A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Patladjan Parmigiana

I woke up on Sunday with a craving for a big tray of Italian food. My options, in this case, were to either fly to Italy or to make it myself. Some weeks ago I traveled out to the Black Sea to visit Sara and we made an awesome eggplant parmigiana together, so I decided to go solo and have the benefit of keeping all the leftovers for myself. I began to plan the shopping list and then determined when I'd need to begin to coax the oven into cooperating, I rehearsed every step of the operation and made a damn near perfect eggplant parmigiana in my mind, I plotted out which stores I'd need to hit to pick up which ingredients and then, because I had no alternative and it was almost noon, I got out of bed.

The first fly in the Bulgarian ointment was a familiar one. It was Sunday and the 'ascensiors' weren't ascending, nor were they descending. So I skipped down the eight flights of stairs and walked across the center to the market to pick up a dozen eggs from the 'egg lady'. I could probably get them elsewhere, but she knows me and I think she looks forward to giving me eleven sound eggs out of every dozen I buy. I had to buy the eggs first because the egg people don't tend to be there all day and it was getting late. Then, because they were eggs and I didn't want to lug them all over town, I took them home, hiked up eight flights of stairs, put them in the fridge and walked back down to the street to continue shopping. Next stop was the Billa grocery store. It's about two kilometers outside the center of town and it's a nice walk on a pretty day. This was a pretty day so off I went. There were a couple of things I thought that Billa might have which my local store, Accent, probably wouldn't, parmigiana cheese for example. There was also a rumor going around that the Billa had 'angliiski bekon'. English bacon is as close as you're likely to get to real bacon and it alone was worth the hike.

Sure enough, English bacon was available at the deli counter so I picked up half a kilo. I was also able to locate, without too much trouble, the mozzarella cheese and a packet of oregano. The parmigiana cheese proved to be more difficult to find so I had to ask the woman at the deli counter if the store had any and where they kept it. Yes, they had parmigiana cheese and it was.... A long string of Bulgarian directions followed with much gesturing and I had no idea where to find the cheese. After asking her a couple of times to slow it down, she became a little frustrated and spoke to the man next to me. He took me by the hand, led me five steps down the aisle and guided my hand to a package of parmigiana cheese. He then patted the back of my hand and walked away shaking his head thinking, no doubt, that it was terrible that they let people like me go off unattended.

So I hiked back home, trudged up the eight flights of stairs and dropped off my Billa groceries. I then realized that I hadn't gotten any tomato sauce so I gritted my teeth and went back down to the street. I went over to Accent, which is only a couple of blocks away, and picked up cans of tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes,and lutenitsa (which looks like tomato sauce but is made of peppers, onions, garlic and spices) for flavor. Then I climbed Mt. Everest and collapsed on my couch!

In making eggplant parmigiana there is an essential ingredient, and I mean 'essential' in the sense that it is necessary and required in each and every instance and cannot under any circumstances be omitted. As I was lying in total exhaustion on my couch it occurred to me that I hadn't bought a single patladjan (eggplant). If you omit the eggplant from the eggplant parmigiana you have more of a tomato sauce and cheese stew than anything else. Cursing those gods responsible for elevators and memory, I dribbled like a Slinky back down the eight flights of stairs and went back to the market. The market had exactly no patladjans but I remembered seeing some at a vegetable stand across the street from Accent. So I lumbered over to that side of town again and bought two. I made my last trip up the stairs and set to cooking!

I made a sauce from chopped tomatoes, whole tomatoes, sauce, lutenitsa, garlic and oregano. I added chopped mushrooms and onions then simmered it for an hour. I sliced the patladjan, dragged the slices through egg, breaded them with flour and spices and sauteed them in sunflower oil. I grated the parmigiana cheese and crumbled the mozzarella. I preheated my oven which only has two temperature settings, off or surface of the sun. I layered the ingredients in a baking pan and pushed the whole affair into the oven for thirty minutes.

Sort of like the bell on an oven timer, the smoke alarm woke me up. It turns out you can be groggy and still move quickly. I ran into the kitchen, opened the stove and pulled the smoking pan out...with my bare hand. The pain startled me somewhat and I dropped the pan upside down onto the kitchen floor. This is where the silver lining comes into the story.

With the hard blackened crust lying down against the floor, the underside of the patladjan parmigiana could be scrapped off and put on a plate. Although the top layer of cheese had become a carbon-like substance the hardness of marble, everything underneath was virtually edible. If I hadn't flipped the pan upside down onto the floor, I probably would have just pitched the whole thing into the trash. Modesty prevents me from giving the finished meal the praise it so rightly deserves, but it was a good one.

I have since looked online and discovered that it really isn't all that expensive to fly to Italy for a meal...arrevaderci Bulgaria!!

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