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Eggplants have always been a difficult vegetable for me. They come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and stripes and are surrounded by dos and don'ts: don't forget to purge them; do remove the skin; don't let them absorb too much oil, and so on. Plus, they're not the most photogenic vegetables once cooked, with a dull, often oil-saturated appearance.
But with enough delicious recipes under your belt, it's pretty easy to overlook the post-cooking appearance and realize that all those dos and don'ts are really more suggestions than hard-and-fast rules. This recipe, which combines small Italian eggplants cooked whole in olive oil along with harissa, chickpeas, and tomatoes, is one such preparation.
Here's my take on the do's and don'ts. Modern eggplants have been bred to be less bitter than the eggplants of yesterday. So really, you don't need to purge them unless your eggplants are really big and full of bumps and bruises. I find that those tend to be more damaged and water-logged. They sauté or bake more easily once some of that excess moisture has been reduced.
Do peel the skin for methods like this where the eggplant is fried whole and benefits from a bit of oil absorption to add richness. At the very least, try alternating peeled and not peeled sections for a funky look and a bit of skin. Do pair them with something saucy so they can soak up the juices. Do use good quality olive oil to cook them in: it's essential for imparting good flavor to the creamy interiors.
The methodology for roasting the eggplants for this recipe actually comes from my dad. He's been experimenting with this method and the perfect eggplant to use—Italian—for a while now, so I thought I'd give it a go and share it with you lovely folks*. As far as I know, it's pretty unique, and requires small eggplants. After peeling them, all you do is cook them in a thin layer of olive oil on the stovetop, rotating them, so that they brown on the exterior while the insides steam and becomes insanely tender.
*My dad does salt his for 20-30 minutes—don't tell him that I don't salt mine!
A few things to note about the method: You don't need to pierce the eggplants as you would if you were baking them whole with the skin on because they won't burst. Secondly, you can leave the green tops on if you'd like for decoration, but you will inevitably have to remove them before eating, so there's that.
Since the thicker parts of the eggplant will take longer to cook, you want to shop for eggplants that are similar in size to keep the cooking time the same. Note that the thick bottoms will take the longest, so standing them up to cook those directly is a good idea.
Once the eggplants are nice and tender—it takes about 20 minutes over medium heat—I start building up a quick sauce. Harissa and yogurt, spiked with cumin, is the base, while chickpeas and tomatoes add some protein and fresh vegetables to the mix. If you're someone who loves heat, either double the amount of harissa or serve extra on the side.
The one caveat I will mention is that the recipe will generate a lot of smoke, so if you find that the pan is dry, and your apartment is becoming hazy, add a little water to the pan as needed. Other than that, it's pretty straightforward and makes eggplant season all the more enjoyable.