When my husband and I first started dating back in 2003 he had just recently returned to Germany after spending a few years abroad in the United States studying mathematics at the University of Rhode Island. We were both graduate students in the mathematics department and studied together there for two and a half years but only started dating after he finished his degree and left to go back home. For several years we dated long distance, which was very difficult since both of us had full-time jobs, me as a mathematics instructor at a community college in RI and he as a computer programmer in the Cologne area of Germany. This meant long periods, months at a time, of not seeing each other with only phone calls at odd times, because of the six-hour time difference, daily emails and weekly letters/packages to each other to hold us over between visits. My visits to Germany were usually in the summer when I had a few months off from teaching or over the Christmas break when I could stay there for at least three weeks. During these times we made many trips together not only to the neighboring city of Cologne but also trips to Austria, Switzerland, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Greece and Italy. We had lots of fun and saw many interesting places together on our trips over the years. However, sometimes the best times and the most memorable places end up being closer to home than you’d think.
One of the very first places that Thomas ever took me to while I was visiting him in his hometown just outside of Cologne, Germany was a little tea house/café called Samowar that no longer exists now. In its place stands the Rhein-Berg Gallerie, a mall that spans about one city block of the downtown area on our small pedestrian shopping street. There you can find a bio market, designer clothes and shoe stores, Saturn (a mega home appliance and technology store), Müller (a large drugstore chain that carries everything from cosmetics to toys, paper products to diapers) and of course several different fast food chains including pizza and ice cream. This massive consumer center stands where the former tea house once stood in an old building dating back at least a hundred years. Now, I go to this mall, don’t get me wrong, usually to frequent the bio market and to get ice cream with Anna sometimes but it still makes me sad to think that this was once an old series of storefronts and homes from over a century ago that were wiped out without so much of a trace left as to what was once there, all in the name of consumerism. I miss going to the tea house with Thomas, with its eclectic feel, its semi-formal dining on antique tables and chairs, the feeling that you are being warped back in time as the ambiance of the old building and its architecture wash over you in the dim candlelight. And as you were being served a pot of tea with lovely, delicate, old bone china you couldn’t help but get the feeling that you were in a special place. A place that beckoned to you from times of old. A time when people preferred to gather leisurely and sip on a cup of tea or coffee and share conversation rather than rushing around from shop to shop with a to go cup in their hands, when service was a lot more than a greasy meal served up in a disposable dish in no time at all, but rather a thoughtful time-consuming ritual that left you feeling comforted, well nourished and not without a little bit of old world charm. That is what you’ll get if you care to share in the making of my favorite dish with a general recipe that I procured from the cook at the tea house before they tore the place down and this fantastic eggplant and zucchini dish was destined to be served no more. If you would like to share in the ritual of making time consuming comfort food that warms the soul then make this dish, one of my favorites from their menu, when you get the chance and sit together sharing stories with a friend over a good meal and of course a good pot of tea.
Tea House Eggplant Dish
Makes about 4-6 servings
- 1 large Eggplant
- 2 Zucchinis
- 4 medium-sized Onions
- 4 Cloves of Garlic
- 3 tablespoons Tomato Paste
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Herbs de Provence
- 1 cup Heavy Cream
- 1/2 to 1 cup Water
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup Olive Oil
- 1 cup shredded cheese for melting (I used a mild Gouda)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Rice or Pasta of your choice*
*When I made this I served it on top of red rice and omitted the melted cheese on top. Then, when I served it as a leftover I melted cheese on top, like they did at the tea house, and served it with a side of pasta. Both ways were delicious but it was definitely tastier with the melted cheese on top!
Dice the eggplant and put in a large bowl, cover with plenty of salt and fill the bowl with cold water. Put a plate on top and something heavy on top of the plate to keep the eggplant submerged while preparing the other ingredients.
Wash and dice the zucchini and set aside.
Finely dice four onions and four cloves of garlic. Heat a pan to medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot add the onions. Saute until translucent and then add the garlic. Cook for a minute more and then stir in the Herbs de Provence and the tomato paste. Cook for a few minutes while stirring to incorporate everything, then remove the pan from the heat. Preheat the oven to 475° Fahrenheit.
Drain the eggplant and then rinse and drain it again to remove any excess salt. In a large cast iron pan or dutch oven saute the eggplant in the remaining olive oil until almost soft and then add the zucchini. Continue to cook everything while stirring occasionally until both the eggplant and zucchini are tender. Add the sauteed onion and tomato mixture to the eggplant and zucchini and mix thoroughly. When everything is hot and well mixed add the cream and slowly add up to 1 cup of water while stirring over medium heat until the mixture thickens and is just a little bit juicy but not too soupy. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then transfer to a baking dish and sprinkle the top with shredded cheese. Bake in the top rack position of the oven for about 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve over rice or with pasta. Guten Appetit!