The eggplant has many forms and a long ancestry in ancient India, but these days, it appears as an important ingredient in the cuisines of many cultures. You see it steamed, stir-fried, roasted, stuffed, and transformed into soups or salads. My own favorite approach is to grill it. Sometimes I just cut it into slices about a half-inch thick, brush it with olive oil, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and just throw it on the barbecue over high heat, maybe with some zucchini treated the same way, and wait for those brown grill marks to suggest that it’s ready to eat as an accompaniment to whatever else I’m cooking up on the same grill.
Eggplant comes in a lot of shapes and kinds, but the one I use most often is the Asian eggplant, sold in markets variously as Chinese or Japanese eggplant. There are slight distinctions in color and shape in these two varieties, but, in terms of essential taste and texture, those distinctions are of no consequence. Asian eggplant doesn’t have a long shelf life, so pick through them carefully to select only those that are firm to the touch and whose skins have no blemishes or soft spots. Asian eggplant tends to be less seedy than their fat and beefy American counterparts, and their purple (light or dark) skins are genuinely edible, which means that you don’t really have to peel them, though you may choose to do so.
How about a grilled eggplant salad? Here’s what I do. I take a half dozen or so good-sized Asian eggplants, cut off their stem ends, and, with a vegetable peeler, remove strips of the skins, so that the end result is a kind of striped-looking, partially peeled eggplant. Cut the eggplant, thus peeled, in half lengthwise, and brush with olive oil. Grill the long eggplant halves, covered, over a hot to medium-hot fire (gas grills are fine), until there are pronounced grill marks on one side. Then turn them over and continue to grill them, still covered, to achieve the same effect on the other side. While you’re grilling the eggplant, why not cut a large, sweet red bell pepper in half, removing the interior ribs and seeds, and throw that on the grill with the eggplant. The whole process for both bell pepper and eggplant should take about five to seven minutes, at which the point of a paring knife should easily and deeply pierce the eggplant flesh. Immediately remove the grilled eggplant and pepper, and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette with salt, one large crushed garlic clove, excellent olive oil and vinegar. For the vinegar portion I use ½ part white wine vinegar and ½ part freshly squeezed lemon juice. This creates the needed acidity, but without any pronounced vinegar flavors (such as occur in, say, red wine vinegar) to overwhelm the subtle tastes of eggplant. Try making the vinaigrette one part vinegar/lemon juice to four parts olive oil. After you’ve made the salad, give it a taste to see if it requires more acidity, and, if so, you can squeeze a bit more lemon juice into the salad.
Now … cut the grilled eggplant into bite-size pieces and put those pieces into a medium-size salad bowl, adding the grilled red pepper, diced small. Sprinkle over whatever herbs you like … some like chopped fresh oregano or fresh parsley, and I enjoy chopped cilantro. If you’re using cilantro, you might want to try a touch of ground cumin, if you’re so moved; it’s up to you, and those subtle flavors of eggplant that I mentioned earlier will be receptive to an astonishing variety of additional flavors. Now, give your vinaigrette a final beat, add it to the bowl and give it a gentle toss. Taste it for salt at this point. If you feel the salad needs more, sprinkle some really good sea salt flakes over the top of each served portion. You can eat the finished dish at room temperature, or cool first it in the fridge. If you have some left over, cover it tightly, refrigerate it, and enjoy it the next day. Give this dish a try or three, and, as the old song runs, anything goes.