3 Creative Ways to Cook Eggplant Before The Season Ends

Eggplant is satisfyingly shape-shifting — and there's still plenty of time to experiment with it.

By: Miriam Garron
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Local eggplant is at its peak from the dog days of summer through cool early fall, and it’s as accommodating as it is abundant. Its mild flesh absorbs the flavors of marinades, dressings and sauces, and it's succulent charred on a hot grill or blanketed under bubbling tomato sauce and cheese. However you cook it, the one "Rule of Eggplant" is to cook it through until it’s tender.

Whether you are buying the big, fat globes (also called American), smaller Italian, Japanese or some of the tinier varieties used in Middle-Eastern and South Asian dishes, look for firm fruit with shiny, unwrinkled skin. Avoid eggplant with wrinkly or puckered skin or soft, brown spots — those are signs that the eggplant is old, and likely to be bitter. Most farmers markets carry at least a few of the many eggplant varieties, and South Asian groceries often have the smaller varieties.

It’s best to cook eggplant as soon after harvest as possible, but it you can’t, store them at cool room temperature for up to 2 days, then wrap them in paper towel and refrigerate them for 3 days max; they don’t love the cold and damp.

Lots of folks swear that salting eggplant before cooking reduces bitterness. To be frank, that’s an annoying step, and we think that if you buy fresh eggplant you won’t find it bitter. We’re more inclined to brine eggplant slices in salted water to draw out moisture, which can help achieve creamier texture and better browning, especially when frying or sauteeing. But it’s not essential — give it a try when you’re making your favorite recipe, and decide if it's a step worth taking every time.

Here are 6 recipes to help you make the best of eggplant season. That’s a mere dent in the eggplant repertoire, which includes dishes from Italy, the Levant, India, Southeast Asia and more. But you’ve got plenty of time to cook your way through a world of eggplant.

Fire up the Grill

Eggplant is made for the grill, where the smoke easily permeates quick-cooking slices or a whole globe cooked to the point of collapse.

Photo by: Armando Rafael ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Armando Rafael, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Try Grilled Eggplant Parmesan, Food Network Kitchen’s summery take on the classic casserole. Thick rounds of eggplant and juicy ripe tomato soften over direct heat, then get stacked with mozzarella and cooked to jammy tenderness while the cheese melts, all in under 10 minutes. You can easily double the recipe and serve single stacks on bread as an appetizer, stuff them into bread for sandwiches, or substitute another melty cheese like provolone.

Bobby Flay's Farro Salad with Grilled Eggplant, Tomatoes and Onions calls for the slender Japanese eggplant, which slightly firmer flesh than other varieties. That’s an advantage here, where you want the eggplant chunks to hold their shape and be just a bit toothsome. And while the flesh is firmer, the skin is thin and tender, so no need to peel. It looks beautiful tossed with the farro and bright cherry tomatoes. Dress the salad while the eggplant is warm, then let it cool to room temperature — the eggplant and farro absorb dressing as the salad sits, making each bite a little explosion of flavor.

Cook It Whole for Dips and Spreads

The trick to plush, smoky eggplant dips and spreads is cooking it whole on the grill, in the oven, or over the open flame of a gas burner. Whichever method you choose, the key is to steam the flesh inside its skin until its scoopable and mashable either by hand or in a food processor, and then to add some fat-like olive oil, yogurt, or tahini- to bind it.

Michael Solomonov gives his classic Baba Ghanoush it quintessential smokiness by charring a whole eggplant over a stovetop gas burner until its scoopable. Lots of tahini sauce adds flavor and binds the eggplant into a thick, silky spread.

Behind the scenes with Giada De Laurentiis on the set of Food Network's Giada Entertains.

And for her Smoky Eggplant Dip, Giada De Laurentiis roasts whole eggplant for 50 minutes until the flesh is super-soft and the skin cracks. The resulting mash doesn’t need much after that: 3 kinds of fresh herbs, some heat from chiles, acid from lemon juice, and a good glug of olive oil, which gives this dip its silky texture.

Make it Saucy!

We can’t say it enough: eggplant’s superpower is soaking up flavor. In Food Network Kitchen’s Ginger Pork and Eggplant Stir-Fry, Chinese eggplant (you can use Japanese too), soaks up the slightly sweet and salty sauce in just minutes. Browning the eggplant really well before is the key to its depth of flavor and tender-but-firm texture, so be sure to use a nonstick skillet and let the pieces sizzle undisturbed until they turn a deep, rich brown.

Eggplant “Meatballs” beauty, as seen on Food Network Kitchen Live.

Photo by: Rob Pryce

Rob Pryce

Eggplant is always described as meaty or offered as a meat substitute, but we speak for eggplant and say: let it be what it is. So don’t think of Pamela Salzman’s Eggplant “Meatballs” as a meatless version of something better, but rather as an easy, delicious version of the classic Sicilian eggplant fritter. She steams eggplant cubes with sautéed garlic in water to soften, a neat (literally!) trick that gives the eggplant the perfect texture for shaping into balls. Then she bakes them until they firm up before getting a final toss in marinara sauce. Like Pamela, we like them served over spaghetti squash, or solo with extra sauce and cheese, and a green salad.

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