So not everybody is crazy about eggplant. That baffles me, but I understand it—especially coming from people who don’t often prepare their own, and are victims of slimy, spongy, bitter mush. Nobody wants to eat slippery vegetables with gritty seeds and acrid hides.
But eggplants can also be the best of what a vegetable can be—crispy or soft, at once charred and sweet, generally the best combination of side-dish flavors. There are quite a few ways to play it well: ratatouille is a personal favorite. Eggplant is still coming up in Texas by the bushel, and I thought it might be nice to share this summertime (and fall-time) favorite with anybody courageous enough to: 1. Stick his or her hands into open flames and 2. Serve eggplant—fairly naked—to a group of guests.
My folks have a nice big fire pit on their concrete dock out on Lake Waramaug in Connecticut. Much was grilled this summer over that fire, but few dishes excited me more than the eggplant I was able to roast while taking a dip. It’s too cold for swimming now, but everybody likes to stand by a fire in the fall, and I highly recommend that you do this dish on a wood-burning, outdoor flame… it’s one of those carnal experiences reminiscent of coming down from the excitement of a great hunt. Or in this case, twenty minutes of wading.
What I loved most of all, was that fact that several naysayers—of the, “Oh, no thanks, I don’t do eggplant,” variety—were greedily dipping into the serving bowl, with markedly more relish than those who’d expected something delicious from the get go. I hardly got a taste of this delight, but for the unexpected happiness of converted guests, it was well worth abstaining.
My friend Gardner Landry, a real Texas boy, taught me this trick in July when he came for a visit to the lake house. A few months later, back again to visit my parents, I tried it on my own, but instead of roasting the eggplant over charcoals from a grill, I called upon my inner Neanderthal and threw my black prize straight onto a load of burning logs. Then I jumped into the water, emerging just in time for dinner.
After about twenty minutes, the eggplant was thoroughly charred on one side, and needed to be turned. Some dubious onlookers—wimps who had decided not to swim in the late September water—wondered how this already detestable vegetable would taste when covered with ash and splinters. They poked at it with curious index fingers. I told them not to worry, but I could tell they weren’t listening. After another 20 minutes of roasting on the other side, the eggplant was ready: fully collapsed, wrinkled and covered with a layer of grey dust.
I took it inside for some doctoring: slipping off the skins with a knife, and pulling out the flesh with the tines of a fork. I cut off the eggplant’s tiny green top, reserving it for presentation. I mashed the garlic with some olive oil and garlic salt to taste, then cleaned the cutting board and re-formed it into the shape of an eggplant, adding back its green stem cap. I then drizzled the flesh with a bit more olive oil and covered it with a sprinkling of chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts. I got back to the dock at around 7:30, and the dish was done by 7:45—I kid you not. Serve it up with some thin crackers or toasted, crusty bread.