3 August 2009

If sunshine had a taste

While crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s in my premaster thesis that I submitted today with the hope that my professor will finally approve it, I realized that many don’t get it why I chose to do my Master’s in English Linguistics in not exactly an English-speaking country – the Netherlands. To be honest, I still don’t get it myself. Nay, actually I do. I mean, I know what brought me to the country some four years ago in the first place -- I needed to resolve an unresolved relationship with my Dutch ex-boyfriend. That of course I did not do; some men are just cowards. Instead, I found solace in the beauty of Amsterdam and talked myself into coming back, preferably quite soon, not because of somebody but because of me. I got enamored with Amsterdam. And despite the fact that I was not sure this is really my city (there is Paris I haven’t yet been to, after all), I wanted to be an Amsterdammer. And since English, my old flame, had always held my heart, I decided I should start from there and pursue my Master degree in English Linguistics in Amsterdam.

But first was a break-up. Although I think I can call it the break-up, my, so far, the most painful heart-wreck.

I met Nikolai (a Dutchman with Slavic heritage) online --please, don’t roll your eyes; I was nineteen and naïve -- in the year 2002. During the next two years I would mistakenly believe that we had something what others call relationship. Would I so much as doubt him when he even asked my parents for my hand during the one and only time he was visiting me in my hometown in Russia, back in crisp and blue-skyed September, 2003? I didn’t smell any lies, not unlike my mother, though, who sensed a brewing hoax, and did not hesitate to inform me on her suspicions with a dedicated regularity, which drove me up the wall, although deep in my heart I knew she was right (I just didn’t have the crust to admit it to myself.The reason for all the doubts was that soon after Nikolai had gone back home, his telephone calls became as rare as rain in desert, and generally, every promise he’d make he’d easily break. The misery lasted until the August of 2004 when one windy afternoon I called to simply say hello and in return got dumped -- on the phone.

I knew long before that to be a dumpee is no fun. What I learnt this time was that to be a dumpee by phone is hell. The whole situation seemed to me unbelievable, as if I watched a waiter spitting in my presence on my sunny side-up, for instance. It just didn’t make sense. So after thirty minutes of telephone agony, I made a hell of an effort over myself as to finally hang up, my face purple from tears, anger and pain. The memories of what I did afterwards, besides crying, crying and crying, are blurry now, yet two things I do remember.

First, soon after I stopped howling like a wolf (in a week or so), I figured I should somehow go to the Netherlands to have Nikolai for a final word. That was a classic ‘easier said than done’ scenario, since I couldn’t afford to just nonchalantly hop a plane to Amsterdam or whatever. (That I would do one year later by participating in the Au-pair student programme in the Netherlands.)
Second, I emerged in the kitchen and made my mother’s eggplant ragout, or stew, something reminiscent of ratatouille, and yet not quite like it. In retrospect, I don’t think I intended to make this eggplant stew per se; I wasn’t in the mood for pretty much anything. Not even for chocolate ice-cream, my all-out mood booster. Yet I felt like chopping and dicing (one of the post break-up syndromes, I believe). And since there were those shiny globes of eggplants on the kitchen countertop, I jumped at the idea to turn them into the eggplant ragout. Seriously, it was the dish that comforted me while I was grappling with the rough waters of the break-up. I made batch after batch of it. As I stood by the countertop chopping onions, mincing garlic, grating carrots, dicing shiny red bell peppers along with glossy dark-purple eggplants, I felt all right. I felt still. I even smiled at the sight, sound and smell of the onion and garlic dancing in a skillet in a pool of heated olive oil, joined then by the army of the fragrant, vigorously chopped and diced, seasonal vegetables that eventually would mingle into something so infinitely delicious and simple, something that would taste even better on the second or even the third day making me aware that in certain circumstances time indeed works wonders.

I wouldn’t meet Nikolai during my first year-long stay in the Netherlands; like I said, some men they chicken out so easily, even when it’s only about closure. But that’s the deep past now, so be it.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been tirelessly making my mother’s eggplant stew again. No break-up involved this time. Today I, quite simply, value this dish for its miraculous capacity to remind me, at least over the summer months, that the sun is always shining, even behind the now-curly, now-thick clouds that are aplenty over here, in Amsterdam.

And if sunshine had any taste, in my world it would be that of the eggplant stew.

Russian eggplant stew
(one of the many variations)

Although eggplant stew and its variations are thoroughly enjoyed in Russia throughout the summer months, there is no distinctive Russian name for this dish. It would be fait to say that Provencal ratatouille or Sicilian caponata are European cousins of this Russian eggplant stew in question. Unlike the former two, though, the latter also contains carrot as main ingredient. In the herbs department, fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley or both were what my mother would swear by when seasoning her eggplant stew. Served with boiled potatoes and more fresh dill for sprinkling, it was – and still is – my summer comfort food. Simple, smile-inducing and mysterious.

Yields 4 servings

1 large eggplant, diced
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 medium carrot, grated
5 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped OR one 14 oz. (400g) can whole peeled tomatoes, mashed and juices reserved
1 tsp ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup or more finely chopped fresh dill leaves (or flat-leaf parsley or basil; no matter what herb you go for, just use a lot)
Olive oil

Put the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with the salt (1 tsp). Toss well and set aside. (Salt will soften the eggplant and also rid it of its internal moisture.)

In the meantime, heat 2 Tsp olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium flame. Dump in the onion, and cook, stirring often, until soft but not browned, 4-5 mins. Add the garlic, bell pepper and carrot and keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, about 5-6 mins; they will slightly reduce in volume. Add the tomatoes, along with the reserved juices (I used canned tomatoes), and stir to combine. Add the eggplant -- you don’t have to rinse it, which is handy because this way you won’t have to need to salt the dish again -- black pepper and ground coriander. Stir well to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until everything is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat. Taste, and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Fold in the fresh dill (or other herbs of your choice).

Serve as spread on toast, side dish to meat, over boiled potatoes, in pasta, with greens. Possibilities are endless; joy is yours, Dear Reader.

1 comment:

Anna said...

thank you for sharing so honestly. that made for a beautiful story, anya.