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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)