Eggplant needs some TLC. Some years, it grows an endless amount of satisfyingly plump purple fruits. What is one to do with so much of a vegetable which is sometimes hard to cook, and somewhat of a blank slate – boring on its own? Many folks avoid eggplant all together, for several reasons: they don’t like the taste, texture, hassle, or it causes them gastrointestinal distress. Because of that last reason, it’s best to soak the eggplant first before cooking it. I’m not sure what this does scientifically, but superstitiously soaking supposedly removes some of the “nightshade toxins” and makes it more easily digested for some folks.
Cut the eggplant into either half-inch slices or cubes (skin on) and soak them in a mixture of water to cover, salt, and a splash of vinegar. Soak for at least a half hour (longer is better), stirring occasionally and weighing down the eggplant (which naturally floats) with a heavy enough lid. When done soaking, the liquid will be a murkier color than what you started with – drain off all the liquid. When flavoring eggplant that’s been soaked this way, remember to add less salt than usual, since it’s picked up some salt from the brine.
Eggplant needs some flavor and texture help. I have a few tried-and-tested, community-approved methods that leave some people exclaiming, “Wow, you got me to eat eggplant because you did something good to it!”
Marinated Eggplant Cubes, for salad or casseroles:
Take the pre-soaked eggplant cubes and mix them in a bowl with spices & herbs & olive oil. The classic flavors that make me think of really good Italian food – lots of oregano, basil, a pinch of fennel seeds & a pinch of marjoram (one of the few instances when marjoram is a must-have for me), salt & pepper, and a drizzle of decent-tasting olive oil, toss and let sit for at least a half an hour (again, longer is better to absorb more of the flavors). Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Toss the eggplant mixture, herbs and oil and all, onto baking sheet pans in one layer. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the eggplant is soft when prodded, and starting to brown and crisp slightly. Let cool, and then mix the eggplant into a salad of some sort. My favorite is to add roasted, marinated tasty eggplant cubes into some greens (like arugula or baby spinach) with feta cheese, good olives, sliced red onion, with a little bit of a light tahini dressing on top. Eggplant cubes can also go nicely mixed into a casserole of any kind, with the confidence that it’s already completely pre-cooked. In a sauce (tomato, pesto, or creamy) with cheese on top, you can’t go wrong. Green tomatoes are a great pairing for eggplant, especially when given the same cubed, roasted, marinated herb treatment.
Spicy Breaded Eggplant
For this recipe, gather your bowl of pre-soaked half-inch eggplant slices, a small bowl of oil (canola or your preferred kind), a couple of greased baking sheet pans, and the breading mixture. You can use any kind of flour you like – white, whole wheat, rice, cornmeal, etc. My personal favorite breading for this dish is a third rye flour, a third cornmeal, and a third white wheat flour. To this mix, add sprinkles (or spoonfuls) of cayenne, salt, pepper, and paprika. Mix well. Proceed to use one hand for wet ingredients (eggplant & oil) and one hand for dry (flour), to prevent caking your hands up with a spicy mixture. With your wet hand, pick a slice of eggplant and dip it into the oil bowl, letting some of the excess oil drip off. Place the oiled slice into the flour bowl, and with your dry hand, cover the slice thoroughly with flour mixture. Place the slices of breaded eggplant onto the baking sheet, back to back since it really doesn’t need any space in between slices. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the center of the eggplant gives way to softness.
Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes & Mozzarella (photo)
This is a very simple recipe, and quite succulent in its pure few ingredients. Prepare pre-soaked half-inch sliced eggplant and an equal number of half-inch slices of tomatoes, plus some fresh basil leaves, and optionally zucchini or yellow summer squash chunks. I recommend large or medium fresh heritage tomato varieties, from a farmers’ market or from your garden, while you can get them. I’m not a big fan of out-of-season-tomatoes, if the flavor and texture suffer.
In a casserole dish, put one layer of eggplant slices. Take the fresh basil leaves and spread them out over the eggplant. Next, put a tomato slice on top of each eggplant slice. Sprinkle the optional squash chunks in between. Then, Drizzle olive oil over top, and salt & pepper to taste. Bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft and fully cooked. Add shredded mozzarella over top and return to the oven for just a few minutes to melt the cheese. Great served as a side dish, or featured by itself on top of a slice of bread.
Still aren’t satisfied with eggplant? Deep-fry it! Use your favorite batter – I usually do a light, tempura-like batter with flour & cornstarch with a bit of oregano, salt, pepper, & paprika, and a bit of cornmeal for extra crunch. Dip your pre-soaked slices (thinner is better for frying) in batter, letting some excess batter drip off. Drop into hot oil to cook for about 5-10 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden and the eggplant is soft inside. A note about deep-frying setup: make sure it’s safe – as in, use a pan with at least 4 inches of height in case of splatter etc. Don’t over-fill with oil – you only need about 2-3 inches of oil to fry in, maximum. Use an oil with a higher smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or (heaven forbid) lard. Pre-heat the oil on medium-high (you may need to turn down later if it’s smoking a lot). Keep an eye on the oil, and test the heat by placing your hand about two inches above the oil – when it starts to get uncomfortably hot, test the oil with a drop of batter – does the batter just sink sadly (not ready), or does it quickly sizzle and float? When you believe the oil’s ready, drop a tester slice in and see how it does. When it cools, taste it, and modify your methods as needed.
Marinara sauce is a classic pairing with fried eggplant. Warm thick tomato sauce with lots of oregano, basil, and a pinch of marjoram.
Chipotle Mayo is another easy-to-make favorite dipping sauce. Simply mix a sprinkle or two (to taste) of chipotle powder into a little mayonnaise. Alternately, you could use smoked paprika with your favorite hot sauce.
BBQ sauce, or any dressing can also help your fried eggplant disappear, but chances are that it’ll disappear on its own pretty quickly!
What are your favorite ways to eat eggplant?