There is one pothole that many of us fall into when it comes to eggplant – we don’t cook it for long enough. And I hate to say it but chefs aren’t always an exception to this faux pas either. If you’ve ever ordered a grilled veggie focaccia from a café, nine times out of ten you’ll find a thick slice of eggplant that’s slightly bitter and spongy in texture stuffed between the toasted bread… which is probably the reason you walk right on by these ink-skinned veggies at the markets. Well, it’s time to give eggplants the justice they deserve and position them firmly on the culinary map because when they’re cooked to creamy and silky perfection, they’re incomparable to the sponge-fest you may be used to.
When cooking most veggies, you want to retain a lot of their natural shape and texture; just think of grilled asparagus and blanched green beans, but it’s not the case for eggplant. You want to char and soften it right up. Remember: char and soften, char and soften!!! Refrain from removing your eggplant from the heat source until you’ve achieved this.
One of my very favourite ways to eat eggplant is in a dip or puree form. It’s a great snack to keep in the fridge for the week or to serve as part of an antipasto platter. Eggplant and feta cheese go famously together so I often sprinkle feta over the dip or crumble it into a little bowl and serve alongside the puree. Another party trick is to dust your homemade corn chips with cumin powder and dunk them into the dip; the smokiness of both the spice and charred eggplant are complementary to one another.
To whip up the dip, you’ll need:
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 cup tahini (if desired – if you’d rather hold onto that pure eggplant flavour then omit the tahini)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
To prepare the eggplant dip:
Preheat the grill or barbecue for medium-high heat. Using a small knife, make slashes all over the eggplants and rub them each with 2 teaspoons of oil. Insert two cloves of garlic into each of the whole eggplants.
Place the eggplants on a pan under the grill or set the eggplants on the barbecue and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, or until charred all over and softened, turning often to ensure even colouring and cooking. Remove the eggplants and garlic from the grill or barbecue and set aside to cool.
Remove and discard the skin from the eggplants. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. By this stage your eggplant is deliciously slimy, so kids love getting in there to help remove those bitter seeds.
In a food processor, blend the eggplant pulp and garlic to form a smooth puree. Blend in the tahini, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in the parsley. Season to taste with salt. Note: If you are omitting the tahini, feel free to give the eggplant dip just a quick whiz in the blender rather than puree it, in order to retain some of its natural fleshy texture.