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CALIFORNIA EGGPLANT DISH WINS A CONVERT

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Question: On a visit to historic Ferndale, Calif., we ate at the Victorian Inn. Though I have not been a lover of eggplant, the inn was able to convert me! Their Eggplant Bisque, served with dinner, was excellent, and I would like to get the recipe.

- Arlene Barnett, Danville, Calif.

Answer: Sleuths select a fictional detective to portray for a Victorian Village Mysteries weekend and puzzle out clues from evidence gathered from townsfolk and shopkeepers along Ferndale's Main Street district. The premise for the next case, "A Party to Murder," is the inaugural meeting of a prestigious organization for fictional detectives, The Habeus Corps. To solve the murder, keen observers must sort out real clues from red herrings, and lest live action be mistaken for reality, the Ferndale Police Department is on hand to ensure that it's all in fun! Participants need only take their imagination and a costume to solve the mystery that takes place the first weekend in February between Friday night and Sunday lunch. For information call the Ferndale Chamber at 1-707-786-4477.

Ferndale's Victorian Village Inn, an outstanding example of 1890s vintage accommodations, authentic period antiques and modern amenities, is a landmark in northern California. Its watering hole, Henry Ford's Tavern, is complete with period automobile memorabilia and antique car museum.

Eggplant, simmered with tomatoes and thickened with toasted French bread crumbs, forms a savory base for the Victorian Village Inn's Eggplant Bisque. Although the bisque is strained, I might prefer mine left chunky, thick and hearty!

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RECIPE

EGGPLANT BISQUE

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)

2 large eggplants, cut into halves

1/4 teaspoon salt (divided use)

1 red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 small white onion, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

3 slices lemon

5 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (divided use)

1 small bay leaf, cut in half (divided use)

1/2 teaspoon chopped jalapeno

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1/8 loaf French bread, toasted and crumbled

1 sprig rosemary

1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes with juice

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or broth

1/2 cup red wine or water

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 cup sour cream

3 to 5 teaspoons heavy whipping cream

Parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil cookie pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside. Cut eggplants in half and sprinkle 1/8 teaspoon salt over the inner white part. Place eggplant halves white side down onto prepared cookie pan. Arrange red bell pepper, onion, garlic and lemon slices around eggplant. Season with 2 1/2 teaspoons thyme, 1/2 bay leaf and jalapeno. Combine balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon olive oil and drizzle over vegetables. Place French bread in small pan. Bake bread (until dry and brown) and roast vegetables at the same time. Roast vegetables uncovered 25 to 30 minutes or until vegetables begin to brown. Remove from oven and discard lemon slices. Crumble bread into large saucepan. Scoop centers from eggplants and add hot eggplant and vegetables to bread. Add rosemary and remaining thyme, bay leaf and olive oil. Add tomatoes with juice, chicken stock and wine or water.

Place saucepan over medium heat and cook eggplant mixture 10 to 12 minutes, stirring frequently, or until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and scrape into blender. Puree. Strain out any large lumps. Season with remaining salt and pepper.

Place sour cream in small bowl and thin to desired consistency with whipping cream. Pour bisque into serving bowls and top with a dollop of the sour cream mixture and a sprig of parsley. Makes about 6 cups.