Sunday, August 12, 2007

Alone in the Kitchen...

Several weeks ago, I was thrilled to be sent a preview copy of "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" by Riverhead Books. I love thinking about food and reading about food as much as I love cooking it and eating it. The subject of the book is an interesting one- It is a collection of 20+ essays, all about cooking for oneself and eating alone. I have to say- this was the most interesting and engaging bit of food writing I have read in several months- it seems that the subject evokes some pretty interesting thoughts, both from the editor, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, and all of the contributors. In fact, my mother was visiting when the book arrived, and she read it cover to cover before I even got a chance to touch it. She was quite amused by the theme of the book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

For most of the days since I set up my first kitchen in NYC, I often ate cozy dinners with V and boisterous dinners with my roommate and the parade of assorted friends who would troop through our apartment. I did have days and months of cooking and eating alone, however, and they always coincided with the times when I was busiest and most stressed out at work. Confronted with the prospect of cooking for myself, I would find myself singularly uninspired. I would often go into the kitchen, stand around for a while, sigh, then drink a glass of orange juice and go off to bed. This was a little disturbing- if I love cooking and routinely make full meals for the everyone else, why don't I care enough to feed myself? So I was delighted to find this paradox addressed in some of the essays.

As Jenni Ferrari-Adler says in the book, "A good meal is like a present, and it can feel goofy, at best, to give yourself a present. On the other hand, there is something life affirming in taking the trouble to feed yourself well, or even decently".

In Ann Pratchett's words, "Do I not believe that I am entitled to the same level of tenderness that I extend to others? Or is it, in fact, a greater level of self-love to not put myself through the hassle of making dinner?"

Ben Karlin makes a great point when he says, "I realized the secret ingredient in most great cooking is the confidence of others-the look in their eyes, the nods of encouragement and amazement that what they are eating is so good and you were responsible for it".

Laurie Colwin brings up the issue of the foods we eat when we eat alone by saying, "Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep-fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam." The food I ate alone were not so much bizarre as they were uncharacteristic. On my home-alone nights, I often ate things I would never dream of eating: microwaved frozen French fries, anyone? How about a whole bag of potato chips, with ketchup as a dip?

Obession with particular foods seems to be another hallmark of eating alone. Beverly Lowry says, "...I have routinely stuck to certain dishes, cooking them over and over again, until in memory, the place and the dish merge and become a single event". There are essays about obessive years spent making and eating black beans, spaghetti, instant noodles that tell me that I am not alone. Oh yes, I went through my phases too, of comfort-and-convenience foods- there was a peanut butter sandwich phase, then a poha phase, which ended prematurely when the mega-packet of rice flakes ran out and I refused to make a trip to Queens to buy another...followed by a bread-pizza phase (pepperidge farm sliced bread, topped with pasta sauce and sprinkled with pre-shredded cheese)...Oh, I shudder to think of the things I have eaten for dinner, all consumed while being propped up in bed, in the flickering glow of the TV.

Not all home-alone cuisine is as mortifying as the stuff I ate. Some essays talk about signature dishes that are perfected while one is alone in the kitchen. Dan Chaon, for instance, writes about making big pots of chili, stating that "Cooking chili made me feel festive, even though I was alone in my apartment, as if I would soon be surrounded by a large group of happy people".

And what is it about eggplants and cooking for oneself? Laurie Colwin talks about living on eggplant in the essay that gives the book its title. Recently, two bloggers confessed that if they were to cook for themselves, it would be eggplants/ brinjals that they would cook! So, without further ado, an eggplant recipe...

We do associate eggplants with their lovely deep purple color, don't we? In fact, in Marathi, a particularly fetching shade of royal purple is admiringly called vangi color, generally when referring to lustrous silk sarees and fabrics. So I was a little startled to see this fellow in the market:
I mean, you often see patterned purple-white eggplants of different sizes, but this one is totally monochromatic. Apparently, the white eggplant is the oldest cultivated eggplant, with some suggesting that the egg-colored and egg-shaped globes were the reason for calling it an eggplant in the first place. Today, these albino varietals are cultivated more as a novelty and the purple ones are the commonest ones. I used the white eggplant just as I would any other eggplant: not bothering to peel it. It tasted tender and delicious!

