How much do I love thee, eggplant? Let me count the ways…
Alright, in too many ways. I am beginning with one technique, that of grilling whole eggplant.
Now that the summer is at an end and those big baskets full of shiny eggplant are going to disappear from the farmer’s market, I am already feeling a keen sense of loss. I wait months for luscious eggplant, that I can buy in armfuls and tote home as though I’m carrying not one but several precious newborns. “You have the best eggplant,” I’ll say to the tall, white haired, mustachioed farmer from Union Hill Farms. He smiles, having heard this from me each week. When buying eggplant, I look for bright, shiny skin, no blemishes and fruit that is light for its size, which means that the eggplant has fewer seeds and is less bitter.
There are two ways to grill eggplant in the kitchen. The best way is to place the eggplant directly on a gas flame and turn it occasionally, until the skin gets burnt and charred and the entire eggplant becomes tender and very soft. Line the stove with foil to minimize clean up as the eggplant will shed bits of black charred skin as you turn it with tongs. Remove from the flame when you are easily able to slide a knife inside the eggplant, and clean off all the bits of skin. The grilling takes a little while and your home fills with the smell of roasting eggplant, but the result is a very succulent eggplant, buttery, sweet and full of rich, smoky “bhuna” flavor that needs very little else. Although you can also roast the whole eggplant in the oven at 450F, turning occasionally, for similar results, the bhuna flavor cannot be obtained in any other way. Note: make sure the eggplant is very well grilled — eggplant that is even a little raw is not edible. But overcooking in the oven can dry out your eggplant, leaving nothing but an empty shell.
Ways of using the grilled eggplant:
(1) Whole: Recently, my mother-in-law laid out several freshly grilled Italian eggplants with their heads on in a big flat dish. She drizzled melted butter and sprinkled a generous quantity of red chilli powder and salt over the eggplant. We ate the eggplant with hot basmati rice and a simple tomato dal. It was easy to eat three or four of these smoky eggplants each. (pictured below)
(2) As a sweet-sour relish, called vankaya chutney: This was a surprise discovery from my mother-in-law’s Andhra cooking repertoire. A surprise, because I couldn’t believe how much I loved the sweet-sour-spicy-bhuna-yet fresh-umami flavor of the dish. Mash up the eggplant flesh with your fingers. Dress up the eggplant with strained raw tamarind extract, some grated gur or jaggery and salt. Add bits of chopped onion, coriander leaves and sputter a tarka of mustard seeds, green chillies, and a dried red chilli in hot oil. Mix well. Serve with hot rice or eat it as I do, straight from the bowl with my fingers. (pictured above)
(3) Baingan bhurta: This is a North Indian style eggplant preparation, where the grilled eggplant is cooked with fried onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.
Fry in 2-3 tbsps of oil, about one cup of chopped onions per two cups of mashed, grilled eggplant, along with two or three cloves of chopped garlic, a thumb of chopped ginger and one or two green chillies. The onions should be cooked slowly on medium heat until they turn dark brown. At this point add one cup of chopped, fresh tomato and the eggplant, and cook, until the dish releases oil. Add two teaspoons of coriander powder, one tsp of cumin powder, a 1/2 tsp of turmeric powder, 1/2 tsp of garam masala and salt to taste. The addition of a little red chilli powder is optional. Cook a little longer and remove from flame. Garnish well with chopped coriander leaves. Serve hot with rotis or parathas.