When you live as far out in the country as we do, one of the ways of making sense of your surroundings is by learning the common names of plants. Redbud, white oak, pokeweed, mountain mint....
For all their voluptuous beauty, eggplants are one of the most misunderstood vegetables in the summer kitchen. Many are familiar only with the purple-skinned Italian eggplants that are as big as your calf and less yielding. Thankfully, there are varieties of eggplant as diverse in hue and flavor as many heirloom tomatoes are from one another.
Tiny Thai eggplants are a soft, variegated green. Indian eggplants are purple miniatures of their larger Italian cousins. Japanese eggplants are long, slender, and an inky purple. Chinese eggplants are only slightly different, being a bit lighter in color and perhaps a smidgen more squat. There are white-veined purple eggplants, eggshell-white eggplants, and chartreuse eggplants. If you were to spend the rest of your life going solely to the supermarket, you would never guess at the eggplant's diverse family tree. Thankfully, that's what farmer's markets are for.
The only trouble with the Italian eggplant is that, beyond eggplant parmesan, most of us can't seem to figure out how to eat it. Unwieldy and difficult to cook whole, this specimen is often relegated to the territory of fried foods. But eggplant is not an impulsive fruit and is slow to change, necessitating a response in kind from those who cook it.
What this means is that eggplant cooked quickly is cottony and unpleasant. You've experienced this, I'm sure. An undercooked eggplant squishes when you bite into it. With the resistance of a mealy apple and the texture of a sponge, eggplant can be downright dreadful when placed in the hands of an impatient cook. More than anything, this vegetable needs time, and only then does it transform into a silky seductress.
My absolute favorite method for cooking eggplant is roasting. Grilling is almost impossible to do well with eggplant unless you grill it whole over a slow fire, although we have had luck with smoking eggplants. Sautéing is too quick. Stewing eggplant, as in ratatouille, can yield gratifying results. However, I stick to roasting, even for ratatouille, where I roast the eggplant separately and add it to the dish towards the end of cooking.
The easiest way to roast eggplants is to wrap them individually in tin foil. Roast at 400 degrees until very tender. Look for the skin to wrinkle and collapse. A knife inserted should meet no resistance. I find that "crisp tender" eggplant is not desirable at all. Go ahead and cook the living daylights out of it.
After that, almost anything you do to the eggplant will be superb. Baba ghanoush is a crucial element of a mezze platter, and it works well as a spread for pita or flatbread sandwiches. Serve halved roasted eggplants with a tangy yogurt sauce. My new favorite way to treat eggplant, however, is to split it down the middle, roast it until tender, and brush it with a miso glaze before briefly broiling it. It's an incredibly simple preparation that always yields delicious results. If you do not have sake or white wine, Chinese rice wine or even rice vinegar can be substituted.
I used two squat, roundish green eggplants for this recipe. Elongated Japanese or Chinese eggplants would also work nicely. Should you be lucky enough to find diminutive Indian eggplants, they would make a fabulous hors d'oeuvre treated in this manner.
Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Halve lengthwise:
Small eggplants (Chinese, Japanese, or tiny Indian) to total one pound
Cut shallow, diagonal slits in the flesh of the eggplant, being careful not to penetrate the skin. Brush the eggplant halves generously with:
Place the eggplant flesh side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Roast until the eggplant is very tender and the flesh is soft, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. In a small bowl, combine:
2 tablespoons red miso
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon sake, dry white wine, or dry vermouth
Whisk or mash with a fork until smooth. When the eggplants are tender, brush liberally with the miso glaze. Place the halves, cut side up, on the baking sheet and broil six inches from the heat until the glaze is browned and beginning to blacken in spots, about 3 to 5 minutes.