I used the eggplant in a signature Sicilian dish called caponata. The first time I ever tasted caponata was when our Sicilian friend made it, and it was the most complex and delightful mixture of flavors- fried cubes of eggplant, peppers, onion, tomato mingled with bits of olives and tiny capers. In making "real" caponata, olive il is used in a manner that can only be described as abundant, bountiful, copious! My stingy less-oil version (adapted from a Food Network recipe) turns out more like a stew, but is very tasty all the same. The raisins and sugar in the recipe result in a lovely savory-sweet flavor profile. Next time, I will also throw in some olives. Caponata is wonderful at room temperature, making it perfect picnic food. It also tastes better if made a day before serving.

Eggplant Caponata Sandwich

(adapted from Giada de Laurentiis' recipe, makes about 6 servings)
Here is how I made this (with substitutions according to what I had on hand). For the full recipe, please refer to the link above.
1. Dice a medium eggplant and saute in 3-4 T olive oil until it starts to soften.
2. Add 1 C diced sweet yellow peppers and saute for a few minutes more.
3. Add 1 medium choppped onion and saute until the onion is transluscent.
4. Add 2 C diced tomatoes (with juice), 2 T golden raisins, 1 t dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste.
5. Cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring often.
6. Turn off the heat, then stir in 1 t sugar, 2-3 T balsamic vinegar and 1 T capers.

1. Picnic version: Pack your favorite rolls such as demi-baguettes or ciabatta (halved) in a paper bag, mozzarella slices in one box, and caponata in a second box. Assemble sandwiches right before you eat.
2. Toasted version (If the temperature outside is a 108 degrees F and the picnic has to be relocated to your living room): Halve the roll, place slices of fresh mozzarella cheese on the bottom half, and toast until the cheese melts and the bread gets crispy. Stuff with a generous amount of the caponata and serve right away.

Other ways to use caponata...
1. As a spread for crackers or crostini (little toasts).
2. As a pasta sauce, thinned down with some pasta water if necessary.

The Eggplant Caponata Sandwich is my entry to Anupama's Picnic Food Event. Click here for the round-up, full of great ideas for picnic fare!


  1. Same with me Nupur, I have poha phase or dahi bhat phase when I am alone. When I eat these I dream of pav bhaji, dosa etc and wish some batter was ready in the fridge :)
    Caponata's recipe is nice. Pictures are cool. I am seeing a white eggplant for the first time :)

  2. White egg plant!! it looks so pretty. does it tastes the same as the purple one? lovely, satisfying sandwich. I too love some of Giada's recipes.

  3. I didn't know that the white eggplant is an older variety. I see them in the market occasionally. This book is definitely on my reading list.

  4. I have never seen a white eggplant before! That looks soo ummm... white!!:-)

    Your sandwich looks good & the recipe sounds simple.The addition of balsamic vinegar is a nice touch.I love watching Giada's show on the FN.
    On another note, saw a couple of your pics at the BlogHer conference.You look so pretty!
    Congrats on the new job & hope you are doing well!

  5. In reading your post, memories of lonely nights during my grad school days came flooding back! I had turned to upma for ultimate comfort, shocking my mom (and myself) given that I'd make mega fuss back home on upma days :) And I don't even want to think about the canned tortellini or the bag of chips or PB&J I ate for dinner ;)

    I have seen Giada making caponata on FN. I'll try your less oil version! It looks scrumptious. Never seen a white eggplant before!

  6. Lovely post! and how true :-D. I mostly eat my meals alone.....and it indeed is a humungous effort to cook for just oneself!! so end up having strange things such as bread and daal, bread and sabzi, bread pizzas etc etc. On the other hand, it used to be such a different feeling to dine with my house mate, when i was living in Boston.....or even when my friends used to visit me here!

    and that eggplant and the caponata look simply gorrgeous!! fantastic sandwich, totally my type of food!

  7. Tell me about the phases. Having lived alone for 9 years since I left home and before I got married last year :-)

    I saw white eggplants just this morning again... that too in our local market. Will buy them and try your sandwich.


