There are some things that don’t necessitate recipes. Some things are so simple that exact measurements or a lengthy ingredients list unnecessarily complicate their preparation. As simply as they’re made, they’re even more satisfyingly enjoyed. Oftentimes, these things take a form of their own — their preparation rooting itself into some tucked away part of our imaginations, where they grow and change over time.
These improvisations — the spontaneous melding of ingredients we unexpectedly find at hand — serve as the basis for many of our most treasured and frequently consumed meals.
The recipe-less recipe may have been derived from watching your mother or grandmother cook the same go-to meals time and time again or from attempting to recreate the soothing ease with which Food Network chefs display their creations on screen. Or, you snagged a vegetable or ingredient of the grocery store shelf and an idea popped into mind, finding its realization through swift, barely thought-out movements within the kitchen, culminating in a thrown-together masterpiece. No matter its origin, the unscripted, haphazard kitchen creation dispels the pressure of having to meticulously follow instructions and compile a lengthy list of resources. Often, it’s this austerity that inhibits creativity and can result in a lackluster dish that doesn’t live up to expectations. Or, you may find yourself thoroughly impressed with the results only to remember the gruelling efforts leading up to it and swearing off the recipe for the future.
Equally as impressive is making something on the fly that tastes like it took a lot of effort and preparation, but didn’t actually. All it takes is a few ingredients you already have on hand and the marriage between a few pantry staples.
Marinated eggplant has recently become one of my go-to thrown-together recipes. It bears the ease of utilizing few ingredients and even less thought, yet it packs all the flavor and heartiness of extensive kitchen work. The dish emerged after I bought eggplant on a whim and, unable to decide the fate of its consumption, was struck by inspiration from the transcendent memory of a marinated eggplant dish I had once been served at Mani Osteria. So, to the best of my ability, I attempted to recreate the flavorful dish with only the items at hand — eggplant, salt and pepper, chili flakes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and garlic.
As is my preferred cooking method with most vegetables, I hastily cut my eggplant into cubes, tossed them in olive oil and sprinkled them with salt, before throwing them in the oven at 375º for about 20-30 minutes, checking frequently to ensure all sides got their fair share of roasting. Typically, I’d sprinkle the eggplant with salt and let rest for ten minutes prior to soaking up the excess moisture with paper towels, however I was out of paper towels — a repercussion to be expected when cooking on the fly (and when living with 13 roommates in college).
After the the eggplant turned nice and crisp in the oven, almost charred on some sides, while perfectly tender on the other, I let it cool for several minutes. Then, I grabbed a tupperware container and tossed the cooled eggplant cubes in; I drizzled them generously with more olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the crushed garlic and added a generous pinch of salt, black pepper and red chili flakes (and about half a teaspoon of dried basil if you have it on hand), tossing well to combine. In order to draw out all those piquant flavors, I let the eggplant mixture refrigerate for a few hours to soak up the acidity of the vinegar and the sweet bite of garlic — the nutty olive oil binding all the rich, zesty flavors together.
It’s no surprise then, that waiting for the eggplant to marinate can be trying. However, once the chunks of eggplant have absorbed the marinade, they can be served with a thick, crusty bread that’s been toasted to a slightly burnt crisp, or they can be tossed with freshly sliced basil leaves and shaved parmesan into a salad — or if you’re me — eaten straight out of the container.
Not only is it incredibly easy to make, a large batch of marinated eggplant can carry you through the week. The meaty eggplant, enhanced by the flavors of the marinade, make a superb side dish or meal of their own. Dole out over pasta with plenty of cheese and fresh basil for a quick weeknight meal or over a bowl of grains and sautéed kale.
It’s flavors are vibrant and crisp enough to cool our palates on a summer day, while the hearty vegetable can satisfy on a cold, winter evening. If you’re not an eggplant-kind-of-person (it’s cool, not everyone is), this method works great with red bell peppers too. Easy and versatile? You heckin’ bet it is. Delicious? That too.
With slightly more effort than pouring yourself a bowl of cereal, marinated eggplant be an easy fix to an uninspired meal, without draining your energy or stock of ingredients. So, roast and refrigerate those tasty little cubes and enjoy.