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Strange-Flavor Eggplant

(recipe, Barbara Tropp)


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Introduction

This is an "eggplant caviar" if you will, a spicy-sweet-tart purée of eggplant that beguiles even those who think they hate eggplant. One of the first dishes I ever made, it has become a China Moon hallmark. Served in tiny bowls ringed by crispy garlic croutons, it is the amuse-guele (throat-tickler) we send to all our guests. Unlike traditional Chinese eggplant dishes, which are steamed or fried, this one is baked. It makes it easy and texturally interesting. I use Western eggplant purposely here for its slightly bitter edge! The sweeter Chinese and Japanese varieties taste wimpy in this dish. The eggplant is most flavorful when made in advance and it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week. The croutons are sublime when eaten freshly baked and merely excellent done a day in advance and stored at room temperature with an airtight seal.

Ingredients

    Eggplant
    1. 1 to 1¼ lb. large eggplant (Italian or globe)
    2. 2 Tbsp. corn or peanut oil
    3. ½ tsp. Japanese sesame oil
    4. Garlic Croutons
    5. Thinly sliced green and white scallion rings for garnish
    Aromatics
    1. 1 Tbsp. finely minced garlic
    2. 1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger
    3. ¼ cup thinly sliced green and white scallion rings
    4. ¼ to ½ tsp. dried red chile flakes
    Sauce
    1. 3 Tbsp. soy sauce
    2. 3 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
    3. 1 tsp. unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar
    4. 1 Tbsp. hot water

    Steps

    1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Move a rack into the middle position.
    2. Prick the eggplant well in several places with a fork or the tip of a sharp knife and remove the leaves. Bake on a baking sheet, turning once, until fork-tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size. Remove the eggplant and slit it lengthwise to speed the cooling.
    3. While still warm, remove the tough stem ends and the peels, scraping off and retrieving any pulp. Cube the pulp, then process with any thick baking juices in a food processor or blender until nearly smooth. (Eggplant differs enormously in water content. Some will leach nothing when baked, others leach a tasteless water, while some ooze a tasty liquor. It is only the latter that should be used.)
    4. Combine the aromatics in a small dish.
    5. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
    6. Heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the 2 tablespoons of corn or peanut oil, swirl to glaze the pan, then reduce the heat to moderately high. When hot enough to foam a scallion ring, add the aromatics and stir-fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds, adjusting the heat so they sizzle without scorching. Add the sauce ingredients and stir until simmering. Then add the eggplant, stir well to blend, and heat through. Remove from the heat, then taste and adjust with a dash more of chile flakes, brown sugar, or vinegar if needed to achieve a zesty flavor. Stir in the sesame oil.
    7. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally. The flavor is fullest if the eggplant is refrigerated overnight, sealed airtight. Serve at room temperature, spooned onto the croutons and garnished with a sprinkling of scallion.