  8. I can identify with the drinking a glass of orange juice and going to bed. My mom would eat cold rice, salt and chilli powder mixed together when she had to eat alone!

  9. White eggplant almost sounds like a rare white elephant ;). Oddly haven't had to ever cook for one till date, but I really like the idea behind the book!

  10. I'm looking forward to reading that book - it's a subject I can certainly relate to!

    Believe it or not, I'm just beginning to get acquainted with eggplant. It's one of those things I avoided in the past. I'll have to try your caponata - it sounds delicious!

  11. this book seems interesting! I too am surprised by the fact that when i am alone, I tend to make upma or maggi for my self...these dishes have become synonymous to me being alone, but when it comes to cooking for others, I have unlimited ideas. :)
    Never seen a white eggplant before...caponata looks delicious and comforting for those lonely meals :)

  12. Archana, ooh, dahi bhaat did I forget to go through that one? :) True, when we are eating these hastily-put-together meals, thoughts of other yummy food are always in the mind!

    Sharmi, It tasted very much like the fact even milder and more tender. The sandwich was really very satisfying and filling!

    Lydia, I was surprised too...but that is what I read in several places. I think you will love this book!

    TBC, I know is so starkly white :) I used balsamic because I did not have red wine vinegar on hand, and honestly, I did not want to buy a bottle for this one recipe. Balsamic I do use quite a bit.
    Thanks for the wishes and the compliment :) you are too kind!

    Roopa, upma...yes, another one-dish comfort supper! So true, I never liked upma too much as a kid either :) now I lap it up! Canned tortellini :D never had the courage to try that yet!

    Musical, bread tastes so good while dining alone! and with Indian is just so filling and yummy! You will love this sandwich, it is simple to throw together if you have the ingredients stocked up.

    Raaga, then you have lots of stories on this theme! Good to know that your market has white eggplants too!

    Sra, your mom's dinner sounds like it would hit the spot! filling, salty, spicy, what more can you ask for?

    Dhana, doesn't it? It looks really odd when you are so used to the purple ones! The book is good foodie reading, I enjoyed it!

    Tee, so true! Maggi has saved the day so many times for me :)

  13. hi Nupur, I have never seen white eggplant, though I knew why egg plants were called that.
    I must say that I missed your A-Z this weekend. Thanks for thies very entertaining blog-event

  14. I have this on reserve at the library!

    I am single and live alone. I LOVE cooking for others - and really enjoy when my Mom & Dad come visit for a few months in the winter. But I equally enjoy cooking for myself. For me it is creative, relaxing and kind of meditative. It can't be rushed, it is alchemic (whole greater than sum of the parts) and feels wholesome and cozy. I find it restorative. Why should I eat badly because I don't have a companion? I never really mind cooking for myself, unless I am super tired.

    OTOH I also have my nights of eating questionable dinners - plain rice with ghee and podis; pasta with butter and parmesean; and defrosted chicken soup figure prominently here. This is usually a question of wrung-out tiredness rather than feeling wierd about cooking for myself though.

  15. Love your capanata, Nupur. We get the white eggplant here in the Caribbean too! We also get the purple-skinned ones. I like both kinds. Did I tell you my mom is an eggplant-junkie :)

  16. Caponata on crostini is my choice. Love the crunchy bread and the meaty topping. I follow the same recipe too:)

  17. I'd eat rice when cooking for myself! Get too much roti all the time. :-)

    I have everything except the capers which I will have to skip. For the next few months I have the liberty to eat bread at mealtimes too - so sandwiches with stuffings on the line of a subzi are just what I am looking for.

  18. Nupur, thank you for the excellent post. It seems counter-intuitive to force yourself to take care of yourself, but really, cooking a decent, home meal is one of the best ways to do so.
    Kindness *must* be a practice to oneself---in order to keep being able to extend it to others.
    It's so simple that it's hard---like most of the great things in life!

  19. wow..that's a new recipe..never heard of and never seen a white eggplant before..great going nupur!how's ur new job??

  20. well nupur....any time for potato fries in sauce dip...just love them.....great to read your post...brings back lot of memories of the time alone...though I have never been or cooked for myself...unfortunate...but I have had the fancy of making such things for me and others at home...:)...

