Monday, August 2, 2010

Eggplant Enlightenment: Spicy Dip with Herbs

Mary, Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
“With silver bells and cockle shells
And one big hairy eggplant!”

-traditional (adapted by my dad)

I don’t know how old I was before I knew for certain that eggplants aren’t hairy. The fruit is quite the opposite, in fact, with skin so smooth it squeaks when you run your fingers along it. Perhaps Mom, who knows more about plants than Dad and I combined, enlightened me early on, so I could avoid any future botanical faux pas. I did know they weren’t hairy long before I ever had a chance to eat one, and by the time I did eat one, I may have wished they were hairy because that would have made them more interesting.

To me, the taste of eggplant always needs a significant amount of doctoring up. That’s why I was thrilled to find a recipe for a spicy eggplant dip in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. There’s a lot of added flavor, including fresh herbs I grow on my patio, sesame oil (one of my favorite flavors in the world) and plenty of hot pepper. I put a bit of my own spin on this recipe, such as adding mint and using crushed red pepper flakes (because I was too lazy to seed and dice a fresh chile pepper.)
We recently got a couple nice Japanese eggplants in our CSA box. They are longer and narrower than the dark purple, bulbous Mediterranean variety, but as far as I can tell, they taste about the same. When eggplants are small and don’t have big seeds in them, they don’t need any extra preparation, such as salting and rinsing, to extract any especially bitter flavors. At least I didn’t do anything of the sort when I used these long, skinny babies with the lovely, pale purple skin.

If you can get Thai basil for this dip, so much the better. It has a bit more of an anise flavor that works well with the sweetness of the brown sugar and plays well with the sesame oil. I’m not sure what kind of basil I used, although it might have been a variety called Cinnamon Basil. I planted it, but failed to label it. It did, however have a hint of sweet spice to it, and I think it stood in well for Thai basil. The more common varieties of Italian basil would work just fine here as well.

The eggplant for this dish needs to be grilled or roasted (I used the grill to cut down on the indoor heat) and peeled before it is stir-fried with all its flavorful buddies. This can be done ahead of time, however, and you can whip up the dip in a wok or skillet just before you want to serve it. It seems to be best warm or at room temperature so that the aromatic elements of the herbs and sesame and even the vinegar can waft up as you bring it to your lips on your favorite dip vehicle (tortilla chips or pita chips are great here). Perhaps this is the true key to eggplant-eating enlightenment.

Spicy Eggplant Dip with Basil and Mint
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

1 (1 pound) eggplant
1 ½ tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I use reduced-sodium)
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil (preferably Thai basil)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

1. Preheat a gas or charcoal grill (or preheat oven to 425 F). Slash the skin of the eggplant to keep it from splitting open while cooking. Place it on the grill rack and grill, covered, until the flesh of the eggplant is soft and the skin is well-browned and charred in places, turning occasionally. This should take about 20 minutes. Alternatively, place the eggplant on a baking sheet and bake at 425 F. Baking time may be longer.

2. Remove the eggplant from the grill or oven. Cool until easy to handle.

3. Peel off the eggplant skin and coarsely chop the roasted flesh.

4. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauce and red pepper flakes. Stir or whisk until the sugar is dissolved.

5. Place the sesame oil in a wok or large frying pan and heat over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir fry 30 seconds. Add the chopped eggplant and stir fry 2-3 minutes or until the eggplant is quite soft.

6. Add the sauce mixture (from step 4) and cook about 1 minute more. Stir in the basil and mint. Serve warm with tortilla or pita chips, or spread on crostini.

Makes about 2 cups dip.

Another recipe like this one: Roasted Red Pepper, Garlic and Onion Dip

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