Salt Your Way to the Perfect Eggplant

So, that's why they call it an "eggplant!"
An eggplant before it matures and ripens. Still not sure how they got their name. (Photo: Steve Albert)

Eggplant, or aubergine as it’s known in England, is not incredibly popular (at least not in America). It has a poor reputation of being bitter and soggy at times. That notoriety often leaves the lowly eggplant cast aside in favor of more familiar produce like carrots and green beans–the whores of the vegetable kingdom.

Eggplants also look weird. What the hell am I supposed to do with a deformed purple football?

The answer: cut it up and salt the hell out of it.

But, It Looks like Grimace, the McDonald’s Character…

I didn’t mean that violently. When prepared and cooked properly, eggplant is incredibly smooth, soft, and creamy–think zucchini on heroin. However, the older and larger the eggplant, the more likely it will be bitter. Mature eggplants also contain more water which makes them prone to sogginess when cooked.

To overcome this obstacle, salt the eggplant heavily prior to cooking. The salt draws out the bitter liquid and leaves less moisture inside. It also seasons the eggplant at the same time. The end result is a fantastic bitter-free vegetable that should make more frequent appearances on American dinner tables.

It should be noted that smaller eggplants, like the Chinese versions available in many Asian restaurants and groceries, generally do not require heavy salting as they are more tender and less bitter. They do, however, cost significantly more.

Preparation

One-inch cubes are ideal for sautéing–the eggplant maintains its shape better in cube form. For grilling, roasting, and frying, go with slices about 1/4″ thick.

Tip: If you plan on grilling, don’t peel the eggplant! Leave the skin in tact so the soft flesh stays together on the grill or you’ll be left with a puddle of vegetable matter. You can easily remove the skin after it’s roasted if you desire.

Place the cubes into a large mixing bowl (or place slices onto a large tray) and hit all sides with salt. I usually use about 1/2 cup salt or more per whole eggplant. Coat each piece thoroughly and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

eggplant-closeup

After a while, you’ll see some brownish liquid on the surface. When you’re ready to cook, wipe off the bitter liquid and excess salt with a damp paper towel.

Tip: I prefer wiping away the salt instead of rinsing. Running it under water re-introduces too much moisture and washes away some flavor which sort of defeats the purpose. The eggplant has to be relatively dry before cooking. Rinsing makes that more difficult.

At this point, feel free to add more seasonings, like cracked black pepper, fresh chopped oregano, and some olive oil, perhaps. Maybe a little crushed red pepper flake if you like-a-da-heat.

Cooking

Eggplant doesn’t take very long once it hits the heat, but you must cook it thoroughly. Undercooked eggplant is crunchy, bitter, and downright unpleasant. Keep it over medium heat until soft and cooked through but not mushy. If it turns into the consistency of mashed over-ripened bananas then you’ve gone too far.

Don’t overcrowd the pan when sautéing, but keep in mind that you have some wiggle room as the eggplant will shrink slightly while cooking. Toss occasionally over medium-high heat.

Before grilling, brush the slices with olive oil to prevent sticking. Grill each side over medium-high heat until soft and tender. To achieve those beautiful grill marks, don’t mess with the slices after you put them on. Let them cook and only flip once.

 

Recipe: Eggplant Parmesan

Now that you have all this eggplant prepared, here’s my favorite recipe for eggplant parmesan. Laura and I look forward to this meal each week on Prince Spaghetti Day which non-Bostonians will recognize as Wednesday.

Ingredients:
  • 1 medium eggplant (about 1 to 1.5 lbs) sliced and salted
  • 1 lb dry spaghetti
  • 4-5 cups tomato sauce*
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp black pepper
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp dry thyme
  • 4 cups Panko bread crumbs
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese

*Note: 1 jar of store-bought tomato sauce is 3 cups (24oz). That isn’t nearly enough sauce for my taste, especially if I’m using delicious homemade sauce. I typically use at least 4 cups, so adjust accordingly.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While you wait, combine the flour and dry spices in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. In a second bowl, scramble the four eggs. In a third bowl, add the Panko bread crumbs.

Mise en place
A snapshot of my mise en place — a French culinary term for “putting in place.” It refers to the organization and arrangement of all the ingredients that a chef will need throughout a shift. It’s an essential aspect of any professional kitchen and an incredibly useful habit in any home kitchen as well.

Take a slice of eggplant and “dredge” (completely coat) it in the seasoned flour. Then dunk the slice in the egg mixture until it’s coated. Finally, dredge it in the bread crumbs. Do this “dry-wet-dry” process for every slice.

Once the eggplant is breaded, it’s time to employ the classic shallow fry technique. Add about 3-4 tsp of olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat. There should be enough oil to coat the pan but the eggplant shouldn’t be completely submerged in oil.

Fry it up. A second pan in the background to get ahead.
Fry it up! Note the second pan in the background to stay ahead of the game.

Cook for about 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown on the outside and soft in the center. Do not overcrowd the pan! Break out a second pan if you need to capitalize on time and space. Place finished slices on a cooling tray or a baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. Hit them with a little sprinkle of kosher salt before they cool.

Note: Depending on how much you end up frying, you may need to change out the oil after a while. Frying food in dirty oil is bush league. Carefully discard the old oil and burned bits. Replace with fresh olive oil.

Golden brown and delicious!
Golden brown and delicious!

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a 2-inch baking dish, begin with a layer of sauce on the bottom then add half the fried eggplant slices. Add another layer of sauce and sprinkle on half the cheese. Add the remainder of the eggplant and top with more sauce and the rest of the cheese. Bake until hot and just starting to brown on top–about 20-25 minutes.

Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and follow the instructions on the package–anywhere from 7 to 9 minutes for al dente. Drain the cooked pasta, return it to the pot, add the tomato sauce, and put it back on the stove over high heat for less than a minute. The sauce will thicken ever so slightly and the noodles will absorb the sauce’s flavor.

Never present a bowl of dry pasta with some sauce poured in the middle!

To be honest, Laura and I usually skip the baking step entirely and just eat the fried eggplant with spaghetti. That’s exactly what happened tonight. It’s funny–when I first met Laura she didn’t eat many vegetables. Today, my eggplant is the number one requested dish in our apartment. Try it out and leave a comment!

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