I wait until I'm done slicing to rummage through my cabinets for the things I need: a colander, a bowl, a jar of sale grosso (that's Kosher salt, but I like the Italian name better; it translates to "fat salt" and I can think of nothing more delightful to say). I balance the colander in the bowl, and arrange a layer of slices along the bottom. I salt them heavily and with abandon, the way I sometimes wish I could salt everything were it not for my health or my boyfriend's palate. No matter as this isn't for taste; the salt has a job to do here. The large crystals go to work immediately, drawing out the bitter juices which dot the creamy white surface like early-morning dew. I cover these with a second layer of eggplant and more salt, repeating until the last round is in place. A plain sheet of paper towel is next, followed by a heavy and perfectly-sized cast iron skillet for weight. I leave this odd little tower on the counter while I work on other dishes or--as is often the case when I'm home alone and in no hurry--wander into living room to sit on my red chair with a book.
It takes about 20 or so minutes for the transformation to be complete. When I return, the slices are flatter and slightly shriveled, the top layer creased with a ring from the bottom of the heavy pan. I lift the colander and place it under the sink, allowing cool water to flow over the eggplant and wash off the excess salt and juices. It was always this part that confused me when I first learned the method; why rinse in water after spending so much time to remove? The receiver bowl holds the answer to this question in the form of an inch or so of brownish liquid. I taste it and it's unpleasant--salty, bitter, acidic. It's so strong that I wonder if there could be a use for it. Compared with this, the cold water from the tap feels practically baptismal.
I feel protective of the wet rounds in the sink. They're not as spongy and hardy as they once were; they feel tender, softer, and much more vulnerable. Some have slight tears in the center where the flesh has constricted. I've put them through salt therapy and they've emerged sweeter, but in need of greater care. I rinse and pat each one gently with paper towels, arranging the dried rounds into neat lines on a sheet pan. They're ready to be cooked now.
In the essay "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," Laurie Colwin recounts the pleasures of consuming one as a solitary meal. I read the essay in a collection by the same name. The book is an ode to solitary dining, and it was this which inspired my own little ode to this versatile fruit. I'm not sure what it is, but there is something exciting about eggplants. I see one and instantly feel the urge to pierce the gorgeous royal purple skin. In other (ancient) cultures, the eggplant was revered. This is evident in its name. Only in English is it known by such an uninspiring, prosaic name. Call it aubergine, like the French. Or melanzana like the Italians. In Spanish it is berengena, or "apple of love," a name derived from the ancient Spanish belief that this enticing and somewhat naughty looking fruit was a powerful aphrodesiac. Regardless of name and preparation, the eggplant is hearty and versatile enough to sate the cravings of even the most devout carnivore. I am not a vegetarian, but I am happy eating eggplant as a main course.
As for how best to cook them, well, that's up to you to decide. I like caponata. I like ratatouille. Both are nearly the same thing with different names based on nothing more than my mood and what's playing on the iPod. (i.e. Paolo Conte=caponata; Edith Piaf=ratatouille.) I really enjoy rounds of roasted eggplant served with slices of Pecorino and honey. I like sauteing them and adding to a summery vegetable risotto. I like all of these things, but most of all I like to soak them in milk, dust with seasoned flour, and fry to a golden crisp. Eaten alone, straight off the draining rack while leaning dreamily against the counter these are better than chips. Or, if I'm feeling a bit more civilized, I enjoy them accompanied with a simple yogurt dip. Sandwiched with bits of cheese and basil, they make a wonderful and easy lunch. And, when I'm really feeling motivated, I layer the crisp slices into a casserole dish with herbed ricotta, grated mozzarella, and marinara (my favorite when too lazy to make my own is Rao's). I top with more cheese and bake just until the cheese is bubbly and the ricotta puffs up slightly.
It's late summer and the eggplants have never been more lovely. Here's my recipe for the eggplant ricotta bake; it's a bit involved, but the steps are easy and relaxing--just perfect for the cool evenings of a late August day.
Eggplant Ricotta Bake
To prepare the eggplant:
1 whole globe eggplant (also known as Western; that's the big ones you find most commonly in grocery stores)
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
2 tablespoons of fresh basil, minced
1 tablespoon of crushed black pepper
1/2 cup milk
Olive Oil for frying
For the filling:
2 cups of whole milk ricotta
1/4 chopped roasted red pepper
1/4 chopped marinated sundried tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups marinara sauce
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano (or other hard cheese)
1.) Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch thick rounds and salt to remove bitter juices (see above for instructions). Rinse then pat dry.
2.) In a shallow bowl or small baking dish, mix the flour, salt, pepper, and oregano. Be sure to taste the flour and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
3.) In a separate bowl, beat the egg and milk together. Dip each slice of eggplant in the milk mixture then drop into the flour, making sure to coat on both sides. Tap off excess flour and set on a baking sheet. Repeat with each slice of eggplant.
4.) Heat oil in a skillet and fry each slice, a few at a time. Be sure not to overcrowd the pan. Turn frequently until golden on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and place on a rack to drain. Salt the finish fried slices to keep them crisp.
5.) While the eggplant is cooling, mix the ricotta with the egg. Add the oregano, tomato, red pepper, and season to your liking.
To assemble the dish:
1.) Start with a few tablespoons of marinara on the bottom. Add a layer of eggplant, overlapping so that there are no empty spots.
2.) Cover with all the ricotta mixture
3.) Add another layer of eggplant, then top with the sauce.
4.) Finish with the mozzarella and pecorino
5.) Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes or until cheese is bubble and ricotta puffs a bit. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.