Summertime and the eggplants are slow to fruit. Eggplant, brinjal, baingan, is useful in many dishes we like: Moussaka, baba Ghanoush, ratatouille, curries of many varieties, and the following stir-fry.
Since discovering the tastes of SE Asia in this dish we have looked forward to making it each year.
That means cultivating eggplant with varying success, though there is always some fruit. Eggplant is beautiful when not bothered with flea beetles. The purple flowers give way to glossy dark purple fruits; the ones I planted this year are a long tear drop shape. Eggplant takes on flavors, all the while maintaining a firm mouth-pleasing texture if not over cooked. Eggplant is a relative of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and nightshade, and must be rotated away from these plants each year to thrive. The east asian long types are good for stir fries and can be used for other cooked dishes.
Thai Eggplant and Basil Stir-fry (if you have ingredients on hand this takes about 25 minutes and serves 2 or 3
2 oriental eggplants, the longer thinner kind
2 thai peppers, whole, stemmed ( this depends upon your tolerance of the spice; this will not be very hot)
1-2 c of thai basil leaves
2 small onions, halved and sliced thin across the grain
1 Red bell pepper; cut in quarters and then sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 scant tbsp of unrefined sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1/4 c broth mixed with scant tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sriracha sauce or other chili-garlic sauce: more if you like it hot
Cut eggplant into irregular pieces (easier to turn while frying); peel if desired
prepare other vegetables; mix sugar, fish sauce, broth and chili-garlic sauce in a small bowl
fry eggplant, pepper, and onions separately, in small batches of no more than 3/4 cup, in a hot wok in a little lard or oil, turning them quickly initially then allowing them to sear on the sides of the wok. remove each batch to serving bowl
Fry garlic briefly then add fish sauce mixture and cook until it bubbles and thickens through
return vegetables to wok, mix in and add thai basil and cook for minute or two to blend flavors
And I must say a word here about stir frying. Many a stir fried dish is second rate because a few simple techniques are not properly understood. One must have a very hot wok or a good cast iron skillet, and a good gas burner. Flat top stoves are ubiquitous for their one positive feature: an easy cleaning surface, but they don’t make good stir fries. The contact between wok and burner is too tenuous. A standard electric burner is better but it is not immediately responsive. A wok with a nonstick surface is not appropriate because it cannot safely tolerate the heat necessary for stir frying: the nonstick surface will begin to degrade, releasing toxic chemicals. If you are lucky enough to have a special wok burner on a gas stove, you can make beautiful stir fries. We are not so fortunate as to have this ring of small gas jets, but we have a good gas burner that heats well. My spouse has modified our various stove burners over the years to get a more intense heat and we have an adequate burner now. A good wok of carbon-steel that has one long wooden handle and is not too big to maneuver works best for me.
In addition to appropriate equipment, it is important to fry ingredients in small batches quickly, so they fry and do not steam. Searing them
adds a nice browned flavor. In fact I like to sear the vegetables of any dish requiring a fry of several vegetables. After the protein and vegetable pieces have been quickly and separately fried and removed, heat garlic and/or ginger briefly, add sauce ingredients and reduce it a lot or a little(if sauce is required) until it boils in the center, then return all the ingredients to turn briefly to reheat. Too many ingredients frying at length together will always be mushy. It is usually best to restrain oneself in terms of varieties of ingredients. Two or three vegetables, besides garlic and/or ginger, and one protein source, works dependably.
While asian eggplants are better for stir frying, the Italian globe eggplants are better in the preserves I learned to make in a year with an abundance of the fruit. Eggplant are easily preserved by salting 1” pieces overnight (you can also peel them) to remove some of their liquid. In the morning mix them with a little red wine vinegar and pack them in layers in canning jars, alternating the layers with a garlic clove and a sprig of thyme or oregano and a little olive oil. After the jar is packed it is necessary to cover all with a thin layer of olive oil before covering the jar with a little waxed paper and screwing on the lid. They will last several months in the fridge. Even a small bit of mold on top that will appear after 4 months or so is not a problem: just throw the bit with the mold out, but if there is much mold it will taste of mold even underneath. Preserved eggplant is especially good eaten with Italian food: The preserves are not really sour; umami would be their strong feature, and they are surprisingly delightful to chew. I imagine one could preserve them w/ South or Southeast asian herbs and oils as well.
Brinjal has many manifestations in South Asian cooking because it takes on flavors and maintains its texture. it is used in mashes, wet and dry curries, or is breaded and fried.
We have used them fried or grilled in sandwiches and of course in Baba Ganoush, that excellent mediterranean spread/ dip made of roasted eggplants blended with sesame/tahini, olive oil and fresh garlic, Baba Ghanoush can be made in volume from the summers harvest, and then frozen for winter eating.
There are many vegetables, like eggplant, which in themselves seem to have nothing to recommend and which are even distasteful to the uninitiated But many have superior qualities, which are exhibited in the right circumstances by a careful and knowledgeable connoisseur, one who is skilled and patient enough to elucidate their virtues.