Cookbook author and self-proclaimed “stir-fry guru” Grace Young has called eggplant “the velvet of the vegetable kingdom,” a reference to how soft the flesh is when it’s cooked. A summer-to-fall staple of Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, eggplant is the ultimate silky, meaty ingredient to boost the appeal of seasonal menus. Most chefs are familiar with the dark purple Black Beauty, but you can also can cook with long Oriental eggplants, small round Thai and Sicilian, White Cloud, striped Calliope eggplants and other regional heirloom options.
What chefs are doing
There are very few ways you can’t cook eggplant without getting a delicious result, so experiment with dishes in which it’s roasted, grilled, sautéed, steamed or pureed. As a hearty entrée option for Meatless Mondays, larger eggplants can be cut lengthwise into thick steaks and grilled with other whole veggies. Cube that night’s leftovers for a Tuesday salad special of hearty greens, crumbled feta cheese and warmed eggplant. Eggplant goes great with marinara as a pasta special, and roasted cubes or paper-thin slices can be part of a veg-forward pizza topping. If you have an in-house pickling or fermentation program, eggplant can be a great seasonal addition.
At Berkeley, California restaurant Gather, which advertises itself as a truly organic, “head to tail” and “root to shoot” venue, one of its most popular vegan dishes is Eggplant Involtini with Grilled Ratatouille. At Los Angeles eatery Kismet, chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson serve Baharat-Spiced Eggplant with Hazelnuts, Cherries and Tarragon.
If you’re planning to make a classic fry-then-bake dish like eggplant parmigiana, be sure to allow enough time in prep to salt and drain eggplant slices. Season them all over with salt and layer them on a towel-lined hotel pan. Weigh them down with a heavy pot and let them sit for an hour or so, until they’ve released some liquid. It’s an extra step, yes, but it ensures that the veg will bake up with an extra-creamy texture.
On the menu: eggplant mezze platter
An abundance of eggplant also is a great excuse to add a mezze platter as an apps special. Purée cooked eggplant as the base for baba ganoush, then plate it with housemade or premade hummus, tzatziki, labneh and pita or crackers on the side.