Updated: Jan 24
Eggplant can be tricky. Other vegetables, such as carrots or squash, are naturally sweet. Eggplant is bland when raw and can be bitter if not handled properly. You can easily end up with a dried-out, chewy vegetable instead of a succulent dish.
Of course, you can get around this by making high-liquid dishes such as ratatouille or stuffed eggplant. Juicy companions such as tomatoes and zucchini cover up any inferiority in the eggplant. But what if you want pure, unadulterated eggplant flavor? Yes, you can make baba ghanoush – a delicious puree enriched with spices, lemon juice and olive oil, perfect for dipping. But if you’re looking for a substantial vegetarian or vegan main course featuring meaty slices of vegetable, then grilled or baked eggplant may be just the ticket.
I finally learned the proper eggplant technique from my friend Miry, who is a superb cook. At a recent potluck, she brought a dish of perfectly-roasted eggplant slices. I knew just by looking that they were going to be out of this world. And they were. Not only did I go back for seconds, but I also took some home. I asked her how she did it. And she told me.
As with most simple dishes, technique is everything -- and in this case, that means letting the salted eggplant slices drain on paper towels for at least an hour. Many recipes tell you to let the eggplant drain in a colander, but that is not nearly as effective as the paper-towel method I learned from Miry. The directions are below. If you want more detail, with pictures, see this other post here.
This recipe calls for the large Italian eggplant, but feel free to try it with the slender Japanese varieties, or the small, spherical Indian kinds.
1 or 2 medium-sized Italian eggplants, firm and unblemished
Olive oil or safflower oil
Optional: Freshly ground black pepper, cilantro sprigs, slices of fresh jalapeno pepper, a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar
Cookie sheets lined with paper towels, plus extra paper towels
Slice the eggplant into rounds or into lengthwise slices, about 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle some salt on both sides. Place the eggplant in a single layer on a paper-towel lined cookie sheet. Put paper towels on top of the eggplant, and lay more eggplant slices on top of that. Top the slices with more paper towels, until you have used up all the eggplant. Every slice of eggplant should be sandwiched between paper towels. (I like to put another cookie sheet on top of it all to weigh it down.)
Let the slices sit for at least an hour, or several hours if that is convenient. The paper towels will become soaked with liquid.
Remove the eggplant slices from the wet paper towels, and blot off each slice with a new paper towel. Using your fingers or a pastry brush, smear a film of oil on each side. You don’t need to use a lot of oil, just enough to lightly coat it.
Grill the eggplant over a preheated grill set to a medium flame. Watch carefully and turn the slices so they don’t burn. A few char marks are fine. When a slice is nicely browned, remove it from the grill and stack it with other cooked slices on a plate so that they can continue to steam.
If you prefer to bake the slices, lay them out in a single layer on cookie sheets. Bake until they are soft at about 375 degrees F. If baking didn’t brown them enough for your taste, slip them under the broiler for a minute or two, and watch carefully until they’re the color you want.
To serve, garnish with a few sprigs of cilantro and slices of jalapeno. Other serving options include sprinkling the slices with something acidic, such as lemon juice, lime juice, or balsamic vinegar, and seasoning with some black pepper or other spices. Piquant sauces with a strong acidic component (such as salsa roja, salsa verde, chermoula, or chimichurri) go especially well with the eggplant. You can also use the roasted slices as a crepe and roll up vegetables (such as roasted tomatoes), cheese, chicken or meat in the middle and top with a sauce of your choice.