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Dressing Up Grilled Eggplant

Fine Cooking Issue 87
Photos: Scott Phillips
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It’s one of those happy coincidences of nature that the best eggplant hits the market during peak grilling season. I love the subtle, sweet flavor of eggplant, and grilling really brings it out. As for texture, the intense heat of the grill crisps and browns the outsides of the slices nicely, while it cooks the insides to a luscious creaminess.

When it’s just my family, I tend to serve grilled eggplant simply brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, so its flavor shines. But for entertaining, I like to pair it with a bold topping. Either way, it’s a hearty side dish that elevates any meal.

By grilling, you get that great meaty texture and flavor of eggplant without all the oil from frying or sautéing. One of eggplant’s greatest strengths—its ability to absorb other flavors—is also its greatest weakness when it comes to absorbing fats and oils. That’s why I prefer grilling eggplant, a method that requires little oil and produces lighter results. The grill also imparts a delicate, smoky flavor and a crisp surface that contrasts beautifully with eggplant’s soft interior.

To avoid bitterness, select and store eggplant carefully—but don’t bother salting. There’s plenty of disagreement among cooks about whether or not to salt eggplant before cooking. Some claim salting is essential to remove bitter juices; others believe it improves texture. I find that ripe, carefully selected eggplant is not bitter and has a delightful texture, even without salting.

In my experience, you can avoid the bitterness problem by buying eggplant when it’s in season. The best eggplant arrives in the market around midsummer. The earliest crops have fewer seeds and consequently better flavor and texture. Look for ones that are evenly firm and deep in color, with shiny, unwrinkled skin. When you press gently on the flesh, it should bounce back. If it leaves a dent, the eggplant is old. Try to shop at farmers’ markets, where you have a better chance of getting recently harvested vegetables.

The biggest difficulty in storing eggplant is that it does best at about 50ºF. Most refrigerators are set at 41ºF or lower, which is too cold for this tropical vegetable. If you can, buy eggplant the day you plan to cook it. If this isn’t possible, find a cool spot in the kitchen to store it.

Grilled Eggplant with Garlic-Cumin Vinaigrette, Feta & Herbs

High heat and just the right size slices are the secret to perfect grilling. Eggplant needs to be set on a hot grill—you should hear the oiled slice sizzle gently. If the grill isn’t hot enough, the eggplant will dry out rather than develop a nice grilled surface. To get good grill marks, resist moving the eggplant around.

Eggplant contains a lot of water and shrinks considerably when grilled, so it’s important to cut it into slices of the right thickness. If you slice the eggplant too thick, the outside will char while the inside remains hard and uncooked; too thin, and it will overcook by the time it has grill marks. I’ve found that 1/2-inch-thick slices work best to produce a nicely charred outside and a tender inside. Cut into a piece of eggplant if you’re not sure it’s tender all the way through—the cooked flesh will be grayish and soft rather than white and hard.

Another appealing thing about eggplant is that it can be grilled several hours in advance and served at room temperature. The toppings I’ve included here can also be prepared ahead, but hold off on adding ingredients like garlic and toasted pine nuts until the day you plan to serve. For the Toasted-Breadcrumb Salsa Verde, wait until just before serving to combine the ingredients so the breadcrumbs don’t lose their crunch.

Grilled Eggplant with Toasted-Breadcrumb Salsa Verde

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