Eggplant is one of those vegetables that can elicit a love-it or hate-it kind of response (my mom loves it, my dad hates it, it’s a mixed marriage). I have learned that the key is all in how it’s prepared. So let’s prepare it right, shall we??
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Much of the time, eggplant is expected to behave like other veggies that seem similar to it. It doesn’t want to go along with your expectations, so don’t even try to force it. Eggplant seems to have the same kind of texture as summer squashes, like zucchini, when it’s raw, but it’s actually much tougher and spongier. This means eggplant doesn’t soften up when cooking, not even after being exposed to high heat for long periods of time if it’s not properly prepared. The key is oil and a sprinkling of salt, and of course the best to use is olive oil.
Giving eggplant slices a chance to have a soak in olive oil (not too much, mind you, but don’t be stingy) allows the oil to be absorbed into the flesh of the eggplant. And trust me, it can absorb a lot, so you want to be careful. As the eggplant cooks with oil-infused flesh, the heat from the oil is transferred further in and coaxes air and moisture out. This helps soften the eggplant and leads to a delightfully tender and tasty treat.
This traditional eggplant dish is a frequent guest at the table during the later summer months in Greece, as this is when eggplant is usually ready. The name melitzanosalata translates to eggplant salad, though it is often served more like a dip or spread for topping bread or pita wedges. The eggplant is either roasted or grilled until tender, letting the sugars caramelize as it cooks. The addition of red wine vinegar and garlic perks up the flavor so it is not so eggplant heavy. It’s typically served cold or at room temperature and is a refreshing accent to heavier meat dishes, or as part of an array of appetizers.
Some quick notes before you begin:
Bigger isn’t always better. Smaller eggplant varieties tend to be more tender and have a more mild flavor than the big, purple ones at the grocery store. However, if that’s what you have available to you, select ones that are smaller. They will tend to be less seedy and have a better texture.
The method for preparing the eggplants is exactly the same as what I do for another similar dish, baba gahoush, which is Lebanese. It’s traditionally prepared by having the eggplant roasted whole over a wood fire and then the charred skins are removed. The idea is to infuse the flesh with a smokey flavor, but what I often taste is just burnt flavor. Here, the eggplant is sliced and coated with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, then grilled or broiled. This lets a caramelized flavor develop and allows the flesh to soften. Much better!
I have found that the ideal thickness for eggplant to be sliced is roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch (about 13 to 19 mm for you metric folks). Too thin and the flesh will fall apart and be mushy, too thick and it will never soften in time.
Olive oil is another key step to making this dish turn out great. I like to pour a 1/4 inch deep layer of extra virgin olive oil into a shallow pan, then let the slices sit in it for a few moments then repeat the process for the other side. This allows just the right amount of oil to soak in for great texture and flavor.
I use a gas grill to prepare my eggplant, but a wood grill would also be great. Using the broiler in your oven is a perfect substitute. I recommend using a low heat so that the eggplant has time to cook and soften before the outside gets burned. For the broiler, that would mean setting your roasting tray at least six inches away from the heat. You’re aiming for a dark golden brown on the outside and tender flesh on the inside.
I strongly recommend using a good red wine vinegar rather than distilled or some other flavor. Fruity vinegar will add too much of a sweet taste, and distilled vinegar will be too harsh.
I have written the recipe below based on the amount of eggplant flesh after it is prepared. This way, you can adjust it to whatever amount you actually have and not worry about finding a specific size of eggplant.
Melitzanosalata (Greek Eggplant Dip) Recipe
For every one cup of prepared eggplant flesh you will need:
- 1 to 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (about 1 to 2 teaspoons)
- 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- salt to taste
- extra virgin olive oil
Slice your eggplant into 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick slices. It can be either lengthwise or into rounds. Pour olive oil into a shallow pan about 1/4 inch deep and lay the cut slices in it. Allow the olive oil to be soaked in, then add more oil and flip the slices over. Be sure that each side has a little oil soaked in without bare spots. Sprinkle each side with salt.
Grill or broil the eggplant until the flesh is tender and the outsides have a dark brown color to them. Avoid letting them burn. If using a broiler in the oven, have the slices on a rack or perforated roasting tray to allow moisture to escape from both sides and set the tray at least six inches away from the element. The eggplant should be tender enough to easily be pierced with a fork.
When the eggplant is done, allow to cool until it is comfortable to handle. If the skins are tough, remove them, otherwise they can be left on. Using either a food processor fitted with a chopping blade, or a knife, chop the eggplant up until very fine. You don’t want it pureed, but it should be in very small pieces.
Measure the amount of eggplant you have to know how much of the other ingredients to use. Transfer the eggplant into a bowl, add in the minced garlic (start with the smaller amount unless you love garlic as much as I do), and the red wine vinegar. Add in salt to taste, and additional olive oil as desired. Cover and allow the flavors to blend in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Taste again to see if you want to adjust any of the other ingredients.
Depending on the amount of vinegar used, this will last for a long time in the refrigerator. Serve the dip cold or at room temperature with pita slices, crackers, or a hearty bread like sourdough. It can also be eaten as-is like a salad side dish to a hearty meal. Enjoy!!