Stuffed Eggplant (1932)

A vintage photograph of the single-door version of the late, lamented 1932 double-door General Electric Monitor Top refrigerator that stood in the kitchen of my country house. Image from Worthpoint.com.

For several years, about a decade ago, my husband and I owned a 1930s General Electric Monitor-Top refrigerator. You know the kind: an imposing white slab of enameled metal, straight out of a Hollywood movie, with a basket-like contraption on top that hummed like a hive of bees and cabriole legs. As far as kitchen appliances go, it was my pride and joy, an eBay purchase so heavy that the kitchen floor had to be stabilized before the  refrigerator could be brought into the house—through the combined efforts of four able-bodied men, as I recall. It also took up an amazing amount of square footage, as I recall. Still, the side-by-side doors opened and closed with a satisfying ka-chunk, followed by a metallic click, so you knew everything inside was going to stay perfectly cool. Unfortunately this hunk of American ingenuity died one excessively hot and humid summer and could not be revived, at least not on our budget, so we replaced it with an extremely boring but efficient modern model. I still mourn the GE’s absence, though presciently, for the purposes of this blog, I had the presence of mind to keep its original handy-hints cookery brochure.

"The Silent Hostess Treasure Book," a curious cookery brochure that once accompanied a 1932 General Electric refrigerator.

Entitled The Silent Hostess Treasure Book, the paper-back publication is a promotional giveaway intended to make the General Electric Monitor Top seem even more radiantly modern and efficient to beleaguered American housewives. As the introduction states, it is “arranged to assist you in making the greatest use of your General Electric Refrigerator.” Consequently the recipes in its pages—from the cannon ball cocktail to beets cut into heart shapes for a Valentine’s Day luncheon salad—are devised to spend some time in the refrigerator, either waiting to be cooked or congealing in its chilly depths, which seems rather nonsensical today, at least as a galvanizing selling point. Still, the assortment of hors d’oeuvre, main dishes, desserts, and the like must have caught my fancy, at least enough to retain the brochure as the old refrigerator went out the door to its landfill demise.

Over the week-end, as our daughter was preparing her pencils, notebooks, and other paraphernalia in anticipation of her first day back in elementary school, she asked to choose the cookery book for at least one blog post. And the book she selected was The Silent Hostess Treasure Book. She flipped through its pages, studying the garish, even lurid photographs with great intensity, considering which looked the most appetizing. Finally she pointed at one picture and said, “Make this one.”

Stuffed Eggplant, as pictured in "The Silent Hostess Treasure Book" (1932).

“This one” was Stuffed Eggplant. Frankly, I’ve never been fond of stuffed vegetables, having been plied with far too many stuffed bell peppers as a child, but the illustration was fancy enough to catch my eye: a baked eggplant shell mounded high with sautéed chopped eggplant flesh and mushrooms and picturesquely crisscrossed with pimiento trelliswork. We had numerous eggplants growing in the vegetable garden’s raised beds, my husband reminded me, and there’s nothing I like better than decorative garnishes. So off we went to the grocer to pick up a few missing ingredients, and upon our return, I set to work. Some flavor adjustments were made (and are noted below), given the bland promise of the recipe’s contents, and what was wrought was unexpectedly good. Not great but warm, filling, and delicious, far more flavorful than I expected it to be. And as you can see in the photograph below, I got all details right. Just don’t eat the eggplant vessel, only the filling.

Stuffed Eggplant, as prepared by The Aesthete Cooks; the platter is 1830s Old Paris Porcelain.

STUFFED EGGPLANT

SOURCE: The Silent Hostess Treasure Book (General Electric Corporation, 1932)

SERVES: Two (2), as a main course, with other side dishes; using two small eggplants for this recipe would certainly look better.

INGREDIENTS

1 medium size eggplant

1 cup raw mushrooms (I used Baby Portobellas)

½ cup chopped onion (I used red Bermuda)

¼ teaspoon pepper (I used hand-ground black pepper, rather generously)

¼ teaspoon salt (I used a healthy pinch of French grey sea salt by McCormick)

1 cup minced ham (I used Virginia ham, Boar’s Head)

4 tablespoons butter (unsalted)

Pimientos (sliced thinly and lengthwise for garnish)

Dried thyme (not in original recipe)

Dried basil (not in original recipe)

Buttered breadcrumbs (about 1/4 cup, warmed in a skillet with a bit of unsalted butter until it is fully absorbed; I used panko crumbs)

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut slice from top of eggplant or cut in halves lengthwise; scoop out meat to within half an inch of outer skin.

2. Chop mushrooms and eggplant coarsely and sauté in butter, with onions, for ten minutes.

3. Add ham and seasonings and continue to sauté for another minute.

4. Fill eggplant shell with the ham-mushroom-eggplant mixture (it will be heaping) and sprinkle top with buttered bread crumbs.

5. Bake until thoroughly heated and the breadcrumbs have turned golden brown.

6. Arrange thin strips of pimento crosswise on top and serve.

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Eggplant Surprise

Natalie Clifford Barney, American heiress and lesbian extraordinaire, circa 1900.

When I lived in Washington, D. C., some 20 years ago, I used to frequently visit The Alice Pike Barney Studio House, a curious stucco-clad museum on Massachusetts Avenue. The Spanish Revival Style townhouse had been the home of a somewhat racy hostess and artist who surrounded herself with painters, sculptors, and the like, many of whom were likely most attracted by her millions. Some of the money came from her whiskey-distiller father and the rest via her late husband, a railway-car manufacturer. Though largely forgotten today—the house-museum, an extraordinary place, was cruelly sold to Latvia, which now uses it as its embassy—the eminent Mrs. Barney was a major mover and shaker in the Washington art world and deserves to be more admired than she is. But that civic reputation pales beside her position as the mother of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), a dashing lesbian poet and playwright who cut a wide swath in European literary circles and left dozens of broken hearts in her considerable amatory wake.

Known as the Amazon for her blonde beauty, Barney lived glamorously, wrote flamboyantly, and romanced women in a manner than can only be called swashbuckling, from painter Romaine Brooks to literary niece Dolly Wilde. (Her mother, predictably enough, was horrified, and was scandalized by her daughter’s Sapphic poetry.) She and Alice B. Toklas were good friends, and when time came for Toklas to publish her famous cookery book, she included a few of Barney’s spécialités de la maison. I tried one of them recently, a side dish called Stuffed Egg Plant with Sugar. This is one of my favourite vegetables, and the directions looked absolutely unchallenging. I was a bit wrong on that score. Have you ever tried to scoop out the insides of an eggplant without damaging the lustrous purple skin? It is not particularly easy. Once that is completed, however, the rest is smooth sailing, culinarily speaking. The only thing I would change about the recipe is to (a) toss the mixture of eggplant and breadcrumbs with a bit of olive oil to moisten it before baking and/or (b) to evenly distribute the butter across the entire surface of the eggplant-and-breadcrumb mixture rather than plopping it in the center as directed. As for the sugar, it adds a pleasant sweetness.

STUFFED EGG PLANT WITH SUGAR

SOURCE: Natalie Clifford Barney, as reprinted in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas (Anchor Books, 1960)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

2 egg plants

1/4 pound dried breadcrumbs

2 dessertspoons sugar [a little less than 2 tablespoons by US standards — I made a mistake in the post earlier by stating 4 heaping tablespoons and have corrected this]

1 large pinch of salt

Pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

Divide the egg plants in half lengthwise. Remove the pulp, chop, [place in a large mixing bowl], add breadcrumbs, sugar, salt, and pepper. Stuff the four halves very abundantly [and place on a cookie sheet]. On each half place a piece of butter the size of a large walnut and 1 tablespoon of water and cook in a moderate oven [350 degrees Fahrenheit] for 1/2 hour [or until golden brown on top].

Vegetables by Elsie

Fried Tomatoes and Courgettes from the pages of "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining". The slightly chipped white platter is vintage ironstone.

Breading vegetables is something I find rather odd. I much prefer vegetables as close to their natural state as possible—simple, direct, and tasting of the garden. The decorator and hostess Elsie de Wolfe seems to have been of similar mind, given the relatively uncomplicated vegetable dishes featured in her cookery book, Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (William-Frederick Press, 1947).

One extremely basic side dish from its pages is Fried Tomatoes and Courgettes (that’s zucchinis to those of us living in the United States). The vegetables are lightly breaded and end up looking a bit messy when cooked as directed but the untidy result is admirable, the bread crumbs adding a satisfying crunchiness that marries well with the tender tomatoes and courgettes. De Wolfe’s cookery book directs that the vegetables be mixed and cooked together; we decided that would be unattractive, so chose to cook them separately and combine them on the plates at serving time. It just looks nicer, I think.

My husband and I enjoyed this side dish immensely. Our daughter, aged eight, was more critical. “Tomatoes and bread crumbs shouldn’t be together,” she said after a moment’s pondering. “But they are good on the courgettes.”

FRIED TOMATOES AND COURGETTES

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (William-Frederick Press, 1947)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

3 medium courgettes [zucchinis]

3 large tomatoes

Bread crumbs

Salt and pepper

Unsalted butter

DIRECTIONS

First, remove the skins of the tomatoes. Do this by cutting Xs into the bottoms of the tomatoes and then immersing them in a pot of boiling water for 15 seconds. With a slotted spoon transfer them to a bowl of cold water. When cool enough to handle peel off the skins, starting at the X, and slice the tomatoes in pieces the shape of orange sections (not rounds). Set aside.

Peel the courgettes and cut into slices of the same shape as the tomatoes. Set aside.

Roll or gently toss the courgettes and tomatoes in fresh bread crumbs seasoned well with salt and pepper.

Fry in plenty of butter until well done.

A Spinach That Pleases

Spinach cooked, drained, chopped, and ready to sauté in butter.

Vegetables never terrified me as a child, and I happily consumed Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and, yes, even spinach. Even now it remains my favourite green, second only to watercress. Our daughter, Catherine, however, loathes the stuff.

She knows it’s healthy and understands it is full of iron, thanks to a conversation she had with her new pediatrician. But Catherine has never developed a liking for this leafy vegetable, which is blessed additionally with a stunning colour that reminds me of deepest, darkest jade. But we recently discovered that she will at least down one substantial forkful if the spinach is prepared simply, in the manner suggested in La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion Press, 1961).

Epinards au beurre, or buttered spinach, is arguably the most most basic of preparations in Toulouse-Lautrec’s book. But it does have one significant refinement—after the spinach has been boiled, it is drained and transferred to a cutting board, where it is chopped, an action that adds a note of sophistication as well as reduces the slimy appearance that seems to offend our only child the most. Then the spinach is placed in a skillet and cooked with a bit of butter. Voila! As Catherine said before placing her fork down, “It doesn’t taste awful.” Admittedly this was not the most ringing endorsement but surely it was better than outright disdain.

EPINARDS AU BEURRE (BUTTERED SPINACH)

SOURCE: Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion, 1961)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

3 pounds spinach

6 tablespoons butter [use much less if you prefer]

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Wash the spinach thoroughly, using only the leaves and smaller stems. Boil 15 minutes in a large kettle of boiling salted water. Drain in a colander. Spinach that stays in hot water once it is cooked becomes brown and ugly.

Drain well and chop finely. Reheat in a saucepan with butter, salt, and pepper. Add heavy cream with you wish, but do not let the cream boil. Serve immediately.