Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Don't Meat the Eggplant


Most summer produce has a cult of worship; there are those who wait all year for the few weeks of tomato season, those who will serve fresh corn with every meal, those who will gorge on peaches until the sweet-tart juice carves furrows into their faces like Grand Canyon erosion writ small. But there is one item which rarely if ever inspires devotion. I’m speaking here of the noble eggplant.

Many people do not like eggplant. Common complaints are that it is spongy, or bitter, or mushy. All of these are symptoms of improper cooking. Because, friends, when eggplant is cooked properly it can achieve something few other fruits or vegetables (it is technically a fruit) can: It is DECADENT. It is INDULGENT. It is LUXURIOUS. And, frankly, it is NOT PARTICULARLY HEALTHY. These are all good things, I think!

Eggplant is often used as a meat substitute; a typical description, this one from Prevention, says, “Grilled or sauteed briefly, eggplant has a firm, almost meaty texture.” NEVER DO THIS. This is the equivalent of saying oxtail or pig’s feet or brisket has a “firm texture” when cooked briefly. Sure, it’ll technically be “firm,” but those ingredients aren’t supposed to have a firm texture. In fact, despite what you might see all over Pinterest, do not, under any circumstances, place slices of lightly oiled eggplant on the grill; a grill tends to dry out an oiled eggplant rather than confit-ing it the way a roasting pan does, and eggplants are sort of gross and very difficult to eat when they have a firm texture. Mark Bittman, in an otherwise excellent defense of eggplant, grudgingly gives advice for achieving an “ultra-firm (O.K., meaty) texture.” I will not repeat his advice nor give my own to achieve this. (But! You can, as Bittman recommends, prop the whole eggplant right up against the coals in the coldest part of your grill and allow the skin to burn and blister. Then peel the eggplant and blend/mash with olive oil and roasted garlic.) The eggplant is not a zucchini. They must be cooked low and slow, breaking down all the fibers until the insides become fatty and creamy and delicious, and the outsides crispy and oily.

Eggplant, like oxtail or brisket, is not a healthy food. Eggplant is low in protein, low in carbohydrates, and basically bereft of beneficial vitamins and nutrients. (Weirdly, it does have more nicotine than any other fruit or vegetable. Not a LOT—something like twenty pounds of eggplant equals one cigarette’s worth of nicotine. But still!) It is a junk food, to be ceremonially cooked and eaten with eyes closed, and then to make the eater feel guilty afterwards. This is a rare treat for vegetarians; it can be hard to indulge when all you eat is vegetables.

Proper ways to cook an eggplant include slow roasting, slow baking, frying (if very thin slices), and stewing. Regardless of method, the ideal texture is buttery and creamy. The eggplant should be cooked with something it can absorb, whether that is oil or stew liquid (tomatoes, for example, in a ratatouille), and it should absorb as much of this liquid as possible. You know how some vegetables like potatoes are done when you can easily pierce them with a fork? Eggplant is done when you pierce it with a fork and aren’t sure you actually pierced it because the eggplant offers no resistance whatsoever.

But this should not imply eggplant is difficult to cook! A common instruction calls for the salting of eggplant slices placed in a colander. Fuck this! Don’t bother! I have tried it many times and, except with the toughest, bitterest eggplants (those little globular Thai ones), it makes no difference whatsoever. Skip that step.

The most basic recipe is also one of the most delicious: slice any variety of eggplant into half-inch rounds (with the skin on, always), toss in more oil than you think you need along with salt and spices (curry powder mixes work well, as does cumin and turmeric, or za’atar mix, or dried herbs like thyme and oregano), place on baking sheet, pour more oil on top, and roast at 350 degrees until soft. No other steps! Eat!

And now that Labor Day is coming up, the official end of summer (boo! hiss!), it is a great time to celebrate summer’s most underrated vegetable (or fruit, whatever). A great summer dish is the Israeli classic fried eggplant: slice eggplant thinly, fry in about a quarter-inch of oil, flipping halfway through, until browned and soft. Serve on a plate with chopped mint, salt, and, if you want, some crushed red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of lemon over top. It isn’t “meaty” in the usual sense of the word; there is no meat on Earth with the texture of well-fried eggplant. But there aren’t too many things tastier, either.

