Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eggplant casserole with shrimp and country ham

Regular readers of my blog will know that I'm a fan of Mark Bittman's minimalist style of cooking. He's got a food blog for the New York Times, Bitten that I've recently begun reading. A couple days ago he was talking about his acquisition of a big chunk of high quality domestic prosciutto and how he was making use of it. One example was sautéing it with garlic, onion and peppers, adding a past-it's-prime eggplant and then cooking it down into a tasty mush. As I've got a past-it's-prime eggplant languishing in my vegetable drawer I took note.

However, I'm fresh out of prosciutto. What I do have is a pack of country ham chips. Fresh Market has just started carrying country ham in a few different forms. As a suburban boy from Delaware I haven't a clue what to do with it so I picked up chips as the lowest buy in for my experimentation.

Country ham changes my flavor profile substantially so the Italian flavors Bittman had in mind weren't going to work. While I was looking around to see how others have used ham and eggplant I came across this recipe that also includes shrimp and stale bread. I've got plenty of both of those at the moment so I was leaning towards that recipe. However I didn't really want to run the oven today so I ended up making something somewhere in the middle.

I started by chopping up and soaking the remaining quarter of the loaf of bread I baked last Sunday. I put in a good bit of rye flour so it was pretty hearty and had a nice rustic flavor.

Next I put a dutch oven on medium heat with a couple teaspoons of butter, an equal amount of olive oil, and a half dozen crushed garlic cloves. Once they got soft, but not browned, I added a small onion and a small bell pepper, both chopped, about a quarter pound of the country ham, a bay leaf, a teaspoon of thyme, a teaspoon of creole spice mix (paprika, garlic powder and cayenne primarily), a couple pinches of salt and a couple dashes more of cayenne.

Once the vegetables had softened and the spices and herbs were aromatic I added the eggplant, coarsely chopped, the bread and a half cup of chicken broth. I probably should have held off on the bread and broth to give the eggplant a chance to cook down a bit first. But I didn't, so all in they went. A stir and a bit more salt and on goes the cover. I cooked it for twenty minutes, stirring every five minutes and adding a bit more water. The bread broke down pretty quickly, the eggplant a little more slowly, but both were a thick mush at the end.

Meanwhile, I had a quarter pound of shrimp in a salt and sugar brine. The brine was strong enough to do the shrimp some good, but not so strong that I couldn't safely slosh some in to the casserole to add flavor and thin it out.

After the twenty minutes were up I chopped up the shrimp along with a large scallion and a handful of parsley. I added those to the pot, gave them a couple minutes to cook through and that was it.

I'll freely admit, the end result isn't the most texturally presentable dish around but I really like how the flavors play off each other. The bread has taken up flavors and now tastes like a particularly good bread stuffing. Each bite is a bit different; the bread/eggplant mush is first flavor in each bite, but it doesn't overwhelm whatever combination of firmer-eggplant, ham and shrimp you happen to have on the fork. Those three components do work well against each other and I think I made a good choice of herbs and spices to tie it all together.

A shame about the texture though. Maybe cooking it in an uncovered casserole dish would have let it firm up more. Certainly, browned breadcrumbs on the top wouldn't be a bad thing. I've put a couple extra servings into the freezer for later; when I take one out, if I remember, I'll reheat it an oven and add breadcrumbs to see how it goes.

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