The Tao of Eggplant: 10 lessons learned

By Bill Colvard -

Life is like an eggplant. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Or perhaps a less Gumpian, but equally cheesy, simile is in order: Cooking an eggplant is like loving a redhead. The situation is volatile and success is never guaranteed, but when all goes well, the gates of heaven are near at hand.

In short, the risks are great, but the possible rewards are greater.

These meditations on the Tao of eggplant were brought on by two solid days of cooking eggplant. My new gardening pal, Melissa Cochran, brought me a sack full of eggplants just before the weekend: several big Roman ones and a whole bunch of the goose-egg-sized ones. They were so beautiful they deserved my very best effort to do them justice. Which, as I said before, took two days. But when I was done, I had a big pan of eggplant parmigiana, a big bowl of ziti alla Norma and a fair-sized dish of ratatouille. And each of the three was the best batch of that particular dish I have ever made.

Probably because I did devote two days to the endeavor. Because eggplant gives you back exactly what you put into it. If you don’t skimp on time and don’t skip steps, it will reward you with deliciousness that is unmatched by any other vegetable. But try to save some time and skip the salting and draining, or don’t peel it just right, or skimp or skip in any way and you’ve got an inedible mess of slop on your hands. And when I say inedible, I mean it can literally be so bad it’s impossible to eat.

But when it’s right, it’s a glorious experience of silky, meaty deliciousness that is without compare. There are several metaphors for life right there:

1 — Big rewards demand a big risk.

2 — Don’t skimp.

3 — If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

If I had to pick my favorite dish in all the world, I’d have to pick eggplant parmigiana, but I rarely order it in restaurants because I have been burned so many times. It’s not just amateur home cooks who can turn a perfect eggplant into a big old pile of slop, chefs in perfectly respectable Italian restaurants do it every day. Restaurants who have no trouble turning out a menu full of delicious items often stumble on the eggplant. And I can’t repeat often enough, with eggplant, it’s not just a stumble. It’s either a raving success or a dismal failure.

After spending some time trying to master eggplant cookery myself, I’ve finally figured out what goes wrong in those otherwise serviceable restaurants. Shortcuts were taken. Someone got a little too concerned with the “Time is money” paradigm of success.

And there’s another life lesson:

4 — Be wary of shortcuts. Taking the easy way doesn’t always take you to the place you want to go.

5 — Fully commit to the task at hand. Give it all you have.

At one point last summer, I found myself in possession of a whole bunch of yellow squash, and it occurred to me that I could make squash parmigiana. I’d follow my recipe for eggplant parmigiana but substitute the squash for eggplant. It made sense. Eggplant is delicious breaded and fried. So is squash. Why wouldn’t it work?

I don’t know, but it didn’t. There was no “there” there. The squash just sort of disappeared into all the cheese and sauce. Which is not to say, it was bad. It just wasn’t good. Especially if you consider the massive amounts of cheese and sauce that were present.

Which brings us to a few more life lessons:

6 — Beware of imitations.

7 — But never be afraid to try something new because experimentation is the way to new knowledge.

Sadly, in this case, the new knowledge was that squash parmigiana is not very good, but to coin another kitchen metaphor: If you’re going to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.

This latest eggplant adventure probably turned out as well as it did because I have recently purchased a Lidia Bastianich cookbook, “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes,” which I highly recommend. Which brings us to another life lesson:

8 —Never let your pride get in the way of taking advice from an expert.

With Lidia’s expert guidance in hand, tempered by my own experience and situation — as much as I love fontina cheese, my budget does not permit me to be flinging it around by the pound as Lidia often suggests, prompting me to select more affordable, locally available cheeses — the weekend of eggplant worked out better than ever before.

Which brings us to one of the most valuable life lessons:

9 — Trust yourself. Trust your instincts and follow them. Follow them with confidence and zest and joy.

And hope with all your heart, that you won’t need to exercise the last, but greatest, life lesson that eggplant teaches time and time again:

10 — If, despite your best efforts, it all goes to crap, accept the responsibility for failure. Own it. Mop up your mess, see if the dog will eat your inedible slop, order some takeout (preferably of the non-eggplant variety), and live to fight another day.

By Bill Colvard

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.