Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Trials of Timbale: An Elaborate Eggplant Experience

Last week we hosted a family dinner to celebrate my Mom's birthday. As with previous family dinners, I planned on making a special dish that was equal parts taste and presentation. This year I really wanted to wow my Mom with one of her favorite foods, eggplant. I decided to make an Eggplant Timbale, which is made of of an outer shell of eggplant strips, stuffed with a pasta-based filling, then baked into a mold using a spring form pan. I remember first seeing this recipe done by Giada De Laurentiis, and knew that someday I would have to try out this amazing meal! 

I've been fortunate to have most of the recipes that I experiment with turn out the way that I had hoped, without any major fiascos. This time, not so much. Let me start from the beginning.....

When I decided to do this dish, I went searching online for a timbale recipe. As luck would have it, the first recipe that popped up was Giada's. I looked it over and felt comfortable with all of the steps. The only thing that I wanted to change was the pasta filling. Hers called for the addition of some meats (you can really go any direction you want with the filling....meats, veggies, cheeses). I wanted to stay away from meat in this dish, so I started to click through other timbale recipes. I found one that had the exact filling that I was looking for - chopped tomatoes, sautéed garlic and leeks, fresh herbs and ziti. Perfect! I check out the assembly steps on this version of the recipe. Piece of cake! On to the big day....

I stared prepping everything about three hours before dinner time. No rushing, just working at a nice and easy pace. I sliced up the eggplant and drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, and placed the first of three trays (you need a lot of eggplant for this) in the oven, just like the recipe that I was following had instructed. In 15 minutes, the slices should be ready to go. Just cool 'em and layer 'em in the pan! About 5 minutes in, I hear this crazy sizzling from the oven. I opened the oven door and what is supposed to be baked eggplant looks more like sizzling bacon, and quickly on it's way from crispy to blackened! Holy cow!!!! 

It didn't take me long to realize what went wrong. Fresh cut eggplant will soak up olive oil like a sponge, which can encourage someone to accidentally go overboard with the oil. Once the eggplant starts to cook, it will release the oil. This is a good method for on the grill, but when you do it in an oven like I was, the eggplant ends up frying itself in the released oils, and in this case burning to a crisp. We still had another two trays of fresh eggplant that needed to be prepared. My lovely wife played it cool and suggested that we just cook up the eggplant as is and serve it as a side with the pasta. Call me determined, or call me a hard-headed Calabrese, but I wasn't about to give up on this dish just yet.

First thing I did was run to the store to grab more eggplant. You need a good amount of eggplant slices for this dish. Since I already sacrificed 1/3 of my batch, I needed to replenish. I got home and started thinking to myself as I'm slicing, "why did this work so much easier for Giada?". Then, as I turned around, I saw it. Sitting there on my book shelf was my Giada cookbook. My AUTOGRAPHED Giada cookbook. I started searching through it. Could it be in here? Would it be in here? Bingo! Giada's timbale recipe, complete with step-by-step photographs. I skimmed through and found the answer...she grilled her eggplant strips! So the recipe that I was following did give poor instructions for the eggplant preparation, just as I thought. Sonofabitch!

I had no time to fire up my grill, so I did what I thought would be best. I started to brown the eggplants on my stovetop griddle. While this method did work better than in the oven, it was still a flat surface and would have caused the eggplant to fry in the released oils if I didn't pay close attention. A stovetop grill grate would have been ideal to allow the oils to drip away from the eggplant, but I had to work with what was available.  Thirty minutes later, the cutlets were done and ready for assembly. Everything was layered and put together in the spring form pan, and into the oven it went. I was still on schedule! But as it was cooking, I could still hear sizzling sounds coming from the oven. I checked it out and found drips of oil coming from the bottom of the pan. The eggplants were still releasing some of the retained oil! Why didn't I look at Giada's book from the beginning!!!! All I could do now was hope that the eggplant would dry out just enough while it baked.

I removed the pan from the oven. Looked good, smelled good, didn't feel too mush on top. We called everyone to sit down for the big presentation. I placed my presentation dish (a glass cake dish) on top of the pan, face down. Gently flipped it, gave the pan a little wiggle, and out with ease slid the timbale from the pan onto the dish...and then off of the dish and onto our kitchen counter top. SPLAT! One big, hot pile of steaming pasta with an eggplant crust plopped all over the counter. As I scramble to grab a spatula to stop it from falling onto the floor, CRASH goes the cake plate all over the floor. After a few four letter words to accompany the scooping and sweeping, I just started to laugh. It's all I could do. It was simply a case of TMO (Too Much Oil).

Luckily our counter tops were just wiped and cleaned before this fiasco. I quickly scooped it all into a beautiful pasta serving dish, mixed it all together and served with a big smile on my face. In typical motherly fashion, my Mom insisted that the meal was out of this world and it didn't matter what it looked like. Since everyone had a few servings, I'll accept that compliment. But don't let this happy ending fool you...I'm still a stubborn, hard-headed Calabrese and I will tackle this dish again. And I will be sure to fire up my grill and follow Giada's recipe from step one!

To see Giada De Laurentiis' Timbale recipe, click here .


Holly Hawkins said...

Great teaching and memorable experience. Did the glass chunks enhance the dish?

una mamma italiana said...

hahahahahahahaha i JUST now finally read the whole story! Reminds me of my failed Easter Pie last year:( But like any good Italian, i will be back at it in a couple weeks! Buna fortuna as you attempt this one again - you are brave!