Market Challenge: Eggplant

When the kids were little
, in the interest of Palate Expansion, we used to give them ten bucks at the farmer’s market and tell them to spend it on something brand new. Something they’d never seen before or something they’d always wanted to try. This is how they ended up falling in love with “dinosaur egg” plums and pickles on sticks, and — shocking, I know — crepes stuffed with bananas and Nutella.

Last week, I took a page out of that old playbook, but instead of issuing the challenge to two grade-schoolers, I turned it on myself. I do this from time to time, and now that I’m in the thick of the R&D phase for my next book, I wanted to see if I could leave the market with something other than corn, tomatoes, cider donuts, and eight thousand bags of greens. A big goal of mine with the weekday vegetarian mission is not only to dial back the meat, but also to dial UP the vegetables.

That’s how I ended up throwing these beauties into my tote. They are also known as “fairytale” or “graffiti” eggplants and are about the size of fingerling potatoes. To most of you, I’m guessing this does not come across as the most adventurous purchase. But trust me when I say that trying to convince my husband and kids to get excited about eggplant is about as easy as winning a point off Nadal. Andy physically winced when I placed them on the counter.

Since I knew he wasn’t going to be an enthusiastic partner in brainstorming, I turned to you guys for help, posting a photo on instagram and asking for recipe ideas. I got a bunch of ideas that sounded interesting: Fry rounds and serve with roasted peppers, mozzarella, basil, and balsamic; tuck into a hot fire then make smoky babaganoush; lots of links to Smitten Kitchen’s eggplant salad toast. But the idea that sounded like it might have the best shot at converting at least one other diner at the table was one from my friend Robin: Grilled eggplant drizzled with pomegranate molasses, feta, and parsley. (“Inspired by Ottolenghi” she said.) I know, I know…pomegranate molasses? Sounds so obscure and fussy! But trust me when I say, once you have a bottle on hand (here’s the brand I like) you’ll find yourself craving the tangy depth of it in salad dressings and painted onto roasted chickens and pork loins.

Even though it’s a crime not to grill on a late summer weekend night, I decided to roast them. This is partly because in his must-own vegetable manifesto Tender, Nigel Slater promised he had an easy method for transforming eggplant’s sometimes spongy texture into more of a meaty, creamy consistency. I followed his instructions then continued with Robin’s flavoring, subbing in mint for the parsley and adding pomegranate seeds because, as luck would have it, we happened to have them lying in wait.

Not the prettiest picture, but you know the end of the story. (It never gets old!) I am not kidding, Andy asked for seconds, and there were even some expressions of interest about its preparation from the girls, which is teen code for I kind of like this. The charred skin and the creamy flesh was itself a wonder — but married with the feta-mint-pomegranate trifecta, an A+ trifecta in its own right, checked all the boxes: tangy, salty, sweet, crispy, creamy, charr-y. Next time it’s the main event instead of just a side.

Roast Baby Eggplants with Feta, Pomegranates, and Mint
Makes enough for 4 sides. Next time around, I plan to double it and toss with a short pasta and lots of olive oil.

About 30 small eggplants, halved horizontally
kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup feta (or more to taste)
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
handful freshly chopped mint

Place all eggplant halves cut-side up on a cutting board and sprinkle the flesh with salt. (This removes excess moisture and bitterness.) Let sit 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Drizzle olive oil on foil and distribute evenly, using a brush if you have to. Sprinkle the oil-sliced foil with a little garlic powder.

Blot eggplant halves to remove moisture that has collected on surface and place them all face down into the olive oil. Roast for 40 minutes until skins look black and shriveled.

Remove from oven and let cool a bit. Using a slotted spoon, add them to a bowl and toss with remaining ingredients.

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