    We call the white eggplants as the "Nattu Vankai"..which means the original ones...


  21. I've never seen a white eggplant before Nupur, now you've made me want to hunt the farmer's markets around my are to taste one!

    Love the Caponata recipe. Although I've never had a chance to taste it, I'm sure it would highly appeal to an eggplant lover like me. Ohh, and need I add, a wonderful review! I enjoyed every page of the book as well! :)

  22. This was such a lovely post Nupur...I can so relate to everyone's feelings about cooking alone. I have done the sigh-and-down-some-juice routine too :)
    Speaking of phases, I am in the middle of my thesis, and going through a *major* sweet corn soup phase. I work into the wee hours, and the soup (made with canned cream style corn from Target) with lots of green chilli and bits of carrots and mushrooms is sanity ladled into a bowl :)...and something I reach out for at least 3 nights a week!

  23. This book was promoted as book of the week, this week at our library and before I could get my hand on it all the copies were issued. :( But I plan to get my hand on it sooooon!! :)

    Not an eggplant fan....... but this makes me want to try it. :)

  24. Saju, I missed the event this Sunday too :) I'm glad I had this post to work on, so I could still keep busy!

    Diane, I hope you get your hands on it soon...I think you will enjoy it very much. It is wonderful to know how much you enjoy cooking for yourself (you articulated it so beautifully)!
    That has been my problem- having to cook alone only at those times when I was completely stressed out at work and totally sapped of energy for any kind of cooking. Although, rice with ghee and podi is a treat any time :)

    Cynthia, your mom has great taste :) eggplants are sooo yummy!

    Suganya, totally...crunchy bread goes so well with this! I do like this recipe, but will add some olives next time.

    Anita, true, I can't even imagine ever taking the trouble to make rotis for myself!
    I'm wondering : would pickled/ in-brine amla be a substitute for the capers? Although the dish would be very tasty even without those, of course!

    Neroli, very true! It is simple but it is difficult to do :)

    Madhuli, I haven't ever seen them in Maharashtra either, although they seem to be popular in other parts of India! The new job is really fun, thanks for asking :)

    Srivalli, oh, good to know the Tamil name of the white eggplant, and that it actually means "original ones". Thanks for sharing that!

    Meena, it was fun to try it :) I going off now to read your interview with the editor...

    AA, now that is one MAJOR phase :) having gone through that a year ago, I can only say- it is all truly worth it in the end :)
    Good luck, my dear! If you lived closer, I would have sent you some lunches and dinners. The sweet corn soup totally sounds like it would hit the spot!

    Coffee, I think even non-eggplant-fans will like this dish :) and I hope you get your hands on this book soon!

  25. HI Nupur,

    Interesting post. I love eggplants so I'm sure I'll try the recipe soon.

    Its interesting that when I was a student I really was very good about cooking for myself- in fact that is how I really learnt to cook as my mom was a brilliant cook in India and I really didn't enter the kitchen at home. However, I didn't realize how much I had changed after marriage and how much I enjoyed cooking for my husband until he went on a business trip. It was packaged soup and frozen pizza for a week. I didn't even go to the grocery store to get fresh fruit and vegetables- just didn't have the motivation to cook. I guess I'm used to having an audience appreciating my effort:) If its just me, it doesn't seem to be worth the trouble. Disturbing but true:( I think I'll have to work on that the next time my husband is out of town:)


  26. white eggplant looks so clean and really *eggish* as the name sounds apart from vangi/vankaya/baingan..
    loved to read the write-up and you really are a cool blogger, there is so much to learn from you.

    That entry for picnic event is simply delicious..

  27. That sandwich looks super tasty. I have really been enjoying the eggplants so far this year.

  28. Saw your name in many blogs and decided to visit you.
    ou have a nice recipe collection. I must go through leisurely.

  29. Nupur,

    I tried this recipe last year, and it was delicious. Now that summer is here, am planning on preparing more of this sandwich, esp for the beach-side picnics.

  30. Hey Nupur!
    hope u are doing great! has been a while since i dropped in to say hi! :)
    Just tried this along with a a few suggestions from Saffron Trail's version. Yummy!! :) thanks a bunch!


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