Eat Local Eggplant
Out of Stolen Items Come Lasting Food Memories
See this dish. It was another attempt at recreating from the menu at Falafel King. A few days ago my wife and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary, which also meant that a few days ago, plus one, we celebrated our first trip to Falafel King. 21 years later, this place remains etched in my foodie conscience, and I believe, remains one of my favorite restaurants. Yes, there’s a long and complicated story here.
Can I tell it blog-cise? I’ll try. See once upon a time, before kids and before Molly the Eat Local Dog who would attack any such help, we actually could afford, and use, a cleaning person (now it’s a need but one we can neither afford nor use). We needed it, because, besides being a pair of not especially neat people, we lived in pre-gentrification Logan Square. The two of us, and our miniature dachshund, Shotzie, inhabited a huge, five bedroom space. We needed the cleaning help. Little did we know (at first), that the person was slowly absconding with various valuables. And the time came to pack to leave for Hong King and our well-deserved honeymoon. Not surprising, my wife was packing that night, mere hours before our scheduled first leg to L.A. She could not find it.
Even pre-9/11, you were not getting on an international flight without a passport. At 2 AM, a few hours after finishing our wedding party and a few hours until our flight, she could not find her passport. Now remember, slobs, 2,600 square foot apartment (and, believe or not, 2 house guests with us the night we became legal), it was a lot of searching to figure out we had no passport and no way to get on a flight to Hong Kong. Among the emergency measures I tried, calling some State Department crisis number I found in the phone book (remember when we had phone books). Somehow the officer I awoke did not agree with me that a missing passport on the edge of an international honeymoon amounted to an international incident. Now, I have not added a crucial detail.
We were flying out on Monday, Labor Day. A day our Federal employees took off. Federal employees including those responsible for dealing with lost and missing passports. We would not be flying out to Hong Kong as planned. We talked with representatives of Cathay Pacific, whose package we had booked. They advised us to get to L.A. as scheduled. An alternative Hong Kong flight was easy to arrange, but a new Chicago to L.A. could cause complications. So, on little sleep, we took the trip to L.A. Our plan, stay the day, scout out the passport facilities, deal with that when the Government re-opened on Tuesday, and get the hell away when done.
Rather quaint, right, that we could go from a missing passport to an international departure in about 3 hours. Not only did we get a new passport, with no apparent proof of naturalization in that short period, but Cathay Pacific boarded me within, like, ten minutes of lift-off. Do either of those now. Yet it was all possible from the fact that we went on Monday, everyone’s day off, to Falafel King. Well, we did not set out to eat at Falafel King. We set out to find the L.A. Federal facilities. It happened that it was near the Westwood neighborhood of L.A., and after determining our next day trip, we settled in for lunch. Being a holiday, I’m sure a few places were closed, but this Middle-Eastern place was open. We both love Middle-Eastern food.
In 2002, we returned to L.A., now with two kids. We made it a point of re-creating our honeymoon adventure of them, and we included a memory inducing visit to Falafel King. It stood up to that day. It was, did, and remains, this favored restaurant for a few reasons. First, you get these really good, battered, fresh made, chips, with your meal, gratis. Second, also gratis, is this sauce bar with about six types of condiments, including the very L.A., spicy short, yellow pepper. That’s me, I love the free stuff. That and choices. At the counter at Falafel King are an array of salads. A few are variations on Greek/tomato things. Then, there are the eggplants. I cannot say how many eggplant salads there were, but there were many. The way to order at Falafel King is, you could get some falafel, or me, some shwarma, and two, three, four, I think even five, accompanying salads. With the chips and the free peppers believe me, you got a big bang for your buck here, and a big bang to the memory cells.
Big enough that 21 years later, I’m still trying to re-create some of those eggplant salads. One of the best at Falafel King, if memory serves me, was an eggplant and jalapeno. We are in peak eggplant season now. Peak time to dwell in happy memories. Memories of first dates, ceremonies, getting on planes, and eggplant salads. Eggplant is not an easy vegetable for memory conjuring for one cannot easily eat an eggplant. Eggplants are one of those things that need to be cooked before they are cooked. For instance, the North African cuisines, Moroccan and Tunisian, are filled with eggplant dishes that require the vegetable to be first fried and then cooked again in ways that tighten up the sauce. You can skip the second cook in many eggplant salads, but you still need a good first cook. This can be done in the oven if you are bland, on a stove-top grate if you are archaic or on an outdoor grill if you are wise. Yes, the grill provides that added element of smokiness, but it is also easier to deal with the mess and such if you prepare your dish outside.
A lot of cognoscenti poo-poo common, globe, eggplants, and yes their flavor and texture can be a bit banal, but when you load it up with garlic, oil and roasted jalapenos, who cares. Here’s the real secret to making this dish. When I said load it up with oil, I meant load it up. Put your globe eggplants on top of some pretty hot coals. It’s hard to burn or over cook them for this dish. After about 20 minutes, if one side is pretty black and crackly turn. When the whole thing looks collapsed and ready to toss, that’s an eggplant ready for its date with oil. First add your other seasonings, the mashed garlic and chopped peppers, and not too heavy a hand with salt–Mario Batali actually advises using no salt in eggplant salads, but I disagree. Then, that oil. Add. Mix. They say it’s best when mixed with a wooden spoon. Use your taste as the arbiter, but believe me, it will not fully taste right or good or like it did back on that day if you don’t use a lot of oil. This is the time of year for eggplants and the time of year for telling stories. Eat local eggplants.