Maybe some people have long lazy summers, but I am not among them. This one’s been particularly crazy, with photo shoots for my upcoming book, Vegetable Literacy, combing through the copy editor’s work (700 pages!), traveling to Seed Savers for more photos, giving a talk on farmers markets in Minneapolis, etcetera.
My garden is a mess, the house is worse, the laundry is piling up — but when it comes to dinner, eggplant has come to the rescue.
Yes, they’re finally here, those big luscious eggplants. Black Beauties, Rosa Biancas, and so many others. You can do a lot of different things with eggplant — hundreds of things, in fact — but here’s what I do, more or less throughout the season.
My eggplant method involves slicing, griddling, and ending up with a cross-hatched round of eggplant that I can use in so many dishes that it becomes a practical answer to the question “What’s for dinner?”
You can eat these hot rounds right off the griddle as a solo vegetable, or garnished and seasoned, or even layered like a sandwich.
I also stash them in the refrigerator and pull them out to add to a summer vegetable gratin (layering them beneath blankets of squash and tomatoes), or to top a pizza, or to make a pasta especially meaty and good.
And sometimes I let them come to room temperature, then layer them with vinegar, torn basil, and maybe some crumbled feta cheese, tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts for a salad meal.
This is my idea of convenience food.
You’ll want large globe-shaped or oval eggplants for this, weighing a pound or more each. Slice them in rounds about a half-inch thick, salt them, and let them stand for 30 minutes or more to draw out the moisture and any bitter juices, causing them also to absorb less oil. (If you’ve just picked them, you can skip this part.)
When you’re ready to cook, heat a cast-iron pan with ridges and brush both sides of the eggplants with olive oil or sunflower-seed oil. When the griddle is hot — this will take a few minutes, so be patient — add the slices.
Turn the heat down to medium-low to maintain the heat but not make it so hot that the eggplants burn. Cook for about six minutes, then rotate the slices 90 degrees. Leave them to cook for about five minutes before turning them over and cooking the other side using the same method.
When done, the eggplant surface — in addition to having attractive cross-hatches — should look and feel tender. Remove the finished slices to a plate and continue with the rest.
As you cook, the pan will build and maintain its heat, so as you go through a number of slices, the time it takes to cook the eggplant will lessen by a few minutes.
If you’re not planning to eat the cooked eggplant right away, wrap them well and refrigerate until you have a use for them; they keep well for days.
Here’s one thing I do with them when they’re more or less right off the griddle:
Cover a griddled (or grilled) eggplant round, in part, with the best ricotta you can find. Season it with salt and pepper, or, if you’re more ambitious, stir in some slivered basil leaves or saffron soaked in hot water, along with the salt and pepper before you put it on the eggplant.
Next, make a relish of halved small fresh tomatoes and diced shallot tossed in just enough vinegar to moisten, no more. Toss with slivered basil or marjoram and season with a pinch of sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. Spoon the tomatoes over the ricotta and add a dark purple basil leaf or two to the plate. That’s it.
This makes a very light dinner for when it’s 100 degrees outside and you don’t want to eat much. But if you want to eat more, bring over a second round of eggplant and make yourself a little knife-and-fork sandwich.
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