I have garden envy. It's one of those conditions one learns to live with; sublimated by early Saturday strolls through a Farmer's Market. Or transferred in some form of shopper's pride to an overflowing grocery cart of exotic produce from faraway lands. It overwhelms me at least twice a year. February and March are often the toughest times as my mailbox begins to plump with seed catalogues that laugh right out loud at my shade infested Pocono garden. They'll be no tomatoes here mon frere. No worries of a zucchini glut in this August plot. Hosta pesto? Just not an option.
Late summer, as you might surmise, is the other rough patch for my frustratingly dirt free green thumb. My soul just knows it's way past time to be putting up bread & butter pickles, canning tomato sauce for winter feasts, or jamming, conserving and "chutneying" all sorts of stone fruits and summer berries. Though it's true, I never let the season go by without filling up a few shelves with canned treasures. But it's without the connection that the gardener gets from weeks of weeding, watering, fertilizing, coaxing, supporting and cajoling from sprout to flower to fruit. Totally lacking the parental pride of color, girth and scent. Ah well, Big Mary must remain content with the flourish of magnificent herbs that continue to scent my windowsill garden. That and the few prodigious basil plants that I've managed to situate in the 4 sunny microclimates of my dark and moody property.
More than any other home grown treat, freshly picked ripe tomatoes are what I find myself envying the loudest. Never mind that I was raised on tinned green beans, frozen broccoli, and Ragu from a jar. Come June my otherwise food neutral Dad, would occasionally arrive from work with one of his summer farm stand trinity, Strawberries, Fresh Corn, or Fragrant Muskmelon (the Midwest's version of Cantaloupe). However tomatoes, though bountiful on the Ohio country road stands, were always snapped fresh from one of his heavy bearing plants by the side of the house. Dad grew two things with pride, Roses and Tomatoes. That was it. Back then they were best enjoyed in thick cold slabs with a sprinkle of salt or sandwiched between crisp bacon, lettuce and Miracle Whip. And I grew up spoiled by the opportunity to be sick and tired of sweet, red tomatoes by the end of every September until I left for college.
So that's why I grumble just a touch as I hand over $2 per tomato at the farmer's market. But my how the tomato has exploded since those days deciding between Early Girl, Big Boy or Beefsteak! Back in the day, a yellow tomato was about as exotic as it got. This summer, even the smallest of markets were plump with Brandywines, Mr. Stripey's, Mortgage Lifters, Cherokee Blacks and multi hued Plum, Cherry and Currant tomatoes too. So Big Mary may be a bit conflicted, but certainly not deprived by any tomato bounty.
This recipe came about after a typical over purchase at the farmer's market, when everything just looked to good to pass by. It actually combines two of my summer standards, Caprese Salad and Crisp Oven Fried Eggplant. Like the old commercial about Peanut Butter and Chocolate, it was bound to happen.
I'm not giving you a totally written out recipe for this because it's really just about putting it together. I'll just give you the details for cooking the eggplant and reducing the balsamic vinegar. You can serve this to as many or as few friends and family as you wish. It can be a great veg lunch or light dinner. It could also be reconfigured as a buffet platter.
Crispy Egglant Parmesan-Caprese Salad
Eggplant - Preferably a thinner one, not bulbous. Panko Bread Crumbs.
Grated Parmesan Cheese.
Whole Eggs, Egg Beaters or other Pasturized Egg White Product.
Aerosol Oil Spray (Pam, etc).
Fresh Tomatoes - sliced thin.
Fresh Mozzarella - sliced thin.
Basil Leaves - cut in chiffonade.
Marjoram Leaves - chopped or left whole if small.
Reduced Balsamic Vinegar.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Sea Salt & Freshly ground Pepper.
To Reduce Balsamic Vinegar - This is the time to use a bargain brand from the large package store. Pour balsamic vinegar in a small saute pan. Over medium high heat, bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until reduced by about 75%. This will probably take from 12 - 20 minutes. Remember the reduced vinegar will be slightly thicker when room temperature. Remove from heat and cool. Place in an air tight container or bottle and keep refrigerated. Will keep for months and months.
To Make Crispy Eggplant - Preheat oven to 425*. Place panko crumbs in a sealed plastic bag and using a mallet or bottom of a pan, crush them slightly. Transfer to a shallow dish and stir in 25% parmesan cheese. Meaning if you have 1 cup of crumbs add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Whisk eggs (or egg product) with a splash of water, salt & pepper, and put in another shallow bowl. Peel or partially "stripe" peel eggplant if you wish. Slice the eggplant into 1/2" thick discs. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Brush the foil lightly with olive oil.
Dip an eggplant slice in the egg mixture and then transfer to the panko crumbs. Flip and press well, getting as much crumb mixture as possible to stick to the eggplant. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining eggplant. Spray tops of breaded eggplant with oil spray. Place baking sheet in preheated oven and cook for 14-18 minutes, until dark golden brown. It's a good idea to rotate the pan about 10 minutes into the cooking.
To assemble the dish - Place 1 or 2 crispy eggplant slices in center of the plate, (still warm from the oven is heavenly). Season with Salt and Pepper and drizzle lightly with reduced Balsamic. Add sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, alternating and seasoning each layer with salt. Finish with a small disc of eggplant. Drizzle entire salad with some Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic reduction. Finish with herbs.
Obviously you can enjoy this eggplant on it's own. Serve it with fresh lemon wedges, maybe a crumble of feta cheese. And as for Caprese Salad, let's face it. We've only got a few more weeks to enjoy the real thing. Be it Heirloom, Beefsteak or Plum ... enjoy this summer's bounty till it's gone.