Eggplant takes to grilling like perhaps no other vegetable I know. The spongy flesh soaks up smoke flavor from a charcoal or wood fire and turns buttery without the use of much oil, which eggplant usually devours.
Try to grill thin eggplant slices and you’re in for heartache; they go from lightly charred to incinerated in the blink of an eye. You’ve got much more wiggle room if you keep it whole, the way I do when making baba ghanouj or other spreads, or almost whole, as with this recipe for a grilled eggplant salad that’s destined to become a summertime go-to.
It’s from Leela Punyaratabandhu’s beautiful new book, “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill” (Ten Speed Press, 2020), which celebrates the roadside barbecue dishes of her native Thailand and its neighbors. She wisely insists that the key to success here is to use long, slender Japanese eggplant, which has very little of the bitterness that turns some people off one of my favorite vegetables. You halve them lengthwise, grill them for a few minutes, then cut into chunks, layer over a coconut-milk dressing and top with peanuts, fried shallots, mint and red-pepper flakes.
The appeal is fairly obvious: As is the case with virtually every dish I’ve tasted from this part of the world, each bite gives you an interplay of flavors (salty, sweet, sour, spicy, even fresh/herbaceous) and textures (creamy, crunchy, chewy) that makes it difficult for you to stop eating.
And why on earth would you want to?
Grilled Eggplant Salad
Adapted from “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill” by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Ten Speed Press, 2020.
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 shallot (2 ounces), thinly sliced lengthwise
1 ½ cups unsweetened full-fat coconut milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 ½ teaspoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
6 long, green Thai or purple Japanese eggplants (no substitutes; 2 to 2 ½ pounds total), halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ cup unsalted roasted cashews, coarsely chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
Line a small plate with a paper towel or clean dish towel. In a small frying pan, combine the oil and shallots, place over medium heat, and cook, stirring often, until the shallots are crisp and golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots to the towel-lined plate and let cool. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the oil for brushing on the eggplant, and save the rest for another use.
Prepare a grill (preferably charcoal) for a direct fire over medium heat (350 to 400 degrees). If using a charcoal grill without a built-in thermometer, medium heat means you should be able to hold your hand five inches above the cooking grate for 5 to 7 seconds.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: In a 1-quart saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk and cornstarch then place over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking occasionally. Lower the heat and simmer, until thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and let cool to lukewarm. Stir in the lime juice, sugar and salt, then taste and add more salt, if needed. Aim for a dressing that’s equally sour, sweet and salty.
When the grill is ready, brush the eggplant with the 1 tablespoon reserved shallot oil and grill the eggplant all over, flipping them as needed, until charred and a fork slid into the flesh meets no resistance, about 15 to 20 minutes total. Transfer to a cutting board.
When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, cut them crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Swoosh the dressing on the bottom of a platter and arrange the eggplant on top. Sprinkle with the crisp shallots, followed by the pepper flakes, cashews and cilantro. Sprinkle the mint leaves over the top. Serve with the rice.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
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