I think it’s my grandparents who infected me with the travel bug. They loved to take Sunday afternoon drives and go on day trips. I first left the country with them on a trip to Canada when I was five. Other than driving north across the border from Pennsylvania, they never made it out of the country. But they instilled in me a sense of adventure that some, like my spouse, would say is less of a love and more of an obsession.
For the last several years, after Michael sent me packing the first summer on my own to Morocco, Spain, and France, I’ve taken a big trip (or two…) every year. I look forward to these trips, love planning every last detail, and thoroughly embrace the challenges of traveling on my own. I’ve barely been back more than a month from my last trip, and yet I’m already making plans about next July. (Any suggestions?)
Whenever I travel abroad, I try to find a cooking class to learn to make authentic cuisine. My big 2015 trip was to Italy which included a stay on a lemon farm where I learned to make buffalo mozzarella, limoncello, and Neapolitan pizza. The deal included dinners, and it was some of the best food I had in all of Italy (which is saying a lot!).
Each night, they made bread and set out lemon oil with it. I had switched to a low-carbohydrate regimen months before, but every night I had some bread just to be able to douse it in the lemon oil with cracked pepper and salt. They made it from the lemons and olives on their farm and it was amazing. Despite my desire to keep my luggage load as light as possible (especially since this was about the half-way point into my trip), I brought some home for me and as gifts for some very special people.
One of the side dishes they served was eggplant with lemon oil. That was the entire reason I bought the lemon oil, since I knew I wouldn’t eat much bread at home. Also, Michael really likes salmon, so I figured that would be a great finishing oil on it. I was right: Between the two of us, we polished off the bottle pretty quickly. Much to my delight, I was able to find lemon oil at a specialty shop, made in the very same area where I’d stayed near Sorrento.
I like eggplant prepared some ways, but it’s never been my most favorite thing. It always seems a bit bitter and seedy to me. But I was dead set on recreating this dish because it was to die for. I bought a bunch of different types of eggplant–Japanese, Indian, and Chinese–to see which worked best.
The Chinese eggplant was the definite winner because it tasted just as good as the Japanese variety, but is far less expensive. The Indian eggplant, I discovered, is really just a little bitter ball of a billion seeds. These gorgeous purple Chinese eggplants are perfect for cooking because unlike other varieties, they have very few seeds and don’t need to be salted and drained to remove bitterness.
Lemon eggplant is not the prettiest dish you’ll ever serve, but one taste and it’ll win over everyone. Plus, it’s super easy to make, tastes even better the next time around, and goes well with a variety of entreés. I’ve served it with baked ziti, Italian sausage, spaghetti squash “pasta”, zucchini “noodle” lasagna, and the list goes on…It’s a ‘cheap’ dish for your food budget (and can cost less if you want to cut back on the oil), very filling, and very flavorful.
Lemon Eggplant Recipe
- Preheat oven to 420 degrees and spray a baking tray. Remove ends and cut eggplant into long quarters (or sixths, if they’re big). Line them on the tray, spray with some Pam, and when you’re ready to stick them in the oven, season with salt and pepper.
- Bake for ~20 minutes until the flesh is soft, then let cool until you can handle the eggplant.
- While you’re waiting, crush 1 clove of garlic per eggplant, mix with 1 t. of olive oil for each clove.
- Microwave (or sauté, instead) covered in a bowl big enough to add the eggplant for 20 seconds, stir, and microwave another 10-20 seconds or so until the garlic starts to brown. (The dish will be really hot, so be careful!)
- Cut cooled eggplant into small cubes and lightly mash into the garlic/oil mixture. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you have fresh mint or basil, these also go very well with the eggplant. Finally, top off with 1 t. lemon oil per eggplant. I also add a dash of crushed red pepper.
- Reheat a bit, or serve at room temperature.