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Tender, Silky Eggplant

Grilled, roasted, or baked, this exotic and colorful vegetable can be used in dozens of different ways

Fine Cooking Issue 59
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Photo: Scott Phillips
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I confess to having been seduced by eggplant. When I first started buying eggplant years ago, it was because I couldn’t resist its firm curves and taut, shiny skin. I bought it for its looks, but somewhere along the way, this superficial attraction developed into love and respect as I learned to cook with it in many ways. And while I now use this versatile vegetable in soups, curries, stir-fries, and sautés, two of my favorite ways to cook it are roasting and grilling.

Old-fashioned dark-purple eggplant is what hooked me. But now my market carries a range of exotic colors, including lavender and pink (often striped with white), pure pearly white, pale green, white or pale green striped with dark green, and even bright orange. Shapes range from the traditional oblong to teardrop (often called Italian) to long and skinny to round. Most of the different types can be used interchangeably, although the very small eggplant are best suited to pickling. While I think the purple eggplant are prettiest (and meatiest) for roasting and grilling, paler-skinned ones have a milder flavor.

At the market, choose plump, firm eggplant with shiny skin that shows no sign of slackness; over-the-hill fruits are liable to be bitter. An eggplant with a smaller calyx—the leathery, green cap that protrudes from the stem—will often have fewer seeds than one with a larger calyx. If you’re growing eggplant, harvest them at any time after they size up and their skin turns shiny, but don’t wait too long. Once the skin loses its gloss, an eggplant’s quality deteriorates.

Grill, roast, or bake until very tender

No matter how you decide to prepare eggplant, be sure not to undercook it. The flesh should feel creamy and soft when fully cooked through.

On the grill…

  • Brush or spray eggplant slices lightly with oil and then grill over medium heat until deeply browned on both sides. (If the flesh isn’t completely tender, stack the eggplant slices, wrap them in foil, and let them steam to finish cooking).
  • Paint eggplant slices with soy sauce, hot sauce, and sesame oil before grilling. Sprinkle with sliced scallions and drizzle with soy sauce and rice vinegar.
  • Make a warm salad of grilled eggplant and onions with feta, spinach, and pine nuts. Drizzle with a red-wine vinaigrette.
  • Make a yogurt topping scented with coriander and mint to serve over warm or room-temperature grilled eggplant slices.
  • For a fresh take on ratatouille, grill chunky slices of eggplant, summer squash, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Toss with chopped tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and basil.
  • Make a grilled caponata to spread on toasted country bread. Grill eggplant and onion slices as well as tomato halves. Chop coarsely and season with chopped olives, capers, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, chopped parsley, and a little sugar.
  • Use leftover grilled eggplant as a sandwich filling with goat cheese, as a layer in a lasagna, or as a topping for pizza.

In the oven…

  • Make a summer vegetable gratin. Layer slices of eggplant, summer squash, and tomato in an oiled baking dish. Season with salt and pepper, tuck in basil leaves, drizzle with olive oil, top with a sharp Italian cheese, and bake until tender.
  • Roast eggplant halves and use the flesh as a base for a savory pasta sauce or a dip like eggplant caviar.
  • Roast oil-brushed eggplant slices in a very hot oven until well browned (flip once during cooking). Serve warm topped with chopped fresh mint and a squeeze of lemon, or make a sandwich of two eggplant slices with mozzarella or goat cheese in between.
  • Marinate thinly sliced roasted eggplant for a zesty antipasto. After roasting and cooling, toss with red-wine vinegar, slivers of garlic, basil leaves, and red chile flakes. Drizzle with olive oil and let sit for an hour. Serve on bread with a thin slice of tangy aged cheese.

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