In this recipe, a single eggplant is peeled and then prepared two completely different ways: a mound each of spicy, firm, strips of dark peel and tart, salty, sweet chunks of pale flesh. The contrast makes a refreshing appetizer.
3 or 4 firm Japanese eggplants, about 10 ounces total weight
To Cook the Flesh
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (reserve the spent fruit shell)
1 tablespoon sake
1 tablespoon vegetarian stock or cold water
1 piece kombu left from stock making (optional)
To Cook the Peels
1/2 teaspoon aromatic sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sake
Scant 1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/8 teaspoon kona-zanshō
Make the plum sauce: There is tremendous variation in sweetness, sourness, and softness among umeboshi plums. For this sauce, soft, squishy plums will be easier to mash. In a small glass or ceramic cup, mix the mashed plum paste, the miso, and 1 teaspoon of the mizu ame. I find using a small, flexible spatula to be the most effective tool for blending. Taste and adjust with more mizu ame if too sour or salty. Drizzle in a bit of stock, stirring to thin the sauce to a pourable consistency. Cover the sauce and chill until ready to serve.
Trim away the very top of the stem end from each eggplant. As you do so, the sepals should fall away (if not, pull them off and discard). Peel the eggplants from stem to flower end with 4 or 5 wide strokes of your knife. The pieces of peel should be about 1/8 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide, and 4 or 5 inches long. Cut these into matchsticks 1 or 11/2 inches long and set aside.
Prepare the flesh: In a small skillet or shallow saucepan, combine the lemon juice and spent shell, sake, and stock. Cut the eggplant flesh into 1/2-inch chunks, add to the pan, and toss in the lemon liquid as you arrange the pieces in a single layer. If you have a piece of kombu left over from making stock, lay it over the eggplant pieces, using it as an inner lid and flavor enhancer. Or, place an otoshi-buta (page 243) or a circle of parchment paper on the eggplant to keep it moist as it cooks.
Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook until the liquid begins to bubble. Reduce the heat, cover the pan with a regular lid, and steam the eggplant for 2 to 3 minutes. The chunks will become slightly translucent and turn a pale gold-celadon color. Remove the pan from the heat, lid intact, and let the eggplant cool naturally. Remove to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Prepare the peels: Drizzle the sesame oil into a skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the peels and stir-fry vigorously for about 1 minute, or until slightly wilted and very aromatic. Sprinkle the sugar over the peels, toss to distribute, and then add the sake to deglaze the pan, stirring to dislodge any browned bits. Continue to stir-fry, jiggling the pan to keep the pieces moving, for about 1 minute, or until the sake has evaporated. Drizzle in the soy sauce and toss to distribute well. Remove the pan from the heat and let the peels cool in the pan. Sprinkle half of the kona-zanshō over the peels and toss to distribute well. The peels can be served at room temperature, or chilled.
To serve, arrange small mounds of the flesh and the peels next to each other in a bowl or on a plate. Garnish the chunks with a spoonful of plum sauce and the peels with the remaining kona-zanshō.