Monday, January 03, 2011

Brought to You by the Letter P: Purple Pleasures

Aubergine, melongene or eggplant: no matter what you call them, these purple members of the nightshade family, related to potatoes and tomatoes, have a dense, meaty texture. They're found in many of the world's great cuisines, and contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food loves the way they can be combined with different flavors to make a great meal.

Most eggplant recipes include directions for salting to “draw out bitterness.” This step has always mystified me, and perhaps it’s a relic of some long ago time when eggplant were actually bitter. But I’ve eaten literally hundreds of eggplant and never tasted anything bitter. So skip the salting. This is my current favorite:

Garlicky, Spicy, Smoky Eggplant

Slice a large eggplant into disks, stack 2 or 3 at a time, and cut them into strips, then cubes, roughly half an inch square. Heat a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, and add enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom with a thin layer. When the oil ripples a bit, add the cubed eggplant, but only so much to cover the pan in a single layer. Leave it alone for several minutes, then use a stiff spatula to lift and turn the cubes. Keep this up until the eggplant is nicely browned and softened, about 15 minutes cooking time total. If you couldn’t cook all the cubes at once, remove the cooked ones and repeat with the rest.

When it’s cooked through and nicely browned, reduce the heat a bit and add 3-6 (or more) roughly chopped garlic cloves. Optional, but highly recommended, are 1-2 finely diced anchovey fillets, preferably the salt packed variety (rinse these under cold running water and filet with your fingers, much easier than it sounds).

Cook for a few minutes to soften the garlic, then add a nice sprinkle of some kind of hot chile: piment d’espellette if you can find it, cayenne, or red chile flake. Shake on a more generous amount of the Spanish smoked paprika called pimenton (I like the “dulce” version, but you could use the hot variety to cover both the smoky and spicy bases here). Cook for another minute; salt to taste and drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil at the table.

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