Sep 02 2014
An Eggplant Kind of Summer
Around the fifth time we dropped a few pounds of eggplant into our red market basket, we paused and took a closer look at our selection. We always buy globe eggplant (or if available, fairytale) each August for several recurring dishes. For the past three summers, a muggy August night wasn’t complete without heating up the house even more to make Frankie’s Eggplant Marinara or Ottolenghi’s corn polenta topped with stewed tomatoes and eggplant. But beyond seeking out eggplant specifically for those two dishes, we’ve rarely bought eggplant in the eager, slightly impulsive way we buy tomatoes, corn, or peaches.
Yet this summer, nearly every week it’s been in season, we’ve placed a few eggplant next to the tomatoes and peaches, taking the nightshade home to creatively integrate it in dishes that aren’t our two standard eggplant meals.
It started with a clipped out recipe for this fried eggplant and tomato salad, a preview from Yotam Ottolenghi’s upcoming book, Plenty More. Ottolenghi isn’t a secret fan of eggplant; his original Plenty cookbook dedicates an entire chapter to the vegetable.
In this salad recipe, Ottolenghi writes that the fried eggplant is like a sponge, with the salt both firming up the flesh and ensuring that it cooks evenly. The salty crispiness of the eggplant acts as the bridge between a perfectly acceptable tomato and cucumber salad – a salad only memorable in its simplicity of seasonal ingredients – and a tomato salad that becomes a crave-worthy entree. Demonstrating his superior grasp of flavor combinations, Ottolenghi binds the eggplant, juicy tomatoes, and cool cucumbers with a vegetal-tasting herb oil and a tangy yogurt.
Each time I eat this salad, I consciously load my fork up with every component, not wanting to take a bite that doesn’t contain that spark of crunch and salt. A simple summer salad should require minimal time in the kitchen, and fittingly, the assembly and preparation becomes virtually nonexistent after you’ve fried the eggplant. When I make it, I tend to combine all the ingredients together and let them merge and mingle for 30 minutes as I prepare the other part of dinner, which lately has been an herby zucchini fritter that enhances that prevalence of this salad’s herb oil.
Like Ottolenghi, Deborah Madison has a doctorate level understanding of textures and flavors. I’m continually surprised by the flavor results that stem from Madison’s remarkably simple recipes. In Vegetable Literacy, Madison often suggests pairings that initially read as too simple to be memorable, like this next eggplant dish.
Admittedly not the most attractive of colors (a recent dinner guest mistook the appearance of the vegetable for duck), you forget the gray-ish color upon the first bite. Instead, the eggplant takes on umami flavor (a distinct savory taste supplied by glutamate, an amino acid found in ingredients like miso and soy sauce), pushed further into sublime territory by a sprinkling of sugar.
Madison isn’t one for a superfluous ingredient; the slivered green onions balance out the chew, livening up bites with their fresh crunch. Along with miso, mirin acts as the architect behind these addictive flavors. A sweet fermented wine derived from rice, cultured rice, and shochu (a distilled alcoholic beverage), mirin serves as both a flavor enhancer and a binding agent, allowing this particular marinade to cling to the eggplant pieces instead of clump together.
Though we own a few pasta cookbooks that have become sauce-stained and less than pristine from repeated use, we recently found a pasta cookbook that enhances our small, well-loved collection: Pasta, from the Rome Sustainable Food Project. (I also highly recommend their vegetable cookbook, Verdure). Each year, visiting professors and researchers descend upon the American Academy in Rome, spending time in a sequestered environment to research and write. One of the purported benefits of a sabbatical like this is the freedom from everyday tasks like laundry and cooking. Unfortunately, until recently, the food at the American Academy was less than inspiring.
Alice Waters, along with chef Mona Talbott, decided to integrate the food program into the greater picture of the academy’s role, linking food – its sourcing, its preparation, the community around it – to the academy’s mission of stimulation and intellectualism. Since 2007, the food project has “nourished and supported work and conviviality.” In addition to bringing scholars together over simple, seasonal food, all members of the academy have the chance to help harvest and prepare the food. As one member wrote on the website, “the kitchen at the academy knits together the seemingly disparate worlds of scholarship and eating”, concluding that “we learned to live inside a landscape” (a landscape that should always include food.)
The simplicity and seasonality of RSFP’s meals translate easily into a home kitchen, serving the exact same purpose that it does at the academy: to allow those of us who spend a lot of time sitting in front of computers or lost in the depths of our internal dialogues to reconnect to the bigger, greater world, apply tactile skills in the kitchen, and develop a truly comforting meal. This eggplant pasta dish shines for how few ingredients are necessary to snap one out of her end-of-workday exhaustion and into the world of comfort and relaxation – and ideally, conversation. I can attest to the sentiment behind author Christopher Boswell’s glowing blurb before this recipe: “This is my absolute favorite pasta in the world.” “In the world”: I don’t tend to write in hyperboles like this, but it has been our favorite pasta dish we’ve made this summer.
