Don't Meat the Eggplant

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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