Eggplant, it turns out, is a controversial vegetable. As many people hate it as they do love it. Yesterday one of my cousins sent me a message: I love your blog. But I HATE EGGPLANT! I have 70 first cousins, so I’m sure she’s not alone in that crowd. Another friend claims he likes eggplant but it doesn’t like him–he’s allergic, his tongue gets all funny when he eats it. Perhaps…but he’s Lebanese and I suspect he doesn’t want to admit, amid my endless raving about it, that eggplant just doesn’t do it for him. My mother and her sisters, on the other hand, would eat eggplant three meals a day if they could.
The controversy continues when it comes to prepping eggplant. To salt drain or not to salt drain? This step can be important, to purge eggplant’s high water content so it won’t, when cooked in oil, absorb too much. The salt drain is also considered a good way to eradicate any bitterness. But it’s an added step that can, if done hastily or incorrectly, end up making your dish taste saltier than the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve cooked with eggplant both ways, and have read up on where the experts land on the controversy. My take is that it depends on how you’re cooking the eggplant. If you are sautéing in oil, best to drain the cut-up eggplant first so that you won’t use up half of a bottle of that expensive Stone House blend like I did once (my sister never forgave me). If you do salt and drain, leave it in a colander in the sink for at least 45 minutes and up to two hours. Be sure to rinse the eggplant and then press it dry with paper or other clean, dry towels.
But for the truly delicious Lebanese eggplant dish we are making this week, you can eliminate this step. It just doesn’t make enough of a difference, given that in the end the eggplant is cooked to a meltingly soft texture in tomato sauce, with other savory flavors infused.
You will need to take some time, though, to broil your eggplant to a deep mahogany brown (and I mean dark). The best eggplant for this dish is Globe, which is larger than Italian or Chinese eggplant. Slice the unpeeled eggplant about ½-inch thick and brush both sides lightly with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet under the broiler until the tops are golden, and in some spots charred, about 6-8 minutes (stay nearby and keep an eye on it). Flip the eggplant over and do the same on the opposite side. Alternatively, you can bake the eggplant in a 400 degree oven, on the upper shelf, for about 20 minutes.
I wish you luck trying not to eat up the eggplant just as it is like this, with some thin pita bread and a salt shaker handy. If you can, make some extra so you won’t feel bad about not leaving enough eggplant for the Sheik al Mehshee, which is even more delectable than the roasty eggplant with bread and salt.
I’d like to believe that even the eggplant haters would love to eat Sheik al Mehshee, that if I could just get a bite in their mouths they would agree to its deliciousness. Probably best though if I just agree to disagree, and invite all of you eggplant haters to join me here this week anyway, for a little story that won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. I promise.