Saturday, August 14, 2021

Stuffed eggplant, lemon rice and other summer delights

We're halfway through August! How are you doing? Here in Northeast Georgia, August is the hottest month of the year. Temperatures soar to about 95F (35C) most days and are broken only by occasional furious afternoon thunderstorms. It still feels very much like the peak of summer, but also, since the new school year has started, it feels like we're done with summer and into a new season. 

Vacation pics from
Jekyll Island, a barrier island off the Georgia coast

The school summer break- May through July- went by safely and with some sense of normalcy, which I am extremely grateful for. We were able to take a weeklong beach vacation to the Georgia coast with my sister and nephew. My daughter was able to attend several creative and engaging summer day camps- a sewing camp, art camps, a camp at a barn animal sanctuary, among others- all of the camps being held either outdoors or with indoors with masks. My son graduated from his preschool and started kindergarten at the "big school"- the elementary public school. Our school district has a mask mandate and I am glad the kids get to be in school with their teachers and friends- while staying as safe as possible under the circumstances.

There's a lot of uncertainty about how the coming weeks and months will shape up, with COVID cases rising again locally and nationally- so we are still taking it a day at a time.

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Over the years, I have been a frequent subscriber to CSA boxes, paying local farmers for a regular share of produce and other locally grown food. I restarted my CSA this spring and enjoy picking up a selection of fresh vegetables every week. 

This month's selection has been heavy on some of my favorite vegetables, the stars of summer- okra, eggplant, peppers. There are fresh tomatoes- green ones, red slicers, cherry tomatoes that my kids love to snack on. And fruits too- ripe fresh figs and berries. 

I love all vegetables but eggplant is up there at the top of the list. Growing up, eggplants big and small featured in a lot of everyday curries- stuffed eggplant (bharli vangi), vangi batata- eggplants with potato, eggplant sambar, smoky vangi bharit or mashed eggplant. Eggplant is also a component of the sublime Gujarati winter dish undhiyu

Since moving to the US, I've discovered the different ways in which global cuisines cook eggplant and I adore every single one of them- Italian eggplant parmesan, Middle Eastern baba ghanouj, Thai curries with eggplant, and Sichuan eggplant. 

Surprisingly, several of my close American friends who love Indian food and love vegetables will pointedly say, "all vegetables except eggplant"- they don't care for the taste and texture of eggplant. I think this may be because supermarket eggplant is often tough and bitter. The summer eggplant I've been getting in my veggies boxes, in contrast, is so tender and sweet, and a joy to cook and savor. 

I've been adapting many recipes to the Instant Pot (electric pressure cooker) since my sister got me one a couple of years ago, and this month I discovered that stuffed eggplant (bharli vangi) is so easy and wonderful in the Instant Pot. 

You start by making a tasty stuffing mixture, a paste with savory, sweet and tangy notes. Baby eggplants are washed and have slits cut into them. Then you stuff them with the paste, and pressure cook them for a few minutes with only a bit of water. The result is tender eggplant in a luxurious sauce. I love this dish with a bit of yogurt rice but it is great with lentils, roti, rice or any combination of the above.

Stuffed baby eggplant (bharli vangi)

Stuffed eggplant (bharli vangi)

The stuffing: This time I made an easy, no-cook stuffing, using what I have on hand. Mix it up in a small bowl.

  • The base for the paste is minced onions and crushed roasted peanuts.
  • This is seasoned by salt, turmeric, red chili powder, ground cumin and coriander, goda masala if you have it, or garam masala instead. 
  • Then you add something tangy, like tamarind paste or lemon juice; I have even used cranberry chutney at times. 
  • And something sweet, like crushed jaggery
  • Optional- Seeds like poppy seeds or sesame seeds can be added for taste and texture. Grated coconut or a little coconut milk can add richness. 
  • Finally, a handful of minced cilantro goes in and you mix everything together. The stuffing should be a nice balance of flavors.

The eggplant: Choose tender baby eggplants. Wash them and at the side opposite the stem, cut slits to make a deep "X", without slicing through the eggplant completely. Stuff each eggplant and set aside. Save any leftover stuffing.

Cooking the dish

  • Heat a little oil in the Instant Pot on saute mode. 
  • Pop a generous amount of mustard seeds in the hot oil. 
  • Then layer the stuffed eggplant gently. Turn off saute mode. 
  • Mix up a little water (half a cup to a cup at most) in the leftover stuffing and pour over the eggplants.
  • Cook at high pressure for 3 or 4 minutes. (The first time I cooked it for 6 minutes and the eggplant were overcooked.)
  • Release pressure quickly.
  • Test eggplant to see if a knife goes through easily. If not cover and let it cook in the residual heat for a bit. 

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Lemon rice is another quintessential summer dish and easily made in the Instant Pot. (Look up the instruction manual for ratios of rice and water). 

Instant pot on saute mode: Heat a bit of oil and temper it with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, urad dal and chana dal, curry leaves, dried chilis. Add salt, turmeric, grated fresh ginger. Turn off saute mode. 

Add soaked and drained rice and water. Pressure cook for 4 minutes on high. Release pressure after 5 minutes. 

Add fresh lemon zest and lemon juice (or lime zest and juice to make lime rice), and minced cilantro. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

* * *

Stuffed peppers
waiting to be 
Stuffed poblano peppers were a treat when I got a big haul of fresh peppers in the veggie box. Cut the tops off poblano peppers and cut in half vertically. Microwave the halved peppers for 3 minutes with a sprinkle of water, to par-cook them. Drain well. 

For the stuffing, mix mashed/grated boiled potato, minced onion, ginger and garlic and salt, spices and herbs. Stuff the peppers.

Pan-fry the pepper, starting cut side down, until they are browned. Covering the pan in the last few minutes is a great way to get the peppers to cook through. 

Just a pic of another classic summer lunch:
Khichdi with pan-fried okra/bhindi

After I wrote this post, I realize that I've written a very similar post 16 years ago

And with this array of home-style Indian dishes, I will end by saying (a day ahead of time)- Happy Independence Day, India!

Tell me how things are in your neck of the woods, and what you are cooking and eating in August 2021.