March 5, 2012

a new way with eggplant

I couldn't resist picking up 3 of the long, skinny Japanese eggplants at the Chinese market this weekend. A pile of eggplants, even out of season, are irresistible to me -- that velvety flesh, the earthy flavor, and that color, oh man. I couldn't walk by without grabbing a few, especially since the never ending parade of winter vegetables -- cabbage and kale, mostly -- gets a little old by this time of year.

In our house, eggplant normally gets a quick saute with chopped chiles, Indian spices and lots of cilantro. It serves as a fantastic side to a soupy dal and basmati rice this way. But this weekend I was in the mood for a Chinese variation to accompany ma po tofu, and so I looked to Fuchsia Dunlop for inspiration. As you may already know, the most famous Sichuan eggplant dish is "fish fragrant eggplant," so called because the ingredients in the sauce are used in traditional Sichuan fish dishes. (Other variations include fish fragrant pork and fish fragrant tofu puffs.) It is fantastic, of course, as most deep fried eggplant dishes are. However, I am rarely in the mood to deep fry, so I kept digging ... only to find Dunlop's recipe for Steamed Aubergine with Chile Sauce. 

Steamed eggplant sounds austere, doesn't it? Austere and bland and diet-friendly. Steamed vegetables do not engender enthusiasm in my heart. However, the accompanying sauce -- chile oil, soy sauce, vinegar, a dab of sugar -- sounded promising, and so did the idea of adding a healthful eggplant dish to my repertoire. 


The recipe itself is fast: slice eggplant, pile in a steamer, and steam until tender. (I arranged the eggplant around the sides of the steamer, leaving an empty space in the middle for the steam.) This took 8 minutes or so. While the eggplant is steaming, you stir together the ingredients for the sauce. With 7 minutes left, I rummaged around in the fridge for something to dress it up and happened upon the end of a bunch of scallions and rapidly wilting cilantro, which I chopped up for garnish.

steamed eggplant with chile sauce

What you end up with is a warm eggplant salad. The eggplant flesh is soft and yielding, but not mushy or stringy. Unlike fried eggplant, steamed eggplant retains its color. And while I was worried about the dish being austere, you don't have to: the vinaigrette is fragrant, tangy, a perfect balance of sweet and salty, and it has just enough oil that you don't feel like a monk. Steamed eggplant! Not so austere after all.

Steamed eggplant with chile sauce
adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty
serves 2 to 4, depending on number of sides

1 Japanese eggplant (about 12 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 tablespoon chile oil with sediment (see head note of this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon chinkiang black vinegar
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
garnish: handful of chopped scallions and cilantro

Position a steamer on the stove. Next, lop off the top stem of the eggplant and trim into 2 to 3 inch sections. Flat side down, cut the eggplant into thin slices. Steam until tender but not mushy, 8 minutes or so. 

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and stir until dissolved. Pile the steamed eggplant on a plate and spoon the vinaigrette over it. (You could also serve the sauce on the side for dipping, she suggests, but this way seemed easier.) Garnish with chopped herbs and serve.