Like many Canadian children, my early experience of eggplant was anything but remarkable. My mom, a staunch Prairie cook, first encountered eggplant on her travels to Europe as a young mother with an Air Force husband. On her return to Canada, she did her best: she grew or bought globe eggplant, sliced it, dredged the rounds in flour, fried them and put them on the table unadorned. Undercooked, they were woody, chewy, entirely unappealing.
I didn’t learn to love eggplant until I was a young adult, living in Calgary where I met eggplant of varying pedigrees. At dim sum, we ate thin wands of eggplant, skin on, stuffed with shrimp and pork; in the Pekinese palace, sweetened with hoisin sauce beside duck. In the Middle Eastern bistro we loved, it was baba ganouj, slightly chunky, succulent and smoky, with pita to mop it up. My European chef friends introduced me to moussaka, the Greek classic, and to Italian eggplant Parmigiana. Years later, my favourite chef from Naples taught me to suffuse cooked eggplant batons with a spice-and-herb dressing balanced between hot and sweet. Then I met the glory that is Indian eggplant, seasoned with cumin, ginger, coriander, turmeric, star anise, fennel, anise.
Despite its appearance on so many stages, eggplant is not an easy vegetable to know. It is round, oval, or elongated; black, purple, white or green, hiding its inner nature within an innocently simple shape. In the cook’s hands, a wide array of choices arise. Braise? Grill? Smoke? Fry? How best to celebrate its nature? At its worst, undercooked eggplant is woody and boring. At its best, cooked to tender and soft, eggplant boasts a melting texture and subtly earthy taste. It just takes a bit of know-how.
Shape dictates cooking method. Use the tiny egg-like ones for stuffing or baking whole. Any eggplant can be grilled and served with a vinaigrette; any eggplant can be cooked whole on the open flame, then peeled, chopped and seasoned; or diced and braised, maximizing its tendency to absorb flavours.
Be warned that the spongy eggplant will soak up all the oil in a pan and beg for more! No matter the method, cook eggplant to well done and soft. For a layered classic, start by grilling or oven roasting lightly oiled slices, turning once when the slices are brown. Then stack up with other ingredients and sauce.
Alternatively, season those cooked slices with salt, pepper, mint, cumin, malt vinegar, garlic, coriander, smoked paprika, a drizzle of honey, a generous pour of olive oil, good enough to eat standing up in the kitchen, even better a day later. Now that’s something even my mom would love. So first we eat, then we compare notes on our fave eggplant dishes.
For a richer dish, before baking top with a thick béchamel sauce enriched with nutmeg, Parmesan and feta cheese. For a lighter finish, simply sprinkle with feta. Serves 8-10.
- 4 large globe eggplants 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, for dredging
- 2-3 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 lbs. lean ground lamb or beef (optional)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 bell peppers, diced
- 2 zucchini, diced
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 whole allspice
- 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 4 c. diced tomatoes
- 1 c. dry white wine
- 4 tbsp. tomato paste
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 c. crumbled feta cheese
- 2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
Peel the eggplant and slice it into 1/2-inch slices. Lightly coat with flour, shaking them in a plastic bag and discarding the excess. Line a baking sheet with parchment and place the eggplant on the baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with oil and bake at 375 F until brown, about 15 minutes, turning once. Remove the eggplant from the oven and set aside.
Heat a heavy sauté pan. Add the oil, then brown the meat. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini, bay leaves, and sauté to tender. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, tomatoes, wine and tomato paste. Simmer, covered, for 35 minutes, or until thickened. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon a thin layer of sauce to cover the bottom of a 9×13-inch casserole. Lay half the eggplant slices on top of the sauce. Sprinkle with half the feta cheese, half the remaining sauce, the rest of the eggplant, then sauce, then the rest of the feta. Bake for 30 minutes, or until hot. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with parsley.