How many times have I told my kids, at some barbecue, campout or fireside, "Do not stick stuff in the fire!"? Well, there's no fool like an old fool, and today, along with some delicious, flame-roasted eggplant, I'll also be eating my words.
Why you need to learn this
Except for the ubiquitous eggplant Parmesan, the eggplant gets short shrift in Western kitchens. Native to the Asian subcontinent, it's far more popular in the Mideast and Asia. We should change that, though, as eggplant is very good for you — high in antioxidants and fiber — and, in today's preparation, it's the embodiment of gooshy, smoky goodness. Plus, on a purely adolescent level, what's more fun than sticking stuff in an open flame, where it blackens and shrivels like the souls of the damned?
The steps you take
Roasting eggplant is easy and, while it can be done in the oven, I prefer doing it right on my gas stovetop. Not in a pan, mind you, just directly on the burner. Here's why: With the eggplant sitting over the flame, the skin chars and blackens while the flesh beneath cooks and softens. The smoke produced by the charred skin imparts a subtle but wonderful smoky flavor to the flesh.
Having said that, before you start, make sure your stove hood is in good working condition. This technique produces a fair amount of smoke. If your hood's not up to the task, your kitchen will end up smokier than Willie Nelson's tour bus, and you'll be finishing dinner in a hazmat suit. Of course, you can always do the eggplant on the grill outside, or you can roast it in a hot oven (halved, skin-side down on a baking sheet, at 400 degrees, until soft, about 30 to 35 minutes), though the latter won't give you that smoky essence.
One last equipment note: Since you'll essentially be reaching directly into the fire to flip the eggplant, you'll need a good pair of tongs.
As for the eggplant, we'll assume you have a regular old Italian or American eggplant like you've seen a gazillion times at the grocery store: deep purple to black, weighing 1 to 2 pounds. Try to avoid the really fat ones, as by the time the interior is cooked, the outer flesh will remind you of Dracula's day at the beach.
One last thing, so you can't say I didn't warn you: This technique makes a bit of a mess, as the eggplant juices leak onto your stovetop. Trust me, though, it's worth the extra two minutes cleaning time.
Here we go:
1. Crank your hottest burner all the way up and turn on your hood full blast.
2. Plop your eggplant onto the grate, directly over the flame. Now, don't touch it. It's going to sputter and leak and create smoke and … well, just don't touch it. Let it go for three or four minutes.
3. OK, now you can touch it. Using your tongs, roll the eggplant 90 degrees to expose a new side to the flames. The side you just rotated away from the flame should be black and charred. The skin might be hard and pulling away from the flesh, perhaps even exposing it a little. It won't look pretty, and that's just how we want it.
4. Continue cooking and rolling until the entire surface is totally blackened and the eggplant has softened and deflated. Try to avoid burning the skin to a grayish ash, as that can burn the flesh along with the skin.
5. If the eggplant has a big, round bottom, it might not have cooked all the way through. Press it with your finger (carefully, so as not to burn yourself) to check its texture. It should be soft and spongy. In fact, the whole thing, when done, should be sagging like (insert joke here).
6. Transfer the eggplant to a plate. When it's cool, peel away the charred skin, cut off the top and proceed.
3 ways to use it
Here are three simple ideas for your roasted eggplant, common throughout their respective regions. Do an Internet search and you'll find a gazillion variations:
Baba ghanoush (a Middle Eastern staple): Pulse roasted eggplant in a food processor with a couple tablespoons tahini, juice from half a lemon, a couple cloves garlic, a pinch of ground cumin, 2 tablespoons or so extra-virgin olive oil and salt to taste.
Melitzanosalata (from Greece): Finely chop roasted eggplant and mix with minced garlic, half a diced onion, a diced tomato, an ounce or two each of Greek yogurt, red wine vinegar, lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, a pinch of oregano and chopped parsley for garnish.
Baingan bharta (from India and Pakistan): Saute half a tablespoon of cumin seeds in oil for half a minute, then add a diced onion. Saute until lightly brown, then add a chopped tomato and cayenne to taste. Saute until oil starts to separate, then add chopped, roasted eggplant and salt to taste and saute to combine flavors. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
Coming in the fall
James P. DeWan's columns, already available in an e-book format (available at chicagotribune.com/ebooks), will be published Oct. 15 as a print book by Agate and the Chicago Tribune. "Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques" will be a compilation of the best columns on cooking technique and methods published in Good Eating over the past eight years.