If you've ever opened a box of late-summer produce from your CSA and seen a dozen eggplants staring back at you, you may know what it feels like to have no clue about what to do with eggplant. With tough skins and an occasional astringent tinge to the seeds, eggplant's not without its challenges, but its meaty-yet-silky flesh it stands up well to thin slicing, outdoor grilling, and and bold flavors.
Quick Pickle It
Sarah McIntosh is the chef and owner of Epicerie in Austin. She features seasonal favorites like fried green tomatoes and gazpacho with homey Sunday brunches, Blue Bottle coffee, and local meats and cheese.
I like to pickle eggplant and serve it with something braised for a vinegary touch.
We pickle with a basic recipe and standard pickling spices like cinnamon, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, that kind of stuff. And then a little turmeric for color and a little flavor, and a lot of salt and vinegar. We peel the eggplant, then put a hot pickling liquid in a container and let it pickle. With hot pickling liquid you can almost eat the eggplants (depending on how big you cut them) within 24 hours, since they're a soft vegetable already and are like sponges—they soak up everything quickly. With a cold pickling liquid—which you do if you're trying to preserve the texture so they're crunchy—it takes a little longer. Sometimes we grill the eggplant first so it has a nice char flavor on top of the sweetness.
We'll then put the pickles in salads; we did a chilled tomato salad with pickled eggplant and mozzarella and various herbs. They also go well with meat, like lamb or sturdier meats where you don't want to cover up the flavor.
A Citrus Purée
Chris Lee of The Forge in Miami Beach was a 2005 James Beard "Rising Star" chef, a nominee for "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" in 2006 and a Food and Wine "Best New Chef" that same year, as well as a contestant on the first season of Bravo's Top Chef Masters.
Eggplant is tough because is has a bitter, dull flavor on its own, but I've done an eggplant yuzu purée that was really great. Take long, skinny Japanese eggplant, roast it, take all the meat out of it, then made a purée in a blender with a little roasted garlic and yuzu. Yuzu is not as acidic as a lot of citrus, so it has the lemon/lime flavor, but more of the floral side that really engulfs the eggplant. You can still taste the eggplant flavor but with a nice under-layer to it. I serve it with a seaweed purée and yellow mulberries over fish.
A Delicate Dip
Chef Jonathan Benno worked in high positions at such esteemed restaurants as Daniel, Craft, The French Laundry and Per Se before opening Lincoln Ristorante in the heart of New York's Lincoln Center, where his Italian cuisine is familiar and comforting, yet highly refined and inventive.
I love charred eggplant purée. Take the eggplants, piece them with a fork, rub them in oil, and leave them under the broiler (or in a really hot oven) for a really long time until the skins are almost charred, then put them in a covered container to steam them, like you would with a roasted pepper. You could do them on the grill too; just make sure if you're using coals that they've died down a little bit, or do it under a low flame for propane. If you're cooking on the grill, turn the eggplants occasionally so they get charred on all sides.
When they're cool enough to handle, take out the meat and put them into a blender or Cuisinart, then flavor them with olive oil and a little roasted garlic purée. You could do sesame oil and chili, or flavor it a million other different ways. Blend it with yogurt for a tangy baba ganoush.
A Slightly More Dangerous Dip
James "Mac" Moran is the executive chef and partner of the Rusty Mackerel in New York's Washington Heights, where he's turning out bright, seasonal food and working on fostering community and food sustainability in his urban neighborhood.
We roast it on the open fire until it's completely burnt, almost unrecognizable. Then we'll purée the entire thing—seeds, burnt skin—with olive oil and lemon juice. It takes over a whole new flavor profile that's smoky and charred with a bright, smooth, silver color. The lemon juice will help take the bitterness off your palate.
Eggplant Juice Gelée
Matt McCallister is the chef and owner of FT33 in Dallas, with "seasonal, inspired, modern cuisine." His restaurant was included in Bon Appetit's 2013 Top 50 Restaurants list, Food & Wine's 2014 Best New Chef nods, and a spot on the finalists list for the James Beard award for Best New Chef Southwest.
We do a vegetable-focused tasting menu, which is really funny for Texas. We char the shit out of some eggplants on a gas burner (or you can do it over a wood-burning grill, but I don't have one). Then we put them on a perforated hotel pan (a colander works for smaller batches) with a vessel below to catch drippings, then cover them with a towel and a weight and let them sit overnight.
That drains out eggplant juice, which you can use to make a gel. You can either put the juice in a chilled bowl over an ice bath or leave it in the fridge overnight to get the job done. Take the juice and simmer it on low heat to reduce it by half, then either put the juice in a chilled bowl over an ice bath or leave it in the fridge overnight. That'll concenrate the liquid enough to make it form a gel when it chills, similar in consistency to a cold demi-glace.
We use the gel in a play on a caponata with raisins, eggplant, squash, and tomatoes. We take a scoop of the eggplant gelée and put marinated tomatoes, seared and raw squash, and some pickled raisins around it, and that's the dish. It has this intense flavor that when you eat it, it's like "holy shit."
A Meat Replacement
Jeffrey Saad is owner and executive chef of Studio City's La Ventura, offering customers his interpretations of traditional Mexican cuisine curated through his own travels to Mexico. He is also responsible for San Francisco's Sweet Heat and Pasta Pomodoro restaurants.
I have fun with eggplant by thinking of it as a liaison for all kinds for flavors. We do a Mexican ratatouille on our vegan platter—cubes of sautéed eggplant with tomatillo and toasted cumin. Eggplant is a great meat substitute because of its texture and body, and it really fills you up, so it can be a base for any flavors you like; Mexican, Asian, Indian, and so on.
The size makes a huge difference. If you cut it in small cubes and cook it over high heat with oil, you'll get a nice char on the outside and it will be smooth and creamy on the inside. You've got to use oil—if not it's a dry sponge—as it absorbs oil to become deliciously creamy.