Monday, October 16, 2006

catfish stew

I'd been waiting all summer for those eggplants to grow. We gave them the utmost attention this year, starting them by seed in early March, and keeping them under fabric cover when transplanted outside so that they were not riddled with flea beetle bites and ultimately destroyed as in previous years. Steve built a wooden frame so the plants could grow big and still be covered up, but not be weighed down by the fabric. Once a week or so I would lift up the side and pull out the weeds and admire the large green leaves with the deep purple hue and eventually they were loaded with little lavender flowers with yellow centers. I wasn't looking at them regularly enough though. After a while it struck me that I hadn't seen any fruits forming from those flowers, just more and more flowers all over the now massive plants. In a moment when talking with Margaret and she mentioned something about pollination. Ah-ha! Probably the bees need to get into pollinate those flowers! My knowledge of botany is kind of vague. Off came the fabric. The plants were big and strong now to withstand insect predation, and soon little black orbs tinged purple to white at the base formed dripping down from the flowers.

That was in mid-September about a month ago. Once the eggplants started forming, I removed many of the flowers and some of the smaller eggplants, so as to give the few a chance to get larger. Each week as frost became a more and more serious threat, I'd pull off all the flowers whenever I'd notice them and also some more of the wee eggplants. Now the little eggplants were big enough to save. A bunch of them could contribute to a meal! In recent days, Steve started to cover up the eggplants, peppers and tomatoes with mattress covers and sheets at night when frost threatened. I'd picked most all the tomatoes and peppers but it would be nice to get some bigger eggplants. Especially since this was a bumper year for zucchinis and I wanted so much to make ratatatouille!.

Had picked enormous numbers of zucchinis until the killing frost a couple days ago. We had not bothered to cover the massive zucchini plants. Now that the giant leaves have turned black and flattened to the ground, a huge green zucchini bat appears lying in contrast across them. It had grown there for a while undetected under the many over-arching leaves despite my daily efforts to seek out such out and prevent such monstrosities. This was only the third or so zucchini that got away from me in the course of the summer. We have enjoyed probably close to a hundred at the perfect size - around six to eight inches long.

As the zucchinis kept piling up and I used them in different ways - zucchini stir-fry with tomato and garlic, curried zucchini, zucchini quiche, zucchini en tuna noodle casserole, and froze some… I longed for the eggplants to be ready as they are the perfect partner for zucchini in ratatatouille - one of those quintessential end-of-summer dishes that absorb lots of tomatoes and peppers as well. A few carrots and green beans can also blend well if they are handy. To make a meal out of it - give it a little protein boost - nothing could beat catfish to my taste.

Catfish nuggets are a great bargain available at my local supermarket. Priced around $3 a pound, they're extraordinarily flavorful, easy to cook, and presumably quite nutritious. I think they're fish-farmed now so hopefully the environment is clean since they're the bottom suckers.

So faced with a pile of small eggplants, each about 3 inches long and not even 1/2 inch wide, I decided it was time for this end-of-summer treat. Though I've been disappointed that they were not bigger, these little gems could probably achieve gourmet status with the right spin! The trend of using baby vegetables seemed rather faddish to me, but that does not prevent me from making the best use of those wee ones when that's all you have.. Chopping up the little eggplants, I started to get concerned how they would taste, so I put in fewer than planned, so I've still got a bunch. Plus we have some more trying to grow in the garden under that mattress cover!

As with most of the things I cook, started with some oil in the cast-iron dutch oven and fried up a couple onions; added carrots, garlic and peppers, salt and eggplant. Didn't bother salting the eggplant first. It was going to be a stew after all so there would be plenty of juices to soften up the eggplant and vice versa. Turned up the heat and threw in the chunks of catfish too. Stirred them around and around. Added a few scarlet runner beans, and some minced thai peppers that were sitting in a small wooden bowl on the table, waiting for just such an opportunity.

Once the pinkness was off the catfish, I cut up some tomatoes and added those to the mix. With my wooden spoon, jabbed the chunks of catfish to break them up a bit, but not too much. Turned the heat down and covered it up and let it simmer. I forgot to put in any herbs or spices! But the flavors that had seeped earlier into the cast iron came out slowly and delicately into the stew. Tortillas on the side with perhaps a touch of sour cream or yogurt, and maybe some cheese.