Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Eggplant is one of those foods that people either love or hate, and I used to be an eggplant-hater for a long time. The things I hated about eggplant include 1) random guerrilla bits of bitterness, 2) sliminess, 3) the huge amounts of oil they absorb in cooking. But after bringing home some really cute little Thai eggplants from the farmer's market a couple years ago, things changed. With a couple tricks, even the poofy big eggplants from the supermarket can be delicious! Eggplant Parmesan is a classic, but how to make it without turning into a bitter, slimy, oily, hot mess?
First, you have to salt the eggplant for a long time, to suck out every last trace of bitterness. Using small eggplants also helps, because they tend to be sweeter, so try to find these if you can. Besides, the little ones are pretty to have around! To prevent sliminess, which comes from cooking eggplant for a long time, the slices have to be cut thin and cooked very fast. Then there are a few tricks to keep it from being the oil-sponge it usually is. The oil needs to be smokin'-hot, so that it doesn't get absorbed so fast, and the cooking is faster. The eggplant still needs a barrier from the oil, and an egg coating and absorbent bread crumbs do the trick. Oh, and Panko and parmesan form a crusty, crisp, nutty carapace that disguises any remaining oiliness/sliminess.
Panko crumbs are special bread crumbs that become very crunchy when fried. They are pretty widely available--check in the Asian section of the market, next to the shake-n-bake, or ask the person at the fish counter. These turn out very crispy, with a little soft (but non-slimy) center of eggplant. Like deep-fried goodness without the deep-frying. Yum!
Makes 3-4 servings, depending on hunger level
Active time 30-45 minutes, plus 1-3 hours salting time.
2 large eggplants, or 1-2 pounds small eggplants
2/3 c Panko crumbs
1 large or 2 small pieces of fresh bread
1 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (get the real stuff, it's worth it!)
1/4 c pine nuts
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying -- not olive oil, which has a low smoke point
Grater: use fine side of a box grater, or a rotary grater. Microplane rasps are too fine for this.
Food processor (alternative: shred bread on box grater, and very finely chop nuts)
Tongs (optional, but are very handy for turning)
1. Slice the eggplant into 1/4 - 1/3 inch thick disks. For the larger eggplant, throw away a good 1-2 inches of the top and bottom (they are the most bitter). Spread out the slices, sprinkle very liberally with kosher salt, and rub in. Turn over, and repeat. Be very thorough!
Leave at room temperature, 1 hour for small eggplants, 2-3 hours for larger eggplants. The salt crystals will change into drops of moisture on the surface of the eggplant.
Meanwhile, make the panko crust
3. Pulse bread in a food processor until coarse crumbs form
4. Add pine nuts, pulse until just mixed in
5. Shred the cheese, and reserve a small amount for serving.
6. Mix together the Panko, bread-nut mixture, and cheese.
7. Add two generous pinches salt, and very liberal amounts of black pepper.
Set up for breading
8. Copiously rinse the slices with water, and pat dry individually with a towel.
9. Beat egg in a bowl large enough to accommodate the largest diameter slice of eggplant.
10. Place eggplant slices, beaten egg, panko mixture, and skillet (on the stove) in a row in that order.
Start the fryin'!
11. Pour in enough oil to completely cover the bottom of the skillet. Heat on medium, and adjust as needed to keep it just below the smoke point. Test the oil - put in a crumb and it should bubble.
13. With one hand, dip an eggplant slice in the egg. The egg is the last line of defense between the oil and the eggplant, so be assiduous in completely coating the eggplant. Let any excess egg drip off for a second, then place into the panko mixture (don't touch the panko mixture with hand).
14. With the other hand, coat the eggplant with crumbs. Avoid getting your hand eggy by scooping crumbs on top of the slice, patting it down, then touching just the crumb-ed parts to turn it over, and repeat.
15. Put into the skillet, making sure not to crowd the pan.
16. Turn in 2-3 minutes, when the coating is a nice toasty brown color.
17. Cook the second side until the coating is a nice color.
18. Drain on paper towels or a metal rack, uncovered.
19. Repeat with the next batch of slices, replenishing oil as needed (and allowing to reheat).
20. Sprinkle with reserved cheese before serving. Serve immediately.
The large slices are amazing with pasta and a tomato sauce. They would also go well with salads, or in sandwiches. The ones made from little eggplants make addictive lil' appetizers, and rarely even make it out of the kitchen. Serve with marinara sauce, ketchup, or--for a yummy spicy kick--sriracha.
If there are any eggplant slices left over, allow to fully cool before storing. Store covered in the fridge. Reheat by re-frying or by putting in a toaster oven (microwave will make them slimy).
Any leftover Panko mixture can be used in a quick pasta dish--just toss together with olive oil, herbs, and enjoy!