Alex Guarnaschelli Blogs: It’s All About Eggplants in the Summer

06/23/2015 at 02:00 PM ET

Alex Guarnaschelli
Courtesy Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.

This time of year is reserved for the beautiful vegetables, and eggplants are one. I remember there seeming to be only one kind and size when I was growing up, but, like potatoes and onions, there are always a few different ones to choose from at the supermarket. Depending on the recipe I have in mind, I will vary my kind. I use the smaller, more seasonal eggplants (India Paint, Graffiti, Fairy Tale varieties, for example) for grilling, roasting and eating simply. They are tenderer and have great, unique flavors. My favorite? Probably Fairy Tale because they are hard to get… Basically, I’m a sucker for the smaller ones because they roast and grill tender very quickly.

Lots of recipes call for pre-salting eggplants to draw out the bitterness. I am not particularly adverse to the concept; I just generally don’t do it. The below simple recipe is my go-to for roasting and works just as well for slow-cooking until tender on the less-hot part of the grill with the lid closed.

Alex Guarnaschelli
Courtesy Alex Guarnaschelli

The larger eggplants I call upon for the heavy-lifting recipes like Eggplant Parmesan or the below recipe for Caponata. Caponata is like a sweet and sour chunky type of Italian relish used on its own, on grilled bread or to accompany grilled meat like lamb. It’s also great with mozzarella! It traditionally has funky ingredients like chocolate. My version is a little simpler. I like to have some Caponata in the fridge in case I need something tasty with great texture on the fly.
How to buy and pick eggplant? Avoid the overly big ones or any with soft spots and blemishes. The overly big eggplants tend to be cotton-textured and tasteless. A good eggplant should also feel heavy (therefore not dried out inside) when you hold it in your hand.

Simple Roasted Eggplant
Try them roasted or on the grill. The sweet basil and the tart (yet also somewhat sweet) balsamic are great companions to the eggplant.

3 small to medium eggplants, halved lengthwise
6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar (preferably aged)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Prepare the eggplant: Pour 4 tbsp. of the olive oil onto a baking sheet and top with the eggplant slices, coat both sides of the slices with the oil and season liberally with salt.
3. Cook the eggplant: Place the eggplant slices, in a single layer, on the grill. Avoid the very hot spots because charring the eggplant too much can give it an unpleasant flavor. Cook for 2 minutes on the first side. Use a metal spatula or tongs to turn them on their second side. Cook for an additional 3-5 minutes or until the eggplant is tender. Remove from the grill and sprinkle with balsamic.

A note about balsamic vinegar: Aged balsamic vinegar has tremendous texture and flavor. If the price is too steep, a great cheaper substitute is to reduce regular balsamic vinegar over low heat on the stove until it becomes syrupy and intensifies in favor. Do rush this, as the vinegar burns easily.

Eggplant Caponata
Letting the raisins sit in the red wine vinegar and plump up adds a great burst of horsepower to this relish. I also find that letting it sit in the fridge for a few days makes it taste even better.

4 tbsp. golden raisins
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
8 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggplants, skin on, cut into 1 inch cubes
Kosher salt
1 large red onion, diced small
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
1 tbsp. dried oregano
4 scallions, peeled and minced, white and green parts both

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Plump raisins and cook eggplant: In a small bowl, combine the raisins and red wine vinegar. Set aside. Pour 6 tbsp. of the olive oil onto a baking sheet and top with the eggplant, coat all sides with the oil and season liberally with salt. Place the tray in the center of the oven and cook until the eggplant is tender, 12-15 minutes. Set aside.
3. Assemble the caponata: In a large skillet, heat the remaining oil. When it begins to smoke, add the onion and garlic and season with salt, red pepper flakes and sugar. Cook, 3-5 minutes, until translucent. Stir in the pine nuts, oregano and scallions. Stir and taste for seasoning. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the cooked eggplant, red wine vinegar and raisins.

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