Woah Nellie!

Baked Egg Plant: The pressure is on after last month’s epic fail

by Mary Jo David

Oh Nellie—how you let us all down last month! As the garbage hauler left with all but the small test sample of our featured May recipe, I marveled how even the raccoons weren’t interested in the leftovers I had put in the trash. Can you blame them? What should I have expected from a recipe for Scalloped Onions and Peanuts?

After last month’s epic fail, I admit to feeling a bit of trepidation as I scoured through old copies of the Stockbridge Brief-Sun to pick this month’s recipe. It’s a lot of responsibility finding a 100-year-old recipe that is worth the paper it’s printed on. I decided it was time to give Nellie another chance at a vegetable side dish, so this month I picked Baked Egg Plant from the June 7, 1923 newspaper.

Before I started food prepping, I allowed myself to reminisce back to my childhood and early memories of everyday family dinners, with nine of us seated around the table. No one was allowed to leave the table until all of us were finished eating, partly because we were jammed in like sardines. Thankfully, my mom stuck with pretty standard fare—nothing too exotic—because we were expected to eat everything on our plates. As I think about it now, if my mom had ever served Scalloped Onions and Peanuts, we’d probably still be sitting around that table waiting for everyone to finish. (Note to self: Let it go, Mary Jo!)

Back then, when it came to vegetables, my mom prepared a regular rotation of broccoli, green beans, corn, or peas, which I used to swallow whole so I wouldn’t have to taste them! I guess it’s no surprise, then, that I’ve only cooked eggplant twice in my life and neither time was a standout. So this month I’m counting on Nellie to show me what I’ve been missing my whole life.

To her credit, Nellie was more detailed than usual with her Baked Egg Plant recipe. It’s always been my understanding that the reason for sprinkling eggplant with salt and letting it drain was to draw out the moisture from the eggplant. So I was a bit puzzled when, after directing readers to salt the eggplant for an hour and then rinse and drain it, Nellie then had readers place the eggplant in a pot of water to boil it! But who am I to judge, so I followed her directions as written (see accompanying clipping). Googling about salting eggplant resulted in two camps of eggplant cooks—those who think the salting method helps reduce the eggplant’s sponginess and those who think salting eggplant is only necessary when frying it to achieve crispiness.

If you’ve been following this column, you’ll know that, quite frequently, Nellie skimped in her directions when it came to listing ingredient amounts. Although I wasn’t exactly sure what constituted a “small” eggplant, I will say Nellie did a pretty good job this month including amounts for most of the ingredients. However, the recipe calls for a cream sauce, and Nellie leaves it up to the reader to figure out what that is. For this recipe, I used a simple butter and garlic cream sauce from HappilyUnprocessed.com, substituting Nellie’s fresh parsley and thyme herb recommendations instead of the oregano and basil called for in the cream sauce recipe.

After last month’s recipe bust, I took a few liberties to give this recipe a fighting chance at avoiding the garbage bin. For example, instead of using green pepper (which I strongly dislike), I used a red pepper. I also added a quarter cup of grated parmesan cheese and a tablespoon of prepared mustard to the vegetable mixture. I topped the casserole off with panko breadcrumbs and about 1/8 cup of shredded parmesan. And when I make cream sauces, I like to sauté some of the onion from the recipe in with the garlic and butter before adding the milk.

I held off on adding wine to the white sauce, which I usually like to do, because I wanted to make sure I had some wine left to drown my sorrows if the recipe didn’t turn out well!

The aromas out of the kitchen were wonderful while the Baked Egg Plant was in the oven. But I recalled that the Scalloped Onions and Peanuts last month also smelled deceivingly wonderful, so I did not allow today’s aromas to draw me into a false sense of confidence.

Then came the moment of truth. After removing the casserole from the oven and letting it rest for about ten minutes, I dished out two small portions—one for the Royal Taste Tester (my husband) and one for me. I let him go first. What? No wisecracks? And he ate every last bit on his plate! I was reminded of the old Life cereal commercials: “He likes it!”

And he was right. Hats off to Nellie! The recipe is a keeper and one I might consider serving as a side dish, maybe not in June, but perhaps with our Thanksgiving menu.

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