It’s Summer! Let’s Cook Some Eggplant
10:00 AM EDT on July 22, 2023
It’s hard to be an eggplant lover. The attacks come from two sides: people who viscerally hate the vegetable and will tell you so any time you mention it, and people who serve it to you with a texture so botched (think: leathery eggplant parmesan) it just about turns you into the first kind of person. Both groups belong in prison.
Eggplant is a great food. Botanically a berry but a vegetable in the kitchen, it finds itself in many dishes, across a great variety of cuisines and cooking methods; as the photo above shows, it comes in a multitude of sizes, shapes, and colors. Gently bitter on its own, eggplant eagerly soaks up surrounding flavors and oils, allowing for rich dishes with interesting flavor combinations. It's a shame that so many people cook it so poorly, because I am a true believer that eggplant is good.
Summertime is eggplant season, so if you see any alluring aubergines at your local farmers’ market, now is the time to buy them. Don’t get scared off by all the eggplant-haters or eggplant emoji laughers out there. You’re on a mission, and I’m here to help.
Eggplant can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be particularly difficult. I will never forget reading what Ruth Reichl, food writing extraordinaire, wrote about it: “No other vegetable is so content to abandon itself to your will.” What a beautiful way to describe food, and a patient cook’s relationship to it. As I mentioned before, eggplant is one of those exquisitely malleable ingredients which often reflects whatever else it is cooked with more than any of its own properties. The key, then, is to be intentional about how you cook it, and what you cook it with. In that spirit, here are three of my favorite eggplant recipes, and what they’ve taught me about the vegetable.
Roasted Eggplant and Tahini Crostini (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jerusalem)
I've never made this recipe in full. I've only made the eggplant part, and joined it up with favorite bits of other recipes to make a mezze-inspired spread. So many recipes for roasting eggplant leave it mushy and flavorless; this one turns it out delicately crisp and perfect. I've never found another technique that does it so well.
Basically, you have to let the eggplant sweat out as much of its moisture as possible before it even gets into the oven. That way when it’s in the oven, the air in there stays relatively dry. It’s more like air-frying and less like a steam bath, creating lightly crisped eggplant rather than slimy goop!
To start, you have to peel the eggplant. If you think this is dumb, know that I once was with you. But then I made this recipe without peeling the eggplant and the texture was all wrong. My theory is, it’s because eggplant skin is very water-tight, so keeping it on limits how much steam can leave the flesh while it roasts. So: Peel the eggplant. Ottolenghi and Tamimi suggest using a serrated knife for this, and that does work well, but I think if your normal vegetable peeler is sharp enough you can use that just fine.
After you’ve peeled and chopped your eggplant, you must salt it. Throw your cubes into a colander, throw some large pinches of salt on top, mix it around, and set the colander either in a sink or a bigger bowl. The salt will draw out the moisture of the eggplant and leave you with brown salty water (this will drain down through the colander and can be thrown away) and eggplant that is less watery than it was before (this must not be thrown away). After about 45 minutes, rinse the eggplant with cold water—I am the biggest fan of salt there is, but even I don’t want my eggplant tasting like the sea—and dry it well with paper towels. Remember, we’re minimizing moisture here.
Next steps are to do what you might think to do in roasting any vegetable: Coat it in several glugs of olive oil and roast it on high heat. While that’s going, Ottolenghi and Tamimi have you caramelizing a bunch of thinly sliced red onions in olive oil, adding cumin seeds and garlic after a while.
A key here is to not be afraid of charring the eggplant. In fact, if you are “scared” of a little “char” and let that dictate your decision-making you are engaging in one of my biggest food pet peeves: undercooking roasted or sautéed vegetables. Don’t turn your eggplant into charcoal; I am not saying to turn your eggplant into charcoal. You are aiming for a point of brownness at which the eggplant no longer is slimy at all, and all its sugars have been thoroughly caramelized. If you’re really worried, taste an eggplant piece periodically as it cooks. I suspect you’ll find you can leave it in there longer than you think.
Once both the onions and eggplant are done, mix them together, and I promise you’ve never tasted something so divine.
Eggplant Dal (Kay Chun, NYT Cooking)
One of eggplant’s most famous preparations is baba ghanoush, that smoky dip which I love dearly but have never made myself. In baba ghanoush, the eggplant’s creaminess is on full display, amplified by tahini. In her Eggplant Dal, Kay Chun likewise pairs eggplant with a creamy companion: lentils. This time, however, the eggplant cedes almost fully to its partner, acting more as textural support than flavor protagonist.
In this method, you peel the eggplant again, but skip the salting procedure. Throw your eggplant cubes right into a hot oiled skillet and sauté them with a little salt until they break down a bit, then—get this—add a little water to deglaze any crispy bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Chun then has you transfer the cooked eggplant to a bowl while you get started on the spices, onions, and tomatoes, only adding it back when you’re ready to start cooking the lentils.
The result? A decadently creamy dal in which the eggplant plays a supporting yet vital role. Every few bites, while enjoying the layered flavors of ginger and cumin, you’ll come across a jewel of still-intact eggplant, and, I don’t mean to be gross, but it’s like bursting one of those little juice orbs they would serve at frozen yogurt shops. But made of eggplant. I mean this in a good way! This is my favorite dal recipe, and anyone who knows anything about my love affair with South Asian cooking would tell you: That’s high praise.
Caponata (Erin Gleeson, The Forest Feast Mediterranean)
This recipe is the easiest of the three I’ve included here. All you have to do is chop and stir, really, and you’re left with a truly scrumptious medley of veggies which can be served as a dip, spread, or topping to a main dish. In addition to eggplant, onion, garlic, and tomatoes, Gleeson calls for capers and red wine vinegar, both of which turn up the tang and lighten the whole thing.
I think the eggplant magic in this one happens because you treat the eggplant just like you would onions and garlic, the aromatic base for many good stewy dishes that demand and reward patience. Indeed, you start this caponata by sautéing diced onion, minced garlic, and diced eggplant in olive oil all together before you add any other other veggies. You break the eggplant down in the oil, coaxing it to tenderness, just like you do with onions at the outset of countless recipes.
You might worry that all of this breaking-down business will make the eggplant mushy—the very state I railed against a couple of sections ago. Well, all I can say to this is that there's mushy and then there's mushy. When roasting eggplant without first drawing out its water content, it can very easily become soggy, sweaty even, from steaming in its own excess moisture—moisture that came from the eggplant itself, and tastes like eggplant, and in steam form imparts nothing to the eggplant beyond sodden grossness. The result is less "tender and delicious" and more "a dead thing that has decomposed somewhat." Whereas in this caponata recipe, working over the stove, you're blasting the eggplant with a bunch of other flavors, and you're taking the time and care to cook it slowly, with intention, integrating those flavors and rendering the eggplant silky and tender, rather than wet and chewy.
Indeed, even in that good roasting recipe up there, the core of each little eggplant morsel, inside the crisped exterior, should be tender. Tender and soggy are different. It's a fine line, but a real one!
If you are an eggplant hater, I understand if you don’t want to make these recipes. One of the ways I matured in the latter half of my second decade was accepting that picky eaters, and even just people with the occasional distaste for a food I like, are not usually at fault for their taste buds' aversions. But if you are eggplant ambivalent, or eggplant bored, or eggplant enthusiastic, I hope that one of these techniques strikes your curiosity. Best of luck in the kitchen—I wish you tender, crispy eggplant forever.