Crispy fried eggplant, greek yogurt sauce with sesame and mint
Technically a fruit from the nightshade family (tomatoes and potatoes are other members), eggplant can't claim to have a large audience of "would be" fans. Like cilantro, people tend to like it, or refrain from eating it completely. (In the late 1980s and throughout the 90s, eggplant and portobello mushrooms were the go-to vegetarian options on restaurant menus--hopefully never served together! Now, with far more creative options available for vegetarians, eggplant and mushrooms can reclaim their reputation as delicious vegetables that may or may not be good substitutes for meat!)
I think eggplant should be eaten in late summer only. I prefer the small varieties for their lower seed content, and for this recipe, Japanese eggplant are an ideal size for cutting and frying in bite size pieces. Another reason to stick to summer eggplant is that there's no reason to salt it. I've never been a believer in the popular practice of salting eggplant to remove moisture and bitterness. As far as I'm concerned, if an eggplant is bitter, there's nothing you can do to change that. Eggplant skin sometimes has an off-putting flavor and mouthfeel, but that's easily remedied by removing it, which I always do, regardless of how I'm using the vegetable. Note for this recipe: Eggplant begins to oxidize as soon as it is peeled and cut, so have your buttermilk ready to coat the pieces.
The step of soaking it in buttermilk, and the combination of ingredients that make up the breading, can be used with any vegetable you enjoy fried, as well as with fish, oysters, chicken tenders and the like. The classic Middle Eastern flavors of the sauce complement eggplant beautifully, but are also compatible with many other ingredients.
After frying, allow the oil to cool and strain it through a coffee filter; it can be used up to 3 times.
makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings, or a side dish to accompany a larger entree
4 Japanese or similar long, slender eggplants, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch thick coins
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups medium grind cornmeal
2 cups Panko (Japanese style) or coarse plain breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups vegetable, safflower, corn or other neutral oil for frying
Greek Yogurt Sauce with Sesame and Mint (recipe below)
Add the eggplant coins to the buttermilk and toss to coat. They don't have to be completely submerged but you want all of the pieces to make contact with the buttermilk. Leave the eggplant to soak in the buttermilk for 1 hour, or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, combine the flour, cornmeal, breadcrumbs, cayenne, paprika and salt in a bowl and stir well to combine.
When you are ready to fry the eggplant, heat the oil in a heavy bottomed cast iron skillet or similar pan with straight sides. While the oil heats, remove the eggplant coins from the buttermilk, shaking off any excess. Toss the eggplant in the breading and set aside. Test the oil temperature by sprinkling a pinch of the breading in the pan to see if it crackles and browns. Alternatively, use a candy thermometer to measure the temperature; it should be 350 degrees F.
Working in small batches and using a pair of tongs, place the breaded eggplant coins into the hot oil one at a time, browning on one side and before turning them over to brown on the second side. When they are deep golden and slightly soft, remove the eggplant pieces to a paper towel to drain. Season immediately with salt. To serve, arrange the pieces on a plate or in a bowl and serve them with the dipping sauce on the side.
Greek Yogurt sauce with sesame and mint
1 cup plain Greek yogurt, preferably whole milk
2 tablespoons tahini
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons each finely chopped mint, tarragon and chives
1 jalapeno or serrano pepper, stem and seeds removed and finely minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir to blend and evenly distribute. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.