by April Paffrath
Something about eggplant makes me happy. As a child, when my grade school friends made gurgling noises at the prospect of eggplant for dinner, I hungrily requested ratatouille. I soon realized that it was how we prepared eggplant at our house that mattered. (Can I say one more time, "Thank you, Julia Child for making food at my house awesome!") We didn't cook it until it was dead or, worse, gummy. It was an essential part of my summer dinner memories, as part of that one dish.
As I got older, I discovered eggplant parmaggiano, but soon realized that there's good and bad. Bad is essentially oily breading with cheese and sauce (shudder). Good is a crisp coating on tender, thick slices, balanced with sauce and cheese.
I soon branched out and made what has become one of my favorite Indian dishes, baingan bartha. It's made with smoky, roasted eggplant and peas and peppers and, oh my goodness, it's good. Give me that and a piece of naan every other night and I could get through college again.
In Catalunya, Spain, I learned to cherish escalivada, a cold appetizer dish of roasted eggplants, bell peppers and onions. It's refreshing and balances the deep notes of eggplant with the sweet high notes of the peppers and onions.
In all the good eggplant dishes I've loved, I've discovered one important thing: you need to be gentle with eggplant. If you overcook it or culinarily abuse it, it will deflate and get bitter and stringy. That doesn't sound good. I rarely bother to salt my eggplants ahead of time, and yet when I cook eggplant, it's simply and intensely flavorful. Not only does it have it's own earthy (and almost spicy) flavor, but it absorbs adjacent flavors wonderfully. That's what makes escalivada and baingan bartha so delicious—the eggplant melds with everything and makes the dish almost unctuous. Just as eggplant will soak up oil like a sponge, so will it garlic, tomato sauce, basil oil, and more. It's good to experiment.
But being gentle doesn't mean you need to take forever. In the last two nights I've made two eggplant dishes and they've been very different (but both huge hits!). The first one was a big black bell eggplant that I scored in a criss-cross fashion and cooked in the microwave (yes! that's right!). The second were little purple and white streaked fairytale eggplants that I cut into tiny coins and breaded and fried—they were unbelievably tender! I didn't get any pictures of the fried coins because we ate them up so fast! They were golden and gorgeous, though.
The fried coins rely on the 3-step breading to make a crisp coating that sticks. The microwaved eggplant relies on being able to hit the "start" button. One is more elaborate than the other, but dinner both nights was great.
So, no need to take a lot of time. If you have bitter thoughts about bitter veggies, remember that a touch of salt inhibits our perception of bitterness—that's why we salt bitter things, like endive. A little salt rounds the flavor and keeps bitterness from being a one-note symphony in your meal. Me? I love a bit of bitter, so I salt just a little and enjoy the spectrum of flavors.
Fried eggplant coins
- small eggplant (fairytale) cut into 1/4-inch coins
- panko breadcrumbs
- Get three bowls. Put some flour and a pinch of salt in one, a beaten egg in the second, and panko in the third.
- Bread the eggplant in shifts (not all of them at once): Toss the eggplant in flour. Coat the floured ones in egg. Toss the egged discs in the panko to coat. Pile the coated coins on a plate until they're all done...or at least enough are done to fill the fry pan.
- In a large stainless fry pan, heat up 1/4 inch of canola oil over medium heat. Have a splatter guard ready.
- Put the coins in the hot oil. I use tongs because the grabbing is easy and safe, and I'm protected from hot comets of oil. I start at the 12 o'clock position and work my way in a ring, clockwise. Then I fill in the next ring. That way you have an idea of which ones are browning at which time—it takes less fuss and effort to get things out of the pan on time.
- Cook until golden, caramel brown on one side. The time will depend on the size of the coins, so just keep an eye on it and a nose sniffing for over-browning. Flip and brown the other side.
- Remove from the pan and place on a paper towel-covered plate.
I can guarantee that as you do the next batch, the first batch will start to disappear. The eggplant is almost creamy in the crispiest yet tender coating. Eat them all because they don't reheat well. This should not be a problem as you'll be arm wrestling others for the last one.
Super Speedy Eggplant
- oil or butter
- garlic, crushed or minced finely
- Cut the eggplant in half.
- Cut into the eggplant in a criss-cross pattern. Take care not to pierce the skin.
- Drizzle with oil or dot with knobs of butter
- Sprinkle the garlic over. Encourage some of it into the cuts.
- Place on a plate and put in the microwave. Time and power will vary by machine. (I did 2 eggplants, or 4 halves, for 4-5 minutes at 60 percent power). Check on them and realign anything that needs it. Drizzle with oil again if there are areas that look dry.
- Put back in the microwave for 3 or 4 minutes. At this time, the eggplant should be looking deeper brown/grey and getting fork tender. The cut edges should have softened and the sections should start pulling away from each other as the eggplant steams.
- Flip the eggplant over and finish up with another 3 or 4 minutes to make sure it's all steamed. It should be very tender.
- Scoop the eggplant out of the skins with a spoon. They should be creamy and soft. Serve with pasta and sauce or rice or anything! My clever mother topped crostini with them, followed by tomato sauce and parmaggiano.
Photo of fairytale eggplant (cc) massdistraction