Eggplant is one of those warm-climate foods. It's big, cheap, and plentiful (at least outside the U.S.), it's mild and savory at the same time, it's sliceable or pureeable, depending on how you fix it. It goes with everything from garlicky oregano-and-fennel laden tomato sauce and melted cheese to anchovies and olives, to nutmeg-tinged custard or cumin/cinnamon-scented Greek and North African dishes, to complex curries and couscous, to sweet/sour and sesame paste and soy sauce, all with or without the chilies and cilantro. You can deep-fry it, bread it and panfry it, grill it and serve it room-temperature under a glossy layer of olive oil, marinate it, wrap it around other fillings, stuff it, roast it, make spreads with it... There's even an eggplant "spoon sweet" from Greece, and at least one eggplant "jam" from Morocco. To say nothing of pink-tinged sour eggplant pickles, one of my favorite additions at Israeli felafel stands. The only thing you don't really want to do with eggplant is eat it raw.
"But it's such a pain!" I hear you say. Not really--not my way, at least.
The year after college, I spent five months in a big kibbutz kitchen doing unspeakable but entertaining things with eggplant on a daily basis for a crowd of 1000 or so. Israelis, like the French, are not shy or slow to voice opinions when it comes to the daily grub. Couldn't help learning a few things along the way.
Result? I NEVER bother with the usual cookbook directions for eggplant. All of them slavishly recopy instructions from their predecessors without bothering to update, or at least retest, the traditional preparation rituals that make eggplant such a pain. In this day and age, most of them are just plain wrong. So--let's bust up a few myths.
First, you really don't have to fry sliced eggplant two measly pieces at a time in a frying pan and pray it doesn't eat up the whole bottle of olive oil by the time you're done (and haven't restaurant cooks heard of Teflon yet?). Second, you don't have to bake it for an entire hour in the oven just to discover it still has spongy raw spots. Third, you don't even have to salt it heavily, weight it down, and/or keep it in the fridge overnight.
And you know why? Because you're going to nuke it instead, either sliced or whole, depending on your intentions, and it comes out very nicely cooked, no raw spots, and ready to flavor or finish up. In only 10 minutes. Really.
I used to think I was alone in the wilderness on this one, because NO ethnic cookbook--or any other cookbook with eggplant recipes--ever considers the existence of microwaving, much less condones it for cooking actual food. But an Indian acquaintance nods and says that's how she makes bengan bharta at home, like that's been the accepted way to do it in India for decades, and she wonders why America has yet to catch up with the rest of the modern world. So I feel vindicated.
Microwave times, unlike conventional baking times, increase with the quantity of food in the oven. As long as you're only cooking a batch of one or two eggplants, nuking for 10 minutes is more efficient than baking in a conventional oven for an hour. If you're cooking 10 or more eggplants at a time, the time and quantity--even assuming you could fit them all into your microwave--will add up enough to make baking them all at once in a regular oven the better bet.
So anyway, here we go. First we're going to nuke a whole eggplant or so for spreads, then we'll take a look at setting up dishes that call for frying or grilling cubes or slices. The results are a lot more reliable than the traditional, and they taste just as good, but without all the waiting.Microwaved Eggplant made into Baba Ghanouj (eggplant spread with tehina)
These basic instructions for nuking a whole eggplant can be used for any recipe requiring eggplant pulp. The cooked eggplant or its pulp can be stored by itself in a plastic food bag in the refrigerator for up to a week, maybe even more, without spoiling. A batch of baba ghanouj can also last that long, if nobody eats it first...
1-2 large eggplants--clean, glossy, firm, not too blemished, scrubbed, stem end sliced off (beware of nasty thorns on stem cap!)
Ordinary table salt (optional)
1. Once the eggplant is scrubbed and the top is cut off, wet the eggplant slightly with water and rub a little ordinary table salt over the skin, including the cut end. The salt supposedly toughens the skin and helps it hold together a little better once the eggplant is baked and the insides are ready to scoop out. Or this might just be a myth. You could skip salting it, it's not that big a deal. Or I suppose you could peel the eggplant before you nuke it, thereby leaving you with pure eggplant flesh that then turns into pulp.
2. Put the eggplant on a microwaveable flat plate and nuke it on high for 10 minutes or until it has "collapsed"--become soft and gooey on the inside, and wrinkled on the outside. (press down lightly and carefully-it's hot-with a finger or knife handle to test--it should leave a soft imprint). Let it cool to handling temperature.
3. Poke a hole in the now-toughened cut end with your finger, and let the clear light-brownish syrupy eggplant juices drain out over a colander.