Crop Chef is an occasional column about the correct ways to prepare and consume plant matter, by Dan Nosowitz, a freelance human who lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Brian (Ziggy) Liloia

8 Comments / Post A Comment

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

I love, love, love eggplant and I, too, have been trying to convince people (my boyfriend) of its deliciousness when cooked properly. I made a shitty eggplant parmesan last night that failed because I didn't fry the eggplant to optimal texture before shoving it in the oven. Ugghhh. There's so much left and it's haunting my fridge.

Anyway, eggplant is delicious. A++++.

femke (#286,689)

You can be the worlds best cook, but your eggplant will still be terrible.

If you're going to bother eating shitty vegetables at least choose some healthy ones. You might as well eat some well seasoned cardboard, because it's practically the same.

Jag Pop@facebook (#273,853)

"Israeli classic fried eggplant"

Is flesh burning white phosphorus required?

An old Italian lady showed this to me. It's delicious, but involves a lot of work. Cut the eggplant, male or female, into thin slices about 1/8 thick. Eggplant does have sex, male is more bitter. Lightly salt on both side. Place on a cooling rack to drain. Flip the eggplant to help both sides drain. Use a cookie plan to catch the drippings, there's a lot. This gets rid of some of the bitterness. Fry or use your favorite way.

This article is bogus!
I don’t lend any credit to articles and authors who feel dropping the F-bomb about a defenseless plant is necessary; even if they are a New Yorker. (…in a colander. Fuck this! Don’t bother! I have tried…)​ Obviously he doesn’t understand why the fruit is salted. Hint: It absorbs less oil.
I guess the writer’s expertise comes from living in the eggplant growing capital of the world, Brooklyn. If you want to pick on a plant try the aubergine, the French are easier to make fun of and you won’t offend the millions of Franco-Americans in NYC who are about to have their grandmother’s eggplant parm.
This guy doesn’t seem to have any culinary experience and he didn’t bother to check the science behind his nutritional data.
On behalf of the supple and sultry high-fiber eggplant, stick to writing about technology and nifty onion satires and leaf the plants alone.

Two Guys in a Balcony
(This response was meant in good fun, thanks for raising awareness about food choices. All people need to pay more attention to the choices we make. Food companies have been misleading the general public for decades and it isn’t getting any easier to decipher the ‘data deluge’ on nutritional information.)

10321132@twitter (#287,361)

@TwoGuys: I gave up on the whole salting malarkey until one day, just for kicks, I tried it again and what do you know? The eggplant no longer absorbed 20x it's own weight in oil when cooked! Repeated experiments appear to confirm the theory. Feck yeah science!

Another of my, uh, discoveries*: par-cook covered slices of eggplant – as thick as you like – until just tender in the microwave, before marinating and grilling. Results in the desired creamy interior long before the outside turns to ash.

*I really did work this out for myself. Next, I intend to reinvent the wheel.

daemonsquire (#9,523)

One of my favorite ways to prepare eggplant, especially when the grill is fired up, is to just slice a phat eggplant in half and slather each half with seasoned miso paste (miso mixed with soy sauce and seasoned rice wine vinegar, and simmered down 'til it's a thick paste again). Then I set the halves on a cooler part of the grill, away from the coals, cover it, and let 'em lay there, I dunno, 20 minutes or so? Check a few times, maybe turn so every face of the skin faces the coals at some point. 'Til the skin is looking like it's been baked a while, and the things are a bit shrunken. Then, you can remove from the grill and slice each half into maybe 4 servings, or just leave it on the buffet table with a large spoon for people to scoop out helpings for themselves.

@ daemonsquire: Try cutting eggplant on the bias about ½” thick, light brush of oil seasoned w/S&P, garlic powder, and paprika over white hot grill grate for 20-30 seconds, turn ¼ turn for another 20-30 seconds, flip and repeat on other side. remove from grill with slight char from grill marks and auburn crust on flesh.
The paste you use allows for a crust to protect from burning the flesh and steams the inside. Thanks for sharing the recipe, will try tomorrow.

@10321132: Good luck with that wheel thing. As for the microwaving, it takes a little practice recognizing the stages of cellular breakdown within the plant due to radiation. The degree will vary on the power of ones microwave. But who needs the extra step? If you cook over high heat you get the flavorful perks of caramelization without the risk of mushing the flesh.

Happy eats everyone!

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