Inspired chefs live by the motto "Been there; done that." Faced with a market basket of fresh, seasonal ingredients, chefs accept the challenge and create something new. Sometimes, however, their creations are so good that restaurant customers don't want to see a dish disappear from a menu.
Roasted Eggplant and Wonton Napoleon is one of those dishes. The layered tower of highly seasoned, roasted eggplant and tomato, crisp wontons and special sauces has had an honored place on the menu since Arugula restaurant opened in 1996 in West Hartford Center.
The dish arose from a collaboration between Arugula owner/chef Christiane Gehami and sous chef Michael Kask. "He likes Asian and Indian influence. I love anything Arabic," says the Egypt-born Gehami, whose family moved to the U.S. when she was 6. A fan of the flavor of baba ghanoush but not its rather bland appearance, Gehami wanted to create an eggplant dish that had visual interest while reflecting Kask's preferences, too.
"I took those flavors — he loves curry and anything crunchy, like [fried] wontons — and combined them," she says. To reflect her Arabic background, Gehami chose from the myriad spices, herbs and sauces that are the foundation of her kitchen: cumin, ginger, mint, oregano, cayenne pepper, sesame seed tahini and spicy hot harissa.
As the growing season progresses, the main ingredients of this dish — eggplant and tomatoes — will be at peak flavor. The dish requires a number of preparation steps, but Gehami says that constructing the Napoleon "is the easiest thing in the world."
• Each component of this dish can be prepared in advance because the various parts will keep, refrigerated, up to five days. (Exception: Do not refrigerate the fried wontons; they will become soggy.)
• The vinaigrette has a bold quality from the potent fragrance of curry. It also is a quick way to put a Middle Eastern spin on fish, roast chicken or shellfish
ROASTED EGGPLANT AND WONTON 'NAPOLEON'Vegetables
• 1 large eggplant, about 1-1/2 pounds
•Mixture of 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 3 teaspoons dried mint, 3 cloves minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste
•4 plum tomatoes, about 3/4 pound
•Mixture of 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley and salt and pepper to taste
Peel eggplant, and slice into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Coat with oil, then toss with oregano seasoning mixture. Put eggplant discs in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown.
Slice tomatoes into three wedges. Toss with thyme seasoning mix and oil. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast in a slow oven (about 200 degrees) until tomatoes begin to dry out.
• 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
•1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
•1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
•1 teaspoon madras-style curry powder
•1/4 teaspoon ground fresh ginger root
•1/8 teaspoon harissa (see note)
•1/3 cup vegetable oil
•1/3 cup olive oil
•Coarse sea salt and black pepper to taste
In the bowl of a food process, combine the lemon juice, garlic, mustard, curry powder, ginger and harissa. With the machine running, gradually add the vegetable and olive oils until the vinaigrette emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper
Note: Harissa is a North African hot sauce made from chili peppers and garlic. It is available in specialty and ethnic stores such as Cosmos International in West Hartford.
• Juice of 1 lemon
•2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed spread)
•1 tablespoon minced garlic
•1 teaspoon ground cumin
•1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
•1/4 cup canola oil
•Salt and pepper, to taste
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the lemon, tahini, garlic, cumin and cayenne. With motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until the consistency of the sauce is smooth. If it is too thick, thin with a bit of water.
•8 wonton shells
•3 or 4 tablespoons canola oil
Cover bottom of a frying pan with oil, and heat. When oil is hot, fry the wonton shells till slightly browned. Remove, and drain on paper towels.
To finish dish:
•3 tablespoons canola oil
• 1 small red onion, sliced
•8 ounces crumbled feta cheese
•1 bunch watercress
Coat the bottom of a sauté pan with oil, and heat over medium-high heat until oil is hot. Add onion and prepared eggplant and tomatoes, and cook, stirring, until onion is tender and vegetables are heated through. Add 2 tablespoons of the Curry Vinaigrette (or more, if the vegetables seem dry) and the crumbled feta. Heat until cheese begins to melt. Stir in a handful of watercress.
To plate the Napoleon: On a serving plate, place 1 fried wonton. Drizzle 1 teaspoon tahini sauce over the wonton. Top with a portion of the vegetable mixture, and add another wonton. Drizzle 1 teaspoon tahini over the wonton, then top with more vegetables. Serve immediately with Curry Vinaigrette on the side. Serves 4.
Arugula is at 953 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, 860-561-4888.
Visit www.courant.com/onegreatdishto watch Arugula's Christiane Gehami preparing Roasted Eggplant and Wonton Napoleon.