Friday, January 13, 2012

Gourmet's Top 50 Women: #30 Barbara Tropp - Strange Flavored Eggplant

(Photo by Michael Maloney)

Barbara Tropp is noted for her book The Modern Art of  Chinese Cooking, and her Chinese restaurant in San Francisco The China Moon Cafe which opened in San Francisco in 1986. In 1997, she sold the restaurant while battling cancer. It would be a battle she would continue to fight for many years until 2001 when the disease took her. She noted ironically, that she lived the "cancer-prevention" diet for most of her life (vegetables, fresh fish). Unfortunately genetics would trump diet.

But she made her mark in a field she was passionate about. In a high school art class, she discovered Chinese art and culture and never looked back. She studied Chinese in college and then went on to doctoral studies at Princeton. During a two-year study-abroad in Taiwan, she was lucky enough to be placed with host families who were passionate about their food. Tropp paid attention and when she returned to the states, she left her thesis project behind ("I had picked a helplessly obscure topic in Chinese poetics and was in way over my head." From: Wikipedia) She moved to San Francisco to be closer to authentic Chinese markets and found her calling. She worked at recreating the foods she had in Taiwan and was amazed how little truly authentic Chinese restaurants existed. With her book and restaurant, she changed all that.

Information on her remarkable life can be found here and here.

I choose to make her "Strange-Flavored Eggplant" (aka Eggplant Caviar) which I found at Culinate. The recipe is from The China Moon Cookbook based on the dishes she served at the China Moon Cafe. 

As Italians are great eggplant-lovers and roast it, chop it, fry it, grill it, bread it and cheese it, I thought it would be interesting to see how it would be prepared in Chinese cooking.   I made it for Epiphany (taking down the tree) when there are expectations of savory hors d'oeuvres to offset the sweetness of the holidays. It did not disappoint. 

NOTE: Everyone (everyone but the cat) is "mindfully eating" in my home - including my husband who is on the first diet of my life (and his wails and trials and tribulations could feed a book, sorry honey - you're talking to an ex-actress who had to diet when she was a size 8!). And even when mindfully eating, nobody wants a platter of carrots and celery in front of them. That is so 90's. 

Ignore the title of the recipe - there is nothing strange about the flavor (except that it is brown and does not have a good side to photograph). It is silky, earthy with just enough garlic and ginger and sesame to keep you interested. It is best served after being refrigerated over night - and be still my heart - just continues to improve with time! My kind of recipe. You don't have to eat it all in one fell swoop. But we did.

Strange-Flavor Eggplant 
1 to 1-1/4 pound eggplant (any style)
2 tablespoons corn or peanut oil
1/2 teaspoon Japanese sesame oil (I used toasted sesame oil)
- garlic croutons - (sorry, I skipped those - that "mindfully eating thing")

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
1/2-1/2 teaspoon dried red chilie flakes

3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar (I used half of that; I don't have a sweet tooth)
1 teaspoon unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar (I used plain old unseasoned rice vinegar)
1 tablespoon hot water

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F and place rack in the middle of the oven. Prick the eggplant all over with a fork and remove the leaves. Bake on a baking sheet for 20-40 minutes turning once until fork tender. (I baked it for 30 minutes.) Remove from baking sheet and slit in half to speed up cooling process.

While still warm, scrape eggplant pulp away from the peel and ends. (I scraped away some very seedy parts.) Process with baking juices on a food processor (I think you could also mash it very well.)

Combine aromatics in a small dish.

Combine sauce ingredients in a small dish stirring to dissolve the sugar (yes, there are a few dishes - this is Chinese cooking!).

Heat a wok or large skillet on high heat (a droplet of water should evaporate when it touches the skillet). Add corn or peanut oil. Swirl and reduce heat to moderately high. Add aromatics and stir 15 seconds being careful not to scorch (lower the heat if you see that happening). Add the sauce and stir well to blend. When it simmers, add the eggplant and combine well. Remove from heat and taste. If necessary add more vinegar, chilie flakes or sugar. (I didn't - but of course - I had no idea how it should taste so went with trusting the recipe.) Stir in the sesame oil. Allow to cool.

Store airtight in the refrigerator overnight allowing the flavors to blend. To serve: sprinkle scallions over the top and serve with croutons (I did a wheat-flax pita). It would also be good with those aforementioned crudites (notice I didn't say carrots and celery).

Note: it is a fair amount of work for a small appetizer. Also noted - it got scarfed down. Would I do it again? Maybe. I am seduced by sesame oil. Whenever I cook with it, the kitchen comes alive with people (at this point they are immune to garlic). And I am always intrigued when I leave my Italian comfort zone - where I "know" how things should taste and explore other flavors, other textures, other worlds. It's a New Year. New worlds are welcome.

If I Only Had a Brain Note: Yes, it would have been more attractive with scallions scattered over it.

Please check out what the other bloggers are doing for Week 30 of Female Chef Gourmet Game Changers. And if you want to join in the fun, e-mail Mary at  One Perfect Bite. Mary started this delectable journey. Next week is Donna Hay.

Miranda - Mangoes and ChutneyJeanette - Healthy LivingApril - Abby Sweets


Whats Cookin Italian Style Cuisine said...

Wow that is quite a resume' love the art behind this cultural cooking. Thank you for that review and introducing me to this wonderful cook! I love that eggplant looks so soft and deliciously spreadable!

Kathy said...

Claudia, This dish reminds me of an eggplant dip we made for French Fridays. Yours looks delicious! Enjoyed your post. Have a good weekend!

TinaRBK said...

What an amazing life this woman has had, thanks for the intro. The way you described this dish does want me to try it. The name does not do it any justice, but I am glad that it did not put you off and you shared it with us. Adding this to my saved recipes-well worth trying.

TinaRBK said...

I am now following your blog-not sure why this was not done before. Have a great weekend!

Bunny said...

I loved you intro, fascinating woman and life. You have to love woman who have a passion for what they do. This is definitely a dish that needs to be made!

Katherine Roberts Aucoin said...

Love eggplant, in fact I've been craving it a lot lately. This will definitely be a broadening my horizons type of dish and I can't wait to try it.

Heather @ said...

I almost wanted to make it because of the name...ha! I'm glad you made it so I could get a gander. It sounds very tasty.

Angie's Recipes said...

The eggplant sounds really flavourful! I would love some rice.

Jann said...

This certainly is the way I would like to eat my eggplant~yes, and a wonderful review!

Liz That Skinny Chick Can Bake said...

I just love your posts, Claudia! Now why in the world would one put the word "strange" in a recipe title? And I had to laugh at your "If I only had a brain" comment...seems to be the story of my life! Have a great weekend!

tinyskillet said...

I love hearing about these amazing women, it's so interesting to hear about their passion.

Some dishes just don't look well, but taste great! My favorite! I use Asian flavors a lot in my kitchen. I like how you just have to use a little bit of sesame oil to enjoy it.

Aarthi said...

yummy recipe...I will try it soon....This makes me drool..Bookmarking it..


Unknown said...

Your eggplant looks wonderful. You picked a great recipe. I will have to try it soon.

Mary Bergfeld said...

I have never tried this recipe and it is time for me to experiment. I love the recipes you pick for our Friday meme. They are always interesting and this one sounds delicious. I hope you have a great weekend. Blessings...Mary

Reeni said...

I have the China Moon cookbook and haven't made one thing out of it! She uses a lot of hard to find ingredients - at least for my neck of the woods. The eggplant looks delicious! Definitely worth the work.

Judy said...

Interesting recipe. I am so limited with eggplant -- eggplant parmesan, fried eggplant and baba ghanoush. That's it. This looks like a nice change.

chow and chatter said...

cool like a Chinese Baba ganoush like it

Susan Lindquist said...

Yum! I would love this; my husband would moan and groan .... guess I will have to wait until I have a chick weekend to make this ... or a dinner party!

Mireya@myhealthyeatinghabits said...

I had this dish many years ago. It is delicious! Thanks for the memory.

tasteofbeirut said...

I would love this eggplant dish! Seems a bit Middle-Eastern to me even! What an interesting woman.

easyfoodsmith said...

I am not an eggplant fan but the flavours that you added are enticing me to try it.
There is an award waiting for you at my blog. Please collect it :)

Magic of Spice said...

I do love the flavors here...but all things eggplant are good in my book!
A great tribute and write up on Barbara Tropp, Claudia!
Oh, and your poor husband, I know what you mean though...ex model and I am sure it did more harm to my metabolism than age will ever do.

Beth said...

This is such an interesting series that you're doing. Congratulations on the mindful eating. Sounds like you're accomplishing it deliciously!

Amy said...

Claudia this eggplant caviar sounds amazing! The possibilities for enjoying it are endless, but I would love some as an addition to a veggie sandwich!

Velva said...

I am an eggplant lover ( except for the end of summer, when they won't stop producing, smile). There is no doubt that I would enjoy this dip.

I love reading about great female chefs/cooks who make a real difference in their cooking that open our minds and fill our bellies.

Thanks for sharing this great cook with us.


john said...

The delicious recipe of eggplant is really looking great.

John from Store Hours

Cristina, from Buenos Aires to Paris said...

Reading your comment in another blog, I learnt your daughter will be in Paris...If there is anything she needs, you can tell her to contact me!
Wish her a marvellous trip!

Joanne said...

When looking through Barbara Tropp recipes, this was definitely one of the ones that intrigued my most! It has all of my favorite Asian flavors in it!

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Barbara Tropp had an interesting life! I will have to look for her restaurant on my next visit to San Francisco.

This looks like a wonderful combination of flavors and must be a delicious condiment or dip. Eggplant is so versatile!

Thank you so much for your notes of condolence, Claudia. They have all been of great comfort to me. {{hugs}}

Catherine said...

Dear Claudia, I do love learning about these fine women. This is a great recipe. I do like learning new ways to create a fine classic such as eggplant. I would just love this. Thank you Claudia for your good wishes. I am feeling better. Blessings my friend. Catherine xo

Frank said...

Claudia, Believe it or not, I had not realized until today that you had a food blog! What can I say...? Better late than never—glad I found it.

This is one of those dishes (and there are many) that may not be very photogenic but taste wonderful. I can tell just from the list of ingredients and your description that this is one of those!

Juliana said...

Nice post Claudia, and the eggplant dip looks delicious, nice Asian twist.
Have a great week ahead :-)

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

It may not be photogenic but it sounds pretty tasty. It was an experience to find out more about this amazing woman.

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A tasty looking dish! I really like the ingredients used in this recipe.



FOODESSA said...

Ginger and eggplant are fabulous together. I usually go much easier on the garlic. Looking at the probably didn't mean to pass along 2 tbsp. of garlic, did you? LOL

Claudia, this was a great tribute to a very dedicated foodie who I actually knew nothing about. So thanks for bringing her to the path of my ongoing adventure. Did I mention how I love and make lots of Asian style meals ;o)

Have a great week,

Barbara said...

There's nothing strange about this eggplant, Claudia. It reminds me of baba ghanoush, only Asian-inspired. Will bookmark it for sure.

Lori Lynn said...

Hi Claudia - as I wrote to Val about Ms. Tropp, I did buy her cookbook a few years ago after reading her story. Cannot believe I haven't cooked from it. You have definitely inspired me to make this exact dish. Merci!

Balvinder said...

this dish reminds me of Baigan Bharta which we eat with chapatti. In place of scallions we eat chopped cilantro.

My Little Space said...

What a cool post, Claudia! I have yet tried having eggplant in this way before. :o) Btw, have you tried the lotus root before? It's a must for the Chinese New Year which is just 2 days away. Yeap, am sure busy right now. Will check you out after coming back.
Hope you're having a wonderful day, dear.