So, there you have it: this August, I moved beyond my two standard eggplant dishes, not discarding them for something new and better, but adding to my repertoire while simultaneously eliminating this unconscious eggplant rut into which I’d fallen. I’ve finally grasped the versatility of this vegetable, appreciating the many ways it can provide comfort, texture, and a heartiness to a meal or side dish. Though I’ve highlighted our three favorite eggplant dishes of the summer, I easily could have shared at least four additional recipes that we can’t stop making. In these waning summer weeks, I’m now consciously saving room in my market bag for a few eggplant each time I go to a farmers’ market, aware of all of the meal options that stem from a few pounds of eggplant. Distracted by all of these new-to-me eggplant recipes, we’ve yet to make eggplant marinara this summer. I think I know what’s for dinner tonight.
Eggplant, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad
Recipe Source: Plenty More
- ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves with tender stems
- ½ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves with tender stems
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 2 small green chiles, such as Thai, seeds removed, chopped, divided
- ½ cup olive oil, divided
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more
- ¾ cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 medium eggplants (about 1½ pounds), cut into 1½” pieces
- Vegetable oil (for frying; about 2 cups)
- 1 pound small tomatoes (about 8), cut into wedges
- ½ pound Persian cucumbers (about 3), sliced
- Place sliced eggplant pieces in a colander; season with ¾ tsp. salt. Let sit 30 minutes to drain, then pat dry.
- While the eggplant is sitting, purée the cilantro, parsley, garlic, half of chiles, and ¼ cup olive oil in a blender or food processor until very smooth; season herb oil with salt and set aside.
- Once the herb oil is complete, whisk yogurt, lemon juice, and remaining ¼ cup olive oil in a small bowl; season with salt and set yogurt sauce aside.
- Fit a medium pot with thermometer; pour in vegetable oil to measure 2”. Heat over medium-high heat until thermometer registers 375°. (If you don’t have a deep fry thermometer, you can eyeball the oil and put a piece of eggplant in as a test piece, when you think it’s hot enough.
- Working in batches, fry eggplant pieces, turning often, until golden brown and tender, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer eggplants to paper towels to drain; season with salt. Let cool.
- Combine eggplant in a large bowl with tomatoes, cucumbers, and remaining chiles; drizzle with some reserved herb oil and toss to combine. Season salad with salt. Spoon reserved yogurt sauce onto a platter, top with salad, and drizzle with more herb oil. Enjoy!
Eggplant with Miso Sauce
Recipe Source: Vegetable Literacy
- 12 ounces of eggplant (slender eggplant works well)
- Sea Salt
- 3 tablespoons white miso
- 2 teaspoons mirin
- warm water for thinning purposes
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- 3 green onions, slivered on the diagonal
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- Slice the eggplants on the diagonal about 1/3 inch thick. Lightly salt the slices and lets stand for 30 minutes before blotting with a paper towel.
- Make the miso sauce: mix the miso, mirin, and sugar in a small bowl, forming a paste. Then stir in enough warm water to thin to a creamy consistency.
- Heat the soil in a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the eggplant, season with salt, and cook, turning until tender and brown, about 10 minutes.
- Add the miso sauce and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, until the eggplant is soft and thoroughly cooked. (If the sauce sticks you can add a small amount of water to the pan).
- Finish with green onions and sesame seeds. Enjoy!
Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Roasted Eggplant, and Ricotta Salata
Recipe Source: Pasta
- 1 large globe eggplant (1 1/2 lbs), peeled in stripes and cut into 1/2 inch dice
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 25 basil leaves
- 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
- 36 oz canned San Marzano tomatoes, chopped by hand (mashed together with hands in a large bowl)
- 1 lb rigatoni
- 4 oz ricotta salata, grated on a box grater
- Preheat the oven to 325º F. Toss the eggplant with 1/2 cup of olive oil and season generously with salt.
- Put the eggplant on a baking sheet with parchment paper and roast for 40-50 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes, until the eggplant is golden brown.
- Heat 1/2 cup olive oil into a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent.
- Add the basil leaves and hot pepper to the onions and let simmer for 30 seconds. Then add the tomato puree and simmer the sauce until it’s reduced by half.
- When the eggplant is roasted, drop the rigatoni into boiling, salted water, and cook until almost al dente. Then, drain the rigatoni about 3 minutes before it’s al dente, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.
- Transfer the pasta and three quarters of the roasted eggplant to the tomato sauce and turn the heat to medium high. Simmer the pasta in the sauce for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Top with remaining eggplant and the grated ricotta salata. Enjoy!