I’ve always been a bit suspicious of eggplants. It isn’t the color; they display some of the most gorgeous colors and gloss seen in the vegetable world. The shape, while bulbous, isn’t a problem either. The issue is texture. Specifically, the pithy nature of their uncooked flesh. The flesh doesn’t seem natural and squeaks when you cut into it, managing to be both annoying and weird at the same time. I have a hard time eating food that, off the shelf, is that texturally strange. No matter how visually nice they look, I know it is only skin deep. Sad.
Here’s how I see it; the best way to deal with an eggplant, should one cross your path, it through heavy, multi-stage processing. In this way, you can simultaneously reduce it to an unrecognizable form and establish your control over this dubious vegetable and your relative place in the universe. Yay! Perfect examples of this strategy are baba ghanoush and the subject of this post, Eggplant with Charmoula. I regard the lengthy cooking time as the price of admission to unlocking some truly remarkably rich and somewhat smoky flavors from an ingredient that I would otherwise not be able to handle. It’s worth it.
Just look at those fine things in the photo to the left. We are going to take these gorgeously colored vegetables and turn them into something blackened and slightly slimy… and that is a very good thing. Conceptually here is how things work and why; the first stage of “cooking” takes some of the excess moisture out of the eggplant by salting and pressing slices, the next stage dries the slices in the oven and partially cooks them, the third stage finished the cooking process by pan-searing the slices in a heavy cast-iron pan; stopping just when the slices begin to blacken at the edges. The good news is that after the above extended cooking regime, you are essentially done. The sauce requires no cooking. Just whisk it up, and put it on the table.
Start off by slicing the eggplant into 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick slices. Lightly salt both sides with kosher salt. Place the slices on a rack, cover with cloth and press using a cutting board or something similar. As you can see from the photos below, we use about 4 pounds of weight for this process, lovingly applied with a slab of oak and some food-grade lead diving weights. Press the slices for about 30 minutes before moving on.
After you have finished pressing your slices, place the rack in an oven that has been preheated to 350 F. Bake them for about 25 to 30 minutes. They should just begin to tan (barely) and look slightly dry on the exterior when you are done with this step. Cool the slices, more or less, completely.
The last step is to brown the slices in a cast iron pan over medium to medium-high heat. Prior to placing them in the pan, brush the sides with olive oil. This process is going to produce some smoke; if you need to, turn the heat down and avoid asphyxiation. The goal is to end up with slices that look like the ones at the left. You want them browned and, in places, blackened. Beautiful.
You are, essentially done with this dish. Just plate the slices, and top with Charmoula when you sit down to eat. Charmoula, although it sounds fancy, is just a specific type of dressing and is very easy to make. You can make it before you start or easily squeeze it in during the pressing stage.
I really enjoy the sweet smokiness of the eggplant against the sharp citrus flavor of the Charmoula dressing; probably would be nice with a little bit of feta crumbles on top, although I haven’t tried it. The flavor is complimented very nicely with the fresh cilantro, so don’t skimp there. Hope you enjoy this side. We usually serve it with Moroccan dishes, but the flavors are also a good match with a variety of Indian and Thai main dishes.
- 2 medium eggplants
- 6 Tbs. olive oil
- 3 Tbs. lemon juice
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. paprika
- ¼ tsp. cayenne chili
- ½ to 1 tsp. cumin
- 2 to 4 Tbs. cilantro, minced
- Prepare the Charmoula by whisking together all ingredients. Pour into a small serving bowl and set on table; much like a dressing.
- Slice eggplants into ½ to ¾ inch thick slices. Salt both sides and place on wire rack. Cover with a towel, place a flat object on top (like a cutting board) and press for about 30 minutes to remove moisture.
- Place pressed slices in an oven that has been heated to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Slices should just begin to change color and the surface should begin to dry. Cool slices.
- Brush slices with olive oil and, in a cast-iron skillet, brown the slices over medium heat, flipping as needed to allow them to brown evenly. Slices are done when they begin to blacken slightly at the edges.
- Plate the slices and, to serve, ladle several tablespoons of Charmoula over them.