One of the most important fruits in Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jewish cooking is eggplant. Yes, I said fruit– eggplant is technically a large berry, though most cooks generally consider it a vegetable. The eggplant, also known as aubergine, has been cultivated in India for over 4,000 years. The oldest surviving mention of the fruit dates back to the 5th century in a Chinese agricultural work called Ts’i Min Yao Shu. It later made its way to Persia in the 4th century CE, where it eventually became firmly rooted as a major part of the Middle Eastern diet.
Sephardic Jews prize the eggplant as an affordable, healthy dietary staple that can be prepared in numerous ways. In fact, during a second Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1580 (when the two countries united under one crown), eggplant became known as the “Jew’s apple” because of its frequent usage in Sephardic Jewish cuisine.
Once you know how to roast an eggplant, there are a number of dishes you can make with it. Today, I’m going to share with you my favorite methods for roasting eggplant, along with some tips for ensuring a tasty result every time you roast.
I prefer roasting eggplants on the gas stove or grill. Roasting on an open flame imparts a delicate smoky flavor into the eggplant flesh. If you do not have a gas stove, you can also roast it in the oven. Both methods are described below.
Tomorrow, I’ll share my recipe for classic baba ghanoush—a delicious dip made from roasted eggplant and tahini.
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Roasting on a Gas Range or Grill (Recommended)
- Wash and dry eggplant. Pierce it a few times with a fork to vent.
- Wrap the eggplant generously with aluminum foil—cover completely with at least 3 layers. Make sure all sides are closed tightly.
- Place foil-covered eggplant on top of the gas range grate or grill over the open flame. On my gas stove, I usually turn the flame a little higher than medium.
- If using a grill, light gas or coals and preheat the grill before you begin to roast.
- Allow eggplant to roast over the flame for 15-30 minutes, giving it a quarter every 5 minutes as it cooks. The larger the eggplant, the longer it will take to roast. Smaller eggplants (like Japanese eggplants) will roast more quickly. Don't worry about going too long-- the tough outer skin of the eggplant and the foil will protect the flesh inside from burning.
- Once the eggplant is very tender and collapsing, remove from heat with tongs and set aside. Careful, the tin foil will be extremely hot! Allow to cool inside the tin foil for a few minutes.
- Unwrap the eggplant carefully (there will be hot steam inside).
- Slice the eggplant open.
- Scoop out the roasted pulpy flesh and place it in a bowl. Discard the charred skin and the foil. There will be some residual smoky juice that collects in the bowl; you can drain it off or blend it into the eggplant, depending on the flavor you want to achieve (see Eggplant Roasting Tips, below).
Roasting in an Oven
- Preheat your oven broiler on the hottest (maximum) setting. Lightly grease a baking sheet with olive oil.
- Wash and dry eggplant, then slice in half lengthwise.
- Place eggplant halves flesh-side down (so the flat cut side is directly against the baking sheet).
- Roast under the broiler for 15-30 minutes until the eggplant halves are charred and the halves are beginning to collapse. The larger the eggplant, the longer it will take to roast. Smaller eggplants (like Japanese eggplants) will roast more quickly.
- Remove from oven. Check the eggplant flesh to make sure it is soft, roasted, and caramelized throughout. If any parts looked light-colored or undercooked, return to the oven to roast for a few minutes longer.
- Scoop out the roasted pulpy flesh from each half and place it in a bowl. Discard the charred skin. There will be some residual smoky juice that collects in the bowl; you can drain it off or blend it into the eggplant, depending on the flavor you want to achieve (see Eggplant Roasting Tips, below).
Eggplant Roasting Tips
- Depending on where you live and what kind of eggplants you are cooking, you may from time to time encounter a bitter tasting eggplant. This is because as eggplants mature, they become richer in alkaloids, which cause a bitter flavor. Some people don’t mind this bitter flavor; others dislike it. If you are concerned about bitterness, there are a few ways to combat the issue:
- 1) Choose smaller, younger eggplants for roasting. The younger and more slender the eggplant is (ex. Japanese eggplant), the less bitter and stringy it will be.
- 2) If you slice the eggplant in half prior to roasting, you can salt each half to combat bitterness. Sprinkle an even layer of salt across the white flesh. Let the eggplant sit for 30 minutes. Liquid droplets will form on top of the flesh. Rinse off this liquid, which can contain bitterness. Pat dry. Proceed with roasting.
- 3) If you slice the eggplant in half prior to roasting, there may be some large visible seeds inside. You can scrape out the largest ones using a small spoon; these larger seeds tend to hold bitterness.
- 4) After roasting, remove the eggplant pulp and let it rest in a bowl for at least 30 minutes. A smoky liquid will collect in the bowl. Taste the liquid; if it has a bitter taste to it, drain the liquid and discard before proceeding with your recipe.
- Personally, I very rarely encounter the bitterness issue. I prefer to keep some of the smoky juice from the roasting and add it to whatever dish I’m making—it imparts a lovely, smoky flavor to dips like baba ghanoush.