It’s that special time of year when we make room on our plates for the heavy hitters of the vegetable kingdom—the vegetables that come to harvest dressed in eveningware—the nightshades. After months of sprouting, flowering, and bathing in the hot summer sun, the tomato, the pepper, and the eggplant—dare I say, the most elegant of the bunch—are finally here! Having waited all year for this purple beauty, I am so excited to share my favorite way to prepare it. It is so humble, and yet with the right amount of love, heat, and olive oil, the eggplant’s raw, spongy flesh becomes so smooth and velvety that it nearly melts the moment you take a bite.
My favorite way to eat eggplant is cold or at room temperature, coated—but not saturated—in good olive oil. A shallow pan fry is the best way to achieve this union, as it’s gentle enough to let the flavors and textures marry, but aggressive enough to add that deep, caramelized flavor to the surface. The eggplant develops a sweet and spicy bite that both shocks and soothes your palette. And while a lot of people warn against frying in good extra virgin olive oil, I say go for it. The eggplant is essentially a sponge, so a tasty oil is sure to yield a tasty eggplant.
Apart from good olive oil, here are a few guidelines on how to coax the best texture and flavor from your eggplant:
Slice the eggplant just under 1/4 inch for a texture that’s smooth and silky, rather than mushy and greasy. I’m going to go ahead and suggest 3/16 inch, but feel free to roll your eyes here.
Salt the eggplant slices for 30 minutes on each side to release moisture and build flavor.
Dry your eggplant slices thoroughly before frying them. I usually blot them in small batches with paper towels. This way while one batch is frying, I’m blotting the next, and so on.
Err on the side of less oil. Direct contact between the eggplant and a hot pan will allow the surface to caramelize while maintaining a soft, smooth texture. Too much oil can cause the eggplant to float and fry aggressively, leading to a hard and crispy texture.
Fry the eggplant slices in small batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Since I like my eggplants creamy and caramelized, I usually flip them about 3-4 times to allow the oil to distribute and incorporate fully. The eggplants will suck up a lot of the oil in the beginning, but after a little while, the oil will release to the surface, giving the eggplants a chance to develop that beautiful amber-brown color.
By salting them ahead of time, these eggplants develop a rich and silky texture with a pleasantly salty-bitter edge. Pile them mile high on a sandwich or fold them gently into pastas, grains, or a fresh tomato salad. A light toss in sautéed garlic and chopped basil is also a delicious way to eat them. I prefer them cold or at room temperature, especially when they’ve had a chance to rest.
eggplant—as many as you’d like!
large baking sheet with wire rack
Slice the eggplants a scant 1/4 inch and place them on a wire rack over a baking sheet. Distribute salt throughout and let them sit for 30 minutes. For a medium eggplant, 1/8 tsp of salt for every two slices is a safe bet. Flip the eggplants and salt the other side for 30 minutes. The eggplants will have exuded a considerable amount of liquid.
Using paper towels, blot the eggplants thoroughly to get rid of as much moisture as possible. Do not rinse the eggplants!
In a 10″ skillet, heat about 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil on medium high heat. The oil is ready when it shimmers. If it smokes, discard the oil as it will brown and scorch the eggplants.
Add the eggplant slices to the pan, allowing at least 1/4 – 1/2 inch between them. The more room, the better. Cook on one side for about 1 minute. Flip the eggplants and cook for another 30-45 seconds. Continue to flip every 30-45 seconds until the eggplants are smooth and golden. Each eggplant will cook for a total of 3-4 minutes. If the oil begins to smoke, turn down the flame ever so slightly.
You will need to add more oil from time to time to keep the pan from drying out. Feel free to drizzle the oil over and between the frying eggplants. Since you’re flipping them so many times, it is not necessary to be fussy with this step.
After the eggplants have reached their desired caramelization, remove them from the pan and place them over a wire rack to cool and drain off excess oil. There is no need to salt the eggplants since they will have absorbed much of the flavor from the initial salting. Repeat these steps until all eggplants have been fried.