For years, eggplant was the neglected stepchild in my kitchen, a vegetal Cinderella, subjugated to peppers, tomatoes, and squash. I had issues with its bitterness, its mushiness, its scabby skin. But I toughed it out, faced my fears, and, with the support of a stovetop flame, smoked paprika, olive oil, and an immersion blender, therapy was complete. Now, I roast it whole almost weekly, basking in its creamy, smoky, reciprocated love.
Of course, I braise and fry it, too, sometimes even smother it in marinara and mozzarella to mollify my kids. Whatever the need, it’s always there for me. And late summer is when it really comes through, its skin taut and glossed like an ingénue, its stem vibrant green. Reject the large ones—they’ll get over it—for their excessive bitterness and seeds, check for smoothness and heft, get them home, and store in the fridge for several days if need be. Then roast whole over a flame or in the oven, pricking the skin first, then peeling it away when done for that blissful purée (add tahini, lemon, garlic, sesame seeds, and olive oil for baba ghanoush). If you’re frying slices, salt them first and let sit for 20 minutes to draw out bitterness and excess liquid, then rinse and dry. A dredge in flour or batter will reduce oil absorption.
Chef Laurent Ceron knows all the tricks. At Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar (120 Grand St, Croton on Hudson 914-827-9393; taginecroton.com), eggplant shines in several guises, cloaked in the spice bazaar of Moroccan cuisine. His vegetarian tagine sings like a savory call to prayer, summoning with a house-made spice blend, grilled eggplant and summer squash, artichoke, tomato, and carrot. Order it, and you’ll never miss the meat. “Eggplant is almost like a protein,” Ceron says. “It’s meaty, so it adds weight and texture.” You’ll find it in his couscous, too, cubed and roasted, and in his eggplant baba, grilled to mahogany and puréed. Such revelations! If only I’d had this enlightenment sooner.
Courtesy of Laurent Ceron, Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar
3 medium eggplant, unpeeled, washed, cut lengthwise, then crosswise into ½-inch-thick slices
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 Tbsp tahini
2 lemons, juiced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pre-heat grill to medium-high and oil grate (or pre-heat oven to 450° F). Brush eggplant slices with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Grill (or roast) eggplant until deep golden brown. In food processor, add eggplant, 1 cup olive oil, tahini, and lemon juice. Process to a smooth paste, adding more oil if mixture is too thick. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with pita, sliced baguette, or crudités.