Friday, July 19, 2013

Cooking to Save the Planet: Fried Eggplant

It's very hot this week in much of the U.S. Those of us who live in places like Arkansas know a thing or two about the heat, and about how to cook and eat when appetites flag due to the blast furnace the world has suddenly become, and when the desire to be in a hot kitchen succumbs to summertime torpor. As a public service to the rest of those not blessed to live in a perpetual sauna, here's my own prescription for eating well despite soaring temperatures:

This is what Steve and I do for supper repeatedly in the hottest weeks of summer. We buy an eggplant at the start of the week, and several times during the week, we have sliced, fried eggplant as the hot dish of our evening meal--when salads alone (with cheese, boiled eggs, or canned tuna) don't suffice. 

Though there are now many varieties of eggplant available in our local markets, the variety with which I grew up, and which my family cooked continuously in summer months (as I've told readers here before, my grandmother had a particular passion for this vegetable) is the large purple variety. Choose one that is glossy, with no breaks or indentations in the skin, and which has a good heft when you pick it up. I find that those in the medium size range are likely to be more tender and sweeter than an overgrown one.

To prepare it for frying is simplicity itself: simply slice the eggplant across in slices about a half inch thick (if the slices are too thick, they won't fry through), dip them in a mix of egg beaten with a few drops of water, and then dredge well in whatever pané mix you have on hand or prefer. When I lived in New Orleans, I followed the local tradition of using "Italian" seasoned breadcrumbs--breadcrumbs mixed with grated parmesan, herbs, and garlic powder, which could be found on the shelves of any grocery store anywhere in the city.

When I was growing up, our dredge of choice was cornmeal (white, always: we scoffed at the notion of yellow cornmeal anything at all) mixed with salt and pepper. Seasoned flour works well, too. Try all of them and see what you like best. You can, by the way, slice and fry a portion of an eggplant and then reserve the rest to fry a few days down the road (or cook in some other fashion), as long as you place the uncooked portion back into your refrigerator and cover the cut end with a paper towel.

As you prepare the slices for frying, have a heavy skillet heating with about a scant half inch of olive oil in it. Be careful not to let the oil reach the smoking point, but at the same time, take care to have it very hot by the time you begin frying your eggplant slices. Arrange the slices in the skillet, as many as can be placed together at one time, and then turn the flame down to medium.

Now all you have to do is watch carefully as the eggplant slices fry to a good, crisp brown on one side, and then turn them over and let them brown to the same degree on the other. If you hurry the frying (by keeping the flame too high), you may end up with well-browned eggplant that's somewhat raw in the center--something you'll know because it's woody when you bite into it, and not melting and succulent, which is the texture you're going for.

I use a three-tined cooking fork to do the turning. It allows me either to snag the pieces with the tines if the slices happen to be sticking (but this is very rare), or to use the tines like a spatula to turn the slices.

And that's it in a nutshell. Drain the fried eggplant slices on paper towels and serve them while they're piping hot. 

All through my growing-up years, this is how my family managed during summertime. We fried eggplant slices and ate them as a main dish in lieu of meat, since one of the effects of intense heat is to diminish the desire for meat-centered meals. The stomach does not want the hard, heat-producing work of digesting gobs of meat in hot weather.

We told ourselves we didn't miss meat as the centerpiece of summer meals (and we didn't) because fried eggplant tastes like fried oysters. And we believed this when we said it--though, truth be told, we simply relished the silky, flavorful fried eggplant meat more than any other meat dishes we might have eaten instead. We were sons and daughters of Jefferson, and believed devoutly that meat is meant to be a condiment and not a main dish--and why not believe that, when fresh vegetables are abundant and delicious, and the virtue of eating vegetables and danger of too much meat are well known?

We ate these slices of fried eggplant with other items designed to pique interest in meals when appetite fails in hot weather--sliced tomatoes, dead-ripe, slices of fresh, cool cucumber, sliced cantaloupe, sliced sweet onions, slivers of hot peppers for those who relish the bite of a jalapeño or hot banana pepper with a meal. A constant on our table during the summer was also a relish called chow-chow, which my mother (and grandmother and aunts) made each year from end-of-garden vegetables including shredded green tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, and carrots. It, too, had a nice bite to it, since it was seasoned with chopped jalapeños as well as various spices.

The fried eggplant and sliced raw vegetables were also very likely to be accompanied, as I was growing up, with a dish of field peas (crowders and purple hulls were our favorites) cooked with some bacon, and perhaps with fried okra and/or summer squash, or okra stewed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers, or fresh corn boiled on the cob or cut from the cob and fried.

Lately, Steve and I have had the sliced eggplant with a simple high-summer salad we both love, which consists of very ripe tomatoes cut into pieces and mixed with slivers of sweet onion, a few drops of vinegar, salt, pepper, and good olive oil. On one occasion this week, I also sliced cucumbers as thin as possible, mixed them with a good bit of chopped dill, and added slivers of onion, a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and sugar, and then a few drops of buttermilk and cider vinegar with olive oil added to dress them.

The eggplant slices can be augmented in various ways--with grated parmesan cheese, with a ladle of good homemade tomato sauce, simply with a sprinkle of red pepper and/or paprika. However you choose to eat them, I think you'll find them delicious, and a good way to beat the summer heat and eat well. One reason that Southerners have long been addicted to fried things, after all, is that we live in a climate in which, for much of the year, no one wants to be in the kitchen for long periods of time with a hot oven blasting more heat into the room.

Hence the quick frying, which produces far less heat. And which also produces, as people living in hot places like the Mediterranean, India, and the Middle East have long known, tasty morsels that keep interest in food alive in the hottest of weather, especially when the small hot morsels are accompanied by spicy relishes and cooling salads.

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