Eggplant can shine so bright when it's not restricted to parmigiana. To be fair, a delicious eggplant parmesan is truly a treat: a perfect casserole with just enough tomatoes and mozzarella to be creamy and savory, all in one bite. But sometimes the traditional eggplant parm goes off the rails — tomato sauce too sweet or overpowering, the breading sloppily done, too much cheese, or worse: plopped between a crummy hoagie roll. But why not try something new and give eggplant a starring role?
Eggplant has applications in everything from curries to sandwiches, Indian to Chinese, and while the preparation may vary based on the cuisine, the deliciousness of each dish depends on pulling the best purple veggies from the pile at your grocery store.
The most important thing to remember is that an eggplant can't be too firm — it should even be a little hard to the touch. What you don't want are soft spots, which indicate the eggplant might be old and bland. Look for a eggplant that's heavy proportional to its size: A denser plant is young and tasty.
Your best chance at finding a fresh, young eggplant at the farmer's market is in mid to late summer, "before the skins get tough," according to chef and recipe developer Amy Chaplin, the author of cookbook At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen.
How you cut your eggplant depends on how you use it: If you're grilling or baking, slice it into half-inch rounds; for curries — Chaplin's favorite cooking method — you’ll want to roll cut your eggplant into "long irregular shapes," she says, which exposes more of the plant's surface area to the heat. To do so, begin by cutting off the eggplant's stem at a 45 degree angle, then slightly roll the plant, continuing to cut at an angle. You’re looking for 1.5-inch slices. (For a visual demonstration of this technique, check out this video.)
Toss your chopped eggplants in a light coating of oil — you can use olive oil, but Chaplin recommends coconut oil, which "tastes great in curries." In a 400ºF oven, toast until the bottoms are browned (this should take about 20 minutes), and then turn, cooking until the eggplant is golden brown and soft. Seriously: You want that eggplant to be tender. No matter whether you're grilling, baking, or boiling, it's imperative to cook until its flesh is soft: "There is nothing worse than firm eggplant," says Chaplin. If you think you don’t like eggplant, this might be the culprit. "It needs to be thoroughly cooked so you get the unique, succulent and buttery texture that makes eggplant so special," Chaplin says.
To create the curry, she simmers onions, garlic, ginger, and curry powder in tomatoes — you can peel fresh tomatoes or use canned. Let the flavors meld before adding your roasted eggplant. Once the dish has finished (give it about 10 minutes for the vegetable to absorb the curry’s flavors), it’s ready to serve over brown basmati rice. Add raita and chutney for some extra flavor and "you're in for a treat," says Chaplin. She adds, "I think eggplants were made for curry."
Eggplant Curry with Cardamom-infused basmati rice, tangy apricot chutney, and cucumber lime raita
Ingredients to serve six people
- 3 lbs Asian eggplant (about 10 medium), roll cut into 1½-inch pieces
- 6 tbsp extra-virgin coconut oil, melted and divided
- Sea salt
- 1½ tsp black mustard seeds
- 2 medium onions, cut in 1-inch dice
- 2 tbsp peeled and minced ginger
- 5 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp plus 1 tsp homemade curry powder (see below)
- 2½ lbs (about 8 medium) tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400ºF. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- Place eggplant in a large bowl, add 4 tbsp of the coconut oil and ½ tsp salt, and toss together. Divide over baking sheets in a single layer, placing larger cut-side down. Roast for 25 minutes, turn pieces over, rotate trays, and roast for another 15 minutes or until golden brown and soft inside. Remove from oven and set aside.
- Warm remaining coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and stir until first seed pops, about 1 minute. Add onion and 1 tsp salt; cook for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cover pot; cook for 10 minutes or until onions are soft and golden, stirring occasionally. Return heat to medium and add ginger and garlic; cook for another 3 minutes. Stir in curry powder, add tomatoes, and bring up to a simmer. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and cook for 10 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and saucelike. Gently stir in roasted eggplant and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Season to taste, add cilantro (if using), and transfer to a bowl to serve alongside rice, chutney, and raita.
Ingredients for about 1/2 cup
- 1-inch piece cinnamon stick, broken up into several pieces
- ¼ cup coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp fenugreek
- 6 whole cloves
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 tbsp ground turmeric
- 2 tbsp ginger powder
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper, optional
- Warm a medium skillet over medium heat. Add cinnamon stick, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, cloves, and cardamom; toast spices, stirring continuously for 2 to 3 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from skillet immediately and place in an electric spice grinder along with peppercorns; grind until fine. Transfer to a bowl and add turmeric, ginger, and cayenne if using; mix well. Store in a sealed glass jar; use within three months.
Recipe From At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen by Amy Chaplin, © 2014 by Amy Chaplin. Photographs © 2014 by Johnny Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.roostbooks.com