounds like it would be so good except for the fact that eggplant plays a major role. I find this with a lot of Ottolenghi recipes and that has to be my only serious complaint about his books. I usually pass those eggplant recipes by, never to return to them. At least, that is, until now. I was skimming though Maria Speck’s Ancient Grains for Modern Meals and got excited when I stated reading a recipe for Fire-Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and…ugh. Eggplant. There would have to be eggplant. But the rest sounded so good, a hearty vegetable and grain stew with warming Moroccan flavors; if only it didn’t have that one ingredient. But then I started reading through the recipe and noticed that the eggplant had a special preparation, microwaving it to “remove some of the moisture for a more supple outcome.” I was getting more tempted by the minute, and I am certainly glad that I followed through.
So I did microwave the eggplant, and took an extra step of squashing it between two plates with paper towels between to get out even more moisture, and found that the result reminded me quite a lot of mushrooms. I salted the eggplant beforehand too, having heard that this removes moisture and the bitter flavor. I can’t totally attest to any proven science with these methods here but all I know is that it produced palatable eggplant and that is good enough for me.
The eggplant joins the stewpot with loads of onion, carrots, three types of tomatoes (fire-roasted, sun-dried, and paste), and an interesting addition of cinnamon and raisins to create an intensely flavored, slightly sweet broth. Chickpeas and loads of cooked farro add body and thickness making a completely stick-to-your ribs stew great with a loaf of crusty bread. It just so happens that I got a nasty cold shortly after making a big pot of this and I have been certainly glad to have a fridge full of stew around this week. So, for all of the eggplant haters out there, I have found the solution though, it’s not totally off the hated-foods list yet but perhaps a little further back in line.
Fire Roasted Tomato Stew with Farro and Eggplant
Adapted from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
½ cup uncooked pearled farro
1 eggplant, about 1 pound
¼ pound pancetta or bacon, cubed
1 onion, diced
1 glove of garlic, minced
½ tsp salt
½ pound carrots, quartered and diced in ½ inch pieces
¾ tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can of fire-roasted tomatoes
2½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup chopped oil-packed sundried tomatoes
¼ tsp. cracked black pepper
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 tsp. sugar
Begin by cooking the farro. Bring about 2 cups of water to a boil with a pinch of salt. Add the farro, stir, and reduce to a simmer. Cover the pot and let cook for 20-25 minutes until tender but still a little chewy. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare the eggplant. Cut the eggplant into eighths lengthwise and cut each strip into ¼ inch pieces. Arrange half on a place and microwave for 2 minutes. Remove, place 2 paper towels overtop and press another plate firmly down on top of the eggplant. Transfer eggplant to a bowl and repeat the process with the remaining eggplant.
To prepare the stew, add the pancetta to a Dutch oven and cook over medium until crispy. Transfer to a plate and discard all but 2 Tbs. of the fat. If you want to make this vegetarian, skip this step and just start with 2 Tbs. of olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, and ¼ tsp. of salt to the pancetta fat and cook over medium for about 8 minutes until the onion is golden. Stir in the carrots, eggplant, cooked pancetta, and cinnamon and cook, stirring, for a minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the canned tomatoes and scrape any burnt bits from the bottom. Add in the broth, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, chickpeas, pepper, and the remaining ¼ tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 25 minutes or until the carrots are tender.
To finish, stir in the farro and the tsp. of sugar. Season with salt and pepper for taste and add a little water if its too thick for you. Serve a heaping bowlful with a drizzle of olive oil, the yogurt, and parsley with buttered bread on the side.