Intuition and tradition: Asheville chefs take varied approaches to cooking with eggplant

BITTERSWEET: Chef Hanan Shabazz, pictured in the community garden at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, likes to peel eggplant and showcase it in ratatouille and other stewed dishes, which, she says, is a simple way to avoid bitterness and a rubbery texture. Photo by Luke Van Hine
BITTERSWEET: Chef Hanan Shabazz, pictured in the community garden at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center, likes to peel eggplant and showcase it in ratatouille and other stewed dishes, which, she says, is a simple way to avoid bitterness and a rubbery texture. Photo by Luke Van Hine

As a child, eggplant featured prominently among the vegetables served at my house. I wish I could relate rosy memories of meltingly delicious dishes rich with smooth eggplant flavor. In reality, the skin was tough and the flesh was often a bit rubbery or bitter.

I don’t fault my parents for this. They are actually wonderfully intuitive cooks, but I think eggplant may defy intuition at times.

Fortunately, when intuition fails, falling back on tradition can be a good tactic. And I do recall a nice eggplant Parmesan or two when Dad actually followed a recipe.

I think my early experiences mirror those of many who have less-than-positive opinions about this vegetable. However, I am lucky enough to have changed my views dramatically over the years.

My first revelation came as a young baker at Laughing Seed Café. I  landed a dreamy job baking desserts at that iconic downtown restaurant back in the days when vegetable-forward dishes were not on every menu, and there were actually very few menus at all in Asheville. One morning, a chef pulled something out of the oven that resembled meat more than vegetable. Roasted Japanese eggplants had never before crossed my line of sight, and I was intrigued. The flavor was nutty, the texture silky, and I was hooked.

As I soon discovered, the multitude of eggplant varieties have different flavor profiles, skin colors and flesh textures. Some need to be treated with care to help remove unwanted bitterness, and some have no bitterness to remove.

Fast-forward 20 years, and vegetable-forward menus abound in restaurants all over Western North Carolina. This time of year, local chefs celebrate the profusion of fresh, seasonal vegetables, and eggplant is on the top of the list.

Eggplant expertise

No matter their skill level, cooks can sometimes use a little training when it comes to unfamiliar ingredients. In Green Opportunities’ Kitchen Ready culinary training program, chef Hanan Shabazz teaches her students some tricks for working with eggplant. “Getting the peel off is very important to reduce the bitterness,” she says. She even suggests removing the outer layer of flesh after taking off the peel to further reduce bitterness, or coating slices with salt to draw out bitter-flavored moisture.

For students and home cooks who are nervous about the challenges of eggplant, Shabazz has found that the white and light-purple varieties available this time of  year at local markets have a milder flavor and might be easier to start with. She typically makes more traditional dishes like ratatouille to showcase a tried-and-true technique: With a long, slow stewing process, the eggplant in ratatouille melts in with the tomatoes and spices, and there is no chance of rubbery texture.

When she worked as a certified nursing assistant, Shabazz used to employ this same stewing technique to fix a dish for elderly patients that combined eggplant, potato and onion simmered with seasonings for a good, long time. “This dish makes it’s own sauce, thickens and is the perfect tasty, soft meal,” she explains.

Eggplant experimentation

When chefs come to understand the best techniques for cooking particular ingredients, experimentation is the natural next step. Aux Bar co-owner and executive chef Steve Goff has developed some ingenious and delicious eggplant dishes over the years. As the farms he purchases from begin sending him the oblong purple and white veggies by the crate, you will see smoked eggplant baba ganoush and fried eggplant po’boys on his menus.

Goff’s opinion about peeling eggplant differs from Shabazz’s. “I personally don’t usually peel them,” he says. “It seems like a waste of what we have and a waste of my time.”

Instead, he prefers to play off the bitterness in the outer layers using various techniques. “When I’m smoking them, I leave the skin on because you get that nice char flavor, which is already going to be bitter,” he explains. “And as long as I’m offsetting the bitter with spices, salt, sugar, oil, lemon juice, garlic … bitter is not necessarily a terrible flavor.”

Another innovation Goff developed involves fermentation. He typically uses this process in classes or for special occasions, because the time and space required are too much for his restaurant kitchen.

Kimchi can be made from almost any vegetable, and Goff likes to use eggplant. After slicing and salting some of the smaller varieties, he slathers them with a paste of ginger, garlic, onion and chili peppers. “I don’t put fish sauce in mine because I like to keep it vegetarian, and it doesn’t need it,” he says.

After letting it ferment for about a week or as long as a month, he often purées the kimchi. “It tastes really good as a sauce, and it has a superstrong live culture going I use to ferment other vegetables like celery, whole okra, radishes or winter squash,” he says.

Mostly Goff uses the large, dark-purple Italian eggplants for smoking and making baba ganoush and the smaller varieties for fermenting and pickling.

Exceptional eggplant

Trial and error come into play on the farm as well as in the kitchen when it comes to growing these nightshade vegetables. Sarah Decker and her husband, Morgan, owners of Root Bottom Farm in Madison County, have selected particular varieties over the years for flavor and fortitude. “The eggplants that grow the best and produce the most outside are the  skinny, long Asian type, like the Orient Express,” says Sarah. “Italian varieties good for a greenhouse or hoop house are a white variety called Clara and a pink-and-white heirloom with a unique shape called Rosa Bianca.”

As is often true, these farmers are also inventive cooks, and knowing how much time and effort goes into producing food means they don’t waste anything. One of Sarah’s methods for enjoying eggplant involves using the broken chips at the bottom of the tortilla chip bag to make a breading, coating chunks of eggplant and baking them until they are soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.

Even though this wily vegetable comes with a set of challenges, it can be rewarding and delicious to meet those challenges head-on. Whether you use more traditional preparation techniques or you choose to experiment, eggplant is fresh at the markets this time of year and well worth the effort.

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About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

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