The eggplant is one of the most beautiful vegetables of summer. Its curved, voluptuous shape begs to be touched; its glossy, smooth skin comes in nearly every shade of purple (and also green, orange, and white, which is why it has its name in the first place). It’s also a recipe workhorse: it can moonlight as anything from a meaty main course to a smooth, satiny spread and works in a huge range of cuisines.
But it’s not without its detractors, and if your first bite of it was greasy or bitter—sadly too common—I can see why you wouldn’t look at one and go, “Come to Mama.” And there are so many varieties, it can get confusing. But here are a few quick ways of getting around any eggplant problems:
Get the Bitter Out
Eggplant dishes fall flat when they’re unbearably bitter. Smaller, seedless eggplants generally don’t suffer from this, but large ones can. Cut into your eggplant and taste a small bit, preferably near the seeds; if you find it horrifyingly bitter, continue cutting as you need it for your recipe (slices, cubes, in-half, etc.) but then lay it on a towel-lined sheet tray or in a colander. Liberally salt the eggplant and let it sit for about an hour. The salt will draw water out, along with some of the bitter flavor. Towel it off, wicking away the salty juice.
Minimize Oil Absorption
Eggplant can also taste like an oil slick. The best way to deal with this is to make sure that the oil and pan are very hot before you add the eggplant. A little prep also helps: Press gently into the flesh before cooking. Doing so will collapse some of the cell pockets, preventing the eggplant from sponging up massive amounts of oil.
The texture and flavor of eggplant varies from variety to variety. Here are some of my favorites:
American or Globe Eggplant: One of the most common varieties. Deep purple in color, large and pear shaped. Will hold up to long braises and is great for slicing into thick steaks. Similar to Italian and Holland eggplants.
Chinese Eggplant (sometimes called Japanese eggplant): Slender and ranges in color from lavender to pink to dark purple. Thin-skinned and more delicate in flavor with few-to-no seeds. Rarely bitter. Great for sautéing or roasting.
Rosa Bianca: An Italian heirloom variety that is 4” to 5” round and streaked white and violet. Its flesh is particularly creamy in taste in texture. Makes excellent spreads, and is also delicious breaded and deep-fried.
Thai Eggplants: Ping-pong ball sized and green, yellow or white in color. Sometimes this variety has an artichoke-like flavor. While eggplant is usually cooked until very tender, these are traditionally cut into bite-size pieces and cooked until they still have a little snap. Great to use in saucy, spicy dishes.
Fairytale: Small (about 4” long), purple and white striped. As the name suggests, this variety is really adorable. Tender and sweet. Simply cut them in half and sauté, roast or grill.
The classic Sicilian eggplant-tomato stew called caponata is traditionally made sweet and sour, but here we’re riffing to focus on the happy marriage of eggplant and sesame. Think of it as a twist on caponata, or a twist on baba ganoush, or just its own delicious thing altogether.
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or side
1½ pounds eggplant (your favorite variety)
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered
1 medium tomato (about 8 ounces), diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced or shaved
1 small shallot, finely minced
½ large lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for “curing” eggplant, as needed
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
Prep the eggplant: Cut the eggplant into 1” dice. If it tastes bitter, lay the diced eggplant on a paper-towel lined sheet tray and salt liberally. Let sit in the fridge for one hour. Remove from the fridge and dry off the wet eggplant by gently pressing with a towel.
Infuse the oil: Warm the sesame oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic pieces and let them flavor the oil, about 3 minutes.
Sear eggplant: Turn up the heat to high. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the eggplant. Cook for a few minutes on high heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on all sides. If the eggplant starts sticking to the bottom of the pan, don’t worry, just keep stirring and cooking.
Finish cooking: Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook the eggplant until it is soft, about 10 minutes more.
Combine: Remove the eggplant from the heat and add the tomato, fennel, shallot and lemon juice. Finish with sesame seeds and chopped parsley, and serve warm or cold. Add to sandwiches, burgers, grilled chicken, steak, scrambled eggs…..you get the picture.