Last week, we took a quick trip to Lake Tahoe to celebrate my sister Zoe’s birthday and the last hurrah of summer. My family has a cabin on the lake that we’ve had since I was a little girl, and it felt like a pretty big deal showing Sam and Oliver around the little town — where we got ice cream as kids, the mini golf course, the modest town beach and run-down motel that’s been there for ages. We got burgers at The Char Pit, Oliver went on his first boat ride and his first hike, and we saw some crazy-pink California sunsets. When we got back to Seattle it felt surprisingly like fall: somehow in the span of just a few days, we’ve got leaves on the ground and cooler mornings and evenings. I promptly packed away my swimsuits, got out my sweaters, and made a run to the farmers market to load up on summer produce while we still can: tomatoes, eggplant, peaches. Oliver’s been eating the peaches for breakfast in yogurt or cottage cheese and I had plans to make ratatouille with the eggplant and tomatoes, but then I thought maybe I should try something a bit out of my comfort zone. So I got out a big pot, and set out to fry up some eggplant fries.
I can’t remember the last time I fried something. It’s possible, actually, that I’ve never fried anything. I remember my mom frying donuts for us when we were kids — she used the biscuit dough that comes in those canisters that pop open when you twist them, rolling each one in cinnamon sugar and poking a hole in the middle with her thumb. They were, for the record, spectacular. But really truly frying things isn’t something that’s in my wheelhouse. Thankfully I got a nudge recently when I was contacted by Thrive, introducing me to their new algae oil. I know, I know: you’re likely thinking exactly what I was thinking (and what I know my sister Rachael is still thinking): really?! But the email caught my attention because it’s a neutral-flavored oil that has a really high smoke point and the highest amount of monounsaturated fat (the “good fat”) of other popular oils like olive, canola and coconut oil. I was intrigued.
After having it in the house for a few weeks, we found ourselves using the algae oil often in salad dressings and to sautee vegetables. It’s surprisingly light, so I had a suspicion it would make really delicate, crisp eggplant fries and it turns out, I was onto something.
For this recipe, I wanted the breading to have a little texture so I decided to throw in some polenta at the last minute (you could also use a coarse-ground cornmeal) and I did a mix of all-purpose and whole-wheat flour but feel free to use whatever you have on hand. As for the aoili, if you’re not familiar with harissa it’s a really versatile red chile paste that’s often made with warm spices like cumin, coriander and a good bit of garlic. It’s a quick easy flavor bomb, which is why I love it here. For the sake of time, the aoili is definitely a cheater version so all you aioli purists out there may just have to turn a blind eye. I figured that there will be plenty of time in January to make homemade aioli — for now, we’ve got a few leaves on the ground, neighborhood walks that beckon, and lots of lingering late summer produce to eat.
I adopted a tip from Bon Appetit here to ensure the fries cook up nice and crisp (as eggplant has a tendency to get soggy quickly). The key is to soak the eggplant slices in cold water for at least 2 hours before frying: the ice water helps them absorb liquid and become quite cool so when they hit the hot oil, the exterior crisps up leaving the interior nice and creamy but not at all greasy. We ended up having leftover aioli that we used on sandwiches the next day, and it keeps in the fridge just fine for a few weeks.
For the Harissa Aioli (makes about 2/3 cup)
For the Eggplant Fries:
Make the aioli: Mash garlic and salt in small bowl until paste forms. Whisk in the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and harissa. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional harissa or salt and pepper, as desired. Store covered and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Make the fries: Cut the eggplant crosswise into 1/2 -inch rounds, then cut each round further into 1/2 -3/4 inch thick strips (or any fry size you happen to like – just make sure they’re uniform). Place eggplant strips in a large bowl filled with enough ice water to cover them (about 2-3 cups water and plenty of ice). Place a plate on top of eggplant strips to weigh them down — you want them totally submerged. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Meanwhile whisk both flours, cornmeal, salt, pepper, oregano, paprika and lemon zest in a medium bowl. In a separate small bowl, whisk eggs.
Pour oil into a large deep pot or wok suitable for frying to a depth of 1 1/2 – 2 inches. Attach a thermometer to the side of the pot and heat oil over medium heat to 325°.
Drain eggplant sticks from the water and pat dry with a paper towel or clean towel. Working in small batches, submerge the eggplant sticks in the egg mixture then toss well in flour mixture to coat. Fry them, turning occasionally so they cook uniformly, until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve immediately with harissa aioli.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
We walked to the library last week and I had a strange realization standing in line watching Sam check out his usual massive stack of books: Will I ever have the time to read stacks of books again? I used to be much more of a reader than I am today -- a fact I'm not at all proud of. But when evening rolls around and the more formal workday ends, I find emails and other odds and ends creep in. Walking home from the library, I began obsessing over free time for reading, asking Sam if we'd ever be those two old people who study bird manuals and can recognize birds on walks. I want to have the time to read bird manuals someday. For now though, we're young and we're working a lot. We did sneak away on that one-night camping trip I told you about, and cooked some interesting, haphazard meals which I hope to share with you soon. For now though, for summer: a strawberry dessert recipe.
Much like friends, types of Sunday mornings, or books -- there are many different kinds of desserts. Sometimes you may be in the mood for a light French cake piled high with summer fruit. Other days, a thick slice of fragrant pound cake will do. And then there are those days when you crave a rich chocolate mousse that you share after a night of good conversation and a little too much wine. But let's be honest. When it comes right down to it, the most basic and unassuming dessert of all is sometimes the only one that will do. A good and simple affair. Vanilla ice cream. So I want to talk about that today--about a dessert that withstands the test of time, that will always be there for you. A dessert that is far from trendy, that doesn't play favorites or trick you into thinking it's something that it's not. It's a good foundation. A solid beginning.
[ Pie. if you've been around here much in the last few months, you know that I make pie. A lot of pie. And I'm particularly excited to share this pie with you today because it helped me break out of a rut. A pie rut. A baking rut. A Marge inspiration rut.