Eggplant is native to India. Since the 5th century, when eggplant was first cultivated in China, this berry has been making its way through the world. Yes, you read that right – the eggplant is a BERRY by classification! The small edible seeds are what make it a berry. Cool, right? It’s the biggest berry I’ve ever seen! Anyhow, it’s become a super common produce item in grocery stores and farmers markets. Regardless of its year-round availability, versatility, and commonality in most locations around the world, I’ve interacted with many individuals who have no idea what to do with the eggplant. The most common recipes I hear people attempt are eggplant parmesan, ratatouille, or baba ghanoush. Believe me, I love each of these dishes and they are solidly