Written and photographed by Christine Galanti
Eggplant and I haven’t always been close friends. While I never specifically disliked it, I never paid too much attention to it either, letting the curvaceous vegetable slowly and almost imperceptibly win me over with its creamy texture and surprisingly winning flavor.
Since it’s wormed its way into my heart and tastebuds, eggplant has made several memorable appearances on my palate: sliced into rounds and roasted in savory olive oil, interior silky and exterior golden and toasted at Café Mogador; braised to tenderness in caponata with tomato and onion, seasoned with cinnamon and dressed with capers and pine nuts at the Batali family’s Salumi; and fried into rich Afghan bouranee baunjaun at our old neighborhood kabob house, to name a few.
Eggplant has become both a summertime and wintertime staple in my kitchen. In the winter, I roast whole eggplants and squeeze out the flesh to make baba ghanouj with caramelized onions. In the summer, it’s always perfect on the grill. I even make faux spaghetti from eggplant cut into skinny strips, which works nicely with puttanesca.
A few months ago, I quit my day job and moved to New York City on a freelance writer’s budget. And by “freelance writer,” I mean “starving artist.” On the surface, NYC appears to be an awful choice for living on the cheap, even temporarily. If you spend time discovering any of New York’s neighborhoods, you discover that they are actually full of hidden gems, and some bargain gems. Where there are large ethnic communities, you can find markets and restaurants priced for locals, not tourists. For a resourceful cook on a budget, it’s actually a great place to be, especially during the summer when produce is fresh, bountiful and cheap.
In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Young Fruit on Nassau Avenue is my go-to for inexpensive fruits and veggies. During the peak of the growing season, 99 cents will buy you a pound of a spectrum of fruits and veggies, from apples to pears to green leaf lettuce, and of course, eggplant. At Stiles Farmers Market in Manhattan, produce is even cheaper. At another Greenpoint market, I found red bell peppers for 89 cents per pound displayed outside on the sidewalk.
In Italy, the art of making good food using the least expensive, freshest and most seasonally available ingredients is cucina povera. Literally meaning “poor kitchen,” it sounds much more romantic in Italian. While Italy made the term famous, this concept of cooking exists all over the world, and especially around the Mediterranean.
In Provence, the quintessential end-of-summer dish is ratatouille. Immortalized by the animated film of the same name, ratatouille is an aromatic stew that makes use of seasonally-plentiful eggplant, pepper, tomato, zucchini, squash, and fresh herbs. Classic versions of the dish from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin involve a multi-step simmering process, which is rather time-consuming. Grilling over charcoal (or in a stovetop grill pan) makes cooking vegetables way more fun. And it’s a good excuse to start a fire.
Note: Eggplant (like cauliflower) is packed with water, which is why it’s so dense. The key is to salt the eggplant it while it’s raw, so the flesh releases excess moisture.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 4 Japanese eggplant or 2 regular eggplant
- 3 bell peppers of any color
- 1 large zucchini or 2 small zucchini
- 1 large yellow squash or 2 small yellow squash
- 1 large sweet onion
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large heirloom tomato
- fresh parsley, basil, thyme, or oregano, chopped
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar or seasoned vinegar
Slice eggplant lengthwise into quarters (or planks, if using regular eggplant). Do not halve quartered veggies horizontally; they will be easier to grill if they’re long. Sprinkle eggplant liberally with salt and arrange in a colander to drain for 20 minutes.
While the eggplant drains, preheat a charcoal or gas grill for indirect cooking with hot and cool zones.
Slice the zucchini and squash lengthwise into quarters, discarding tops. De-rib and de-seed the peppers and cut each into three or four rectangular planks. Slice the onion crosswise into 1/2-inch thick rounds and thread diametrically onto a skewer.
Rinse salt thoroughly from the drained eggplant and pat dry. Brush the eggplant, zucchini, squash, peppers, and onion lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle oiled veggies with salt and pepper.
Place eggplant, zucchini, squash, pepper, and onion on the hot side of the grill and cook, turning once when they start to blacken. Move to the cool side of the grill and cook until tender. Once cooled, peel and discard pepper skins.
Chop the tomato and cooked veggies into bite-size pieces, and toss with remaining olive oil, herbs and vinegar. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Christine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.