4. Either scoop out the pulp with a soup spoon or do it the kibbutz way using your hands (eggplant MUST be cool for this). Make sure there are no witnesses unless you've done this before, or unless you want to startle them badly:
Starting from the wider uncut end, squeeze the eggplant slowly and gently like a pastry bag or a tube of toothpaste. Do it VERY CAREFULLY so as not to rupture the peel and spray caustic eggplant goop everywhere--hair, eyes, skin, etc. The soft pulp inside will flop down through the hole you poked in the cut end and you can let it drain a little further in the colander. With practice, you can squeeze out all the pulp very efficiently in a few seconds, getting every last bit off the skin without having to open the thing up. Handy for doing 20 in a row... Remember to wash your hands and forearms right afterward or they'll start to itch and burn.Baba Ghanouj
2-3 heaping tablespoons tehina (pure ground sesame paste), or about 1/3 cup (or more according to taste, desired creaminess, and ambitions for waistline). OR: substitute a mixture of 1:3 tehina/plain non-fat yogurt, or half the tehina and 1/2-1 teaspoon of Chinese toasted sesame oil, or just the sesame oil and yogurt, or...haven't tried adding tofu with the sesame oil. Not sure it would bind right. The more tehina, the creamier/pastier. ANYWAY--
juice of 1-2 lemons
1-2 big cloves of garlic, mashed or finely grated
1/2-1 teaspoons ground cumin
large dollop of plain non- or low-fat yogurt, optional
1/2 -1 teaspoon salt to taste, optional
2-3 drops liquid smoke, optional
1-2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro leaves, optional
microwave oven (mine is 1150 watts; if yours is significantly less wattage, your cooking times may be a little longer)
Pyrex, Corningware, or other microwaveable large pie plate, mixing bowl, or flat dinner plate with room to sit two largish eggplants on their sides and not jam the microwave turntable
food processor for fine puree or regular knife and fork for coarser spread
5. Puree or hand-chop the cooked eggplant pulp with the other ingredients to taste. Store in the fridge and serve cold or at room temperature with raw dipping vegetables (carrots, celery, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower) or toasted pita (but best of all on fresh home-made pita). Leftover baba ghanouj is also great stirred into hot whole-wheat spaghetti or fettucine as a kind of eggplant sesame noodles.Quick Grilled Sliced Eggplant
This is even easier than preparing pulp from a whole eggplant. Just wash and stem the eggplant, then cut it into whatever kind of slices you want-crosswise rounds, lengthwise slices for wrapping around ricotta or other fillings, cubes, wedges-whatever. If your recipe calls for other roasted or grilled vegetables, you could slice and layer them with the eggplant and microwave them all together before finishing under a broiler or in a frying pan for a few minutes. Put the pieces on a large Pyrex or other microwaveable dish-pie plate, mixing bowl, casserole, whatever works for you. Nuke them 10 minutes for 1-2 eggplants.
Once they're cooked, you can do what you want with them: Lay them out on oiled foil and broil them, heat a little garlic and curry powder and/or other spices in a spoonful or so of olive oil and stir-fry the cooked cubes of eggplant to brown and flavor them, whatever your recipe calls for.
Two examples:Roasted Eggplant, Red Pepper, and Onion Appetizer (or sandwich filling...)
1-2 sliced eggplants (crosswise, rounds or half-moons, or bite-sized cubes, as you prefer)
1-2 sweet red peppers in bite-sized pieces or long thin slivers, as you prefer
1 yellow onion, peeled and either diced or sliced into quarter-inch or thinner wedges
big fat clove or so of garlic, mashed or grated, in 2-3 tablespoons or so extra-virgin olive oil
pinch or more dry or fresh thyme
Layer or alternate the vegetable slices so that eggplants, peppers, and onions are all mixed together. Nuke for 10 minutes. Pour over the olive oil, garlic, and thyme, stir or distribute. If you want to, pan fry or or grill the mixture briefly to color, or roast for 15-20 minutes in a hot (~400 F) oven. Cool and chill in the fridge-this gets better, more mellow, after a day, and it lasts well over a week if you keep it in a plastic food bag with the air squeezed out. It doesn't need salt but pairs well in hearty sandwiches with feta, hummus, or gorgonzola-type cheeses.Curried Cubed Eggplant
This is a lot like the appetizer above, but served as a hot dish. Nuke eggplant cubes as above with diced or cubed onion and zucchini or red pepper if you like them and have them on hand-but at least the eggplant and onion. Heat 1-2 teaspoons olive oil in a teflon frying pan. Sprinkle in 1/2-1 teaspoons curry powder and a mashed clove of garlic and stir a few seconds right before adding the cooked eggplant and onion. You can sprinkle in hot red pepper flakes if you want, or grated ginger, or nigella seed, or cardamom, or cilantro, or none of these things... Stirfry the whole mixture enough to brown the vegetables and serve alone, with eggs, on pasta or rice, on pizza with fresh basil and kalamata olives, with curried chickpeas, stuffed into eggplant shells (prenuked, baked....), thrown into vegetarian chili, etc. A little plain yogurt/cucumber sauce or tehina is also good on top.