by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Juli Leonard
It may not have the juiciness of a tomato or the intoxicating perfume of a ripe peach, but the eggplant is among my favorite late summer ingredients.
It wasn’t always so. Until fairly recently, eggplants bewildered me.
I grew up knowing only the most ubiquitous variety, that deep-purple monster that sits on the produce aisle in every grocery store, and its taste and texture always left me unmoved. Even when I coaxed it into its most celebrated forms – layered into eggplant Parmesan or pureed into a smoky baba ganoush – it seemed to be nothing more than a vehicle for more enticing ingredients.
But then I came across my first fairytale eggplant at a farmer’s market in New York City. Only a few inches long, with marbled purple and white skin, its flesh has none of the starchy, bitter characteristics of its conventional cousins, but instead boasts a faintly sweet, root-like aroma and a creamy, yielding texture when exposed to a little heat.
The encounter made a detective out of me, and upon returning to Raleigh, I began hunting for new varietals and new methods for cooking them. One trip to the State Farmers Market led me to the eggplant mecca that is the Walker Farms stand. From late July to the first frost, Bill and Barbara Walker sell up to 14 different types of eggplant, ranging from the skinny, ivory Gretl to the bulbous, meaty Beatrice. North Carolina, it turns out, is the perfect place to grow the crop, which originated in the steamy climes of Sri Lanka and India and thrives during a humid Southern summer.
As I experimented with each new version, I looked to my favorite local restaurants for inspiration: Cheetie Kumar of the just-opened Garland on West Martin Street steams skinny Japanese eggplant until it is soft, then tears it into strands and marinates it with soy sauce and sesame. “I serve it cold, and the savory flavors taste almost like seafood.” In Cary, chef de cuisine John Childers of Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel offers five different preparations of the restaurant garden’s eggplant in one dish, showing off the crop’s stunning versatility.
The eggplant can still confound me (case in point: it is technically a berry!), but that chameleon-like mystery is now part of its charm. Here are two recipes to put you under its spell.
Yield: 2 appetizers
Recipes used to advise cooks to salt eggplant before cooking, to leach the bitterness from its flesh, but I’ve found that heirloom varieties need no such treatment. The salting step below has a different purpose: It draws out some of the eggplant’s moisture so that it’ll crisp up better in the pan.
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 tablespoons rice wine (Mirin)
4 dashes hot sauce
¼ cup canola oil
3 Japanese eggplants (such as Macneal or Hansel varieties),
ends trimmed and sliced into ¼-inch wheels (about 2½ cups)
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup canola oil
½ English cucumber, cut into 2-inch sticks
1 cup corn kernels
2/3 cup pickled shallots (recipe follows)
½ cup fresh mint leaves
1. In a bowl, whisk together the miso, sesame oil, rice wine and hot sauce until smooth. Whisk in the oil slowly until the mixture is emulsified. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, toss the eggplant rounds with 1 teaspoon of salt, and transfer to a fine mesh strainer. Let sit for 30 minutes. Pat the eggplant dry with paper towels.
3. In a large skillet, heat the oil until it is shimmering. Add about half of the eggplant to the oil and fry about 1½ to 2 minutes, then flip the rounds and fry for another 2 minutes, or until golden-brown. Transfer to a paper towel and repeat with the remaining eggplant.
4. In a large bowl, combine the fried eggplant, cucumber, corn, shallots, mint and the reserved vinaigrette. Toss well, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide between two bowls and serve.
For the pickled shallots
4 shallots, thinly sliced
½ cup sugar
½ tablespoon salt
1 cup water
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon peppercorns
½ tablespoon mustard seeds
½ tablespoon coriander
1 star anise pod, broken up
Place the shallots in a nonreactive, lidded container. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar, salt, water, vinegar, peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander and star anise. Cook until the sugar and salt dissolve, then pour over the shallots and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight. The shallots will keep up to one month, refrigerated.
This dish tips the hat to eggplant’s prominent role in Middle Eastern cuisine, and makes a hearty weeknight meal that tastes just as good (maybe better) when reheated the next day. I like to get my tahini and harissa from Neomonde on Beryl Road near Meredith College.
2 medium-size eggplants, such as Nubia or Dancer varieties
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ pound ground lamb
½ cup chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
¼ cup tahini
2 tablespoons harissa (North African chile paste)
¾ cup cooked barley
1 cup tomato sauce
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise. Using a tablespoon, hollow out the eggplants, leaving about ½-inch-thick layer of flesh and reserving the centers. Rub the eggplants with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Place the eggplant halves on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour ¼ cup of water and 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the bottom of the sheet and cover it with foil. Transfer to the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one more minute. Transfer to a large bowl. Finely dice the reserved eggplant centers. Return the skillet to medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of canola oil. Add ½ cup of the diced eggplant centers and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. (The rest of the eggplant centers can be discarded or saved for another use.) Add the eggplant to the onion mixture. Return the skillet to medium heat, and add the lamb. Cook until it is browned on all sides, breaking it up with the back of a wooden spoon while it cooks. Add the lamb to the onion mixture. Combine the onion mixture with the parsley, tahini, harissa, barley and ½ teaspoon of salt.
3. Remove the eggplant halves from the oven and discard the foil. Stuff each half with about ½ cup of the filling, then return to the oven and cook, uncovered, for another 30 minutes.
4. Take the baking sheet from the oven and top each eggplant half with some crumbled feta cheese and ¼ cup of tomato sauce, and return to the oven for 10 more minutes. Divide the eggplant halves among plates, garnish with parsley and serve.
WALTER is pleased to introduce readers to cookbook author Kaitlyn Goalen and this occasional column of hers, Essential Ingredient. Several times a year, Goalen will pick one ingredient that is either in season or particularly appropriate to the season, and create a new recipe (or two, as she has done here in her debut) to highlight it.
She plans to choose ingredients readily available in Raleigh, ranging from fresh produce to special products of the region.
Goalen is well-suited to the task. She is the co-founder and editor of Short Stack Editions, a series of small-format, single-subject cookbooks, and has spent time at Tasting Table and Food & Wine.
Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Garden & Gun, O: The Oprah Magazine, AFAR, and Gastronomica.
Goalen splits her time between Raleigh and Brooklyn, which gives her a broad but local perspective, and keeps her recipes innovative and delicious.