In 1824, one of Jefferson’s relatives – Mary Randolph – published a recipe book titled The Virginia House-Wife. This book was reprinted by the University of South Carolina Press in 1984, and it contains a recipe titled, simply, Egg Plant.
Mary preferred the purple version. But, remember that she only had two choices and one of them was largely considered to be ornamental in purpose. (Contrast that to today, when The Chef’s Garden has tested more than 100 varieties out of the nearly 400 possibilities to ensure that we grow what chefs love best.) We certainly agree with Mary’s next piece of advice, which was to “get them young and fresh.”
Mary then removed the stems, parboiled them, and sliced them into pieces that were an inch thick with the skin still on. She would dip them into the “yelk of an egg and cover them with grated bread, a little salt and pepper.” She covered both sides with this mixture and then fried them to a “nice brown.”
When she wanted a little variety, she’d scrap off the rind before parboiling. Then she’d slit them from end to end, remove the seeds, and then “fill the space with a rich forcemeat, and stew them in well seasoned gravy.”
Leni Sorenson, who works at Jefferson’s beloved Monticello as the African American Research Historian and is a renowned culinary historian, disagrees with one of Mary’s conclusions: that the fried eggplant tastes like soft shell crab. But, she says this dish is delicious, and makes a good “centerpiece of a vegetarian meal with rice or couscous or quinoa, and salad.” She also recommends that this dish be served with lamb.
Fast forwarding to today . . . well, not exactly “today.” When the farming is done for the day, Farmer Lee Jones likes to reminisce – and one fond memory is from more than 30 years ago. It was a summer day, and his father was up before the sun has risen. “Dad rose a bit grumpy,” he says, “but still looking forward to his trip to Decorah, Iowa.” His eyes were, in fact, blurry from clock watching and from checking his supply list about once an hour. “This time,” Lee shares, “the trip was not for tractor parts, but to learn more about eggplants, of all things!”
Cocoa Glace | Dentil of Eggplant | Chef Paul Liebrandt
With this level of family commitment to growing eggplant, it’s not surprising that this is one of Lee’s favorite summer crops. This is such a versatile crop, one that can be baked or broiled or sautéed. It pairs well with proteins and seafoods, including octopus.
Not too long ago, the highly creative artist-in-residence at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, Chef Paul Liebrandt, blackened eggplant inside and out before pureeing it. The result was “absolutely delicious,” according to Chef Matt Ward of the Culinary Vegetable Institute, and can be used in ice creams and custards.
Can you imagine what Mary Randolph would have thought of that idea? Our guess is that it would take her a little time to adjust to such a new notion, and then she’d dig in and enjoy.
Here are varieties of eggplant grown at The Chef’s Garden.