Month of July: “Purple Citrus Sweet Perfume” Recipe: Smoked Eggplant and Hibiscus Salt

“We who live in quiet places have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives.” Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was 20, a boyfriend and I signed up to be tree planters for Georgia Pacific. Our adventure: to plant loblolly pine trees. Our pay: hard work in the fresh air, 3 cents a tree and living free! So we loaded up a Jeep Cherokee, the one with the wooden side panels, and hitched a camper to its tail and headed south to Texas. Buna, Texas to be exact, an area with a low population, low elevation and oodles of poisonous snakes!

One day while planting alone, spring sun shining, unsuccessfully eyeballing how to mark 10 foot rows, I suddenly saw a young woman heading in my direction. A lioness with a thick blonde mane and a confident swagger, hoedad (a tool to plant trees) in one hand and a tree bag strapped to her hips approached me while criss crossing rows. “Do you have a Newport by chance?” she asked. I did and we shared a smoke. And that is how I met Abby.

We became fast friends and by the end of the tree planting season she invited me to spend a summer with her at a cabin in southwest Wisconsin. We could live out our shared childhood fantasy of “Little House in the Big Woods.” She lured me with talk of living like Henry David Thoreau: no electricity, artesian water to collect, planting gardens, unregretfully sucking the marrow of life. She told tall tales of Kickapoo characters and salt of the earth Amish neighbors. In other words, an adventure! The boyfriend and I did not last but Abby and I did. I said yes to the offer and it turned out to be just as magical as she claimed.

Looking back, that summer was the happiest and most liberating time of my young adult life. It was there during that period where I learned who I was, where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. And then as soon as I realized it, I somehow forgot.

Ingredients: For the hibiscus salt: 1 tablespoon dried hibiscus flowers, 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon. For the salad: 2 medium eggplants, 3 sweet red peppers, 1 ripe tomato, juice of 2 lemons, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 3 garlic cloves minced, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, sea salt and pepper, 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 3 tablespoons skinned and chopped hazelnuts

  1. Two days in advance place the hibiscus flowers in a food processor and pulse to a rough powder. Mix with the salt and allow to infuse for 2 days before using.
  2. Place eggplants directly on a stove burner over medium heat, gas or electric and keep turning until they are evenly blistered, blackened and soft. This will take 10-15 minutes. Once cooked, place the eggplants in a sturdy plastic bag and let cool, this will make them easier to peel. Peel the eggplants and discard the skin. Slice the flesh into very thin strips and place in a large bowl. Any bits of eggplant that have not cooked should be discarded.
  3. Repeat same process above for peppers. (I used the oven for the peppers).
  4. Add the tomato, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and cumin. Season to taste.
  5. Sprinkle with the parsley, hazelnut and hibiscus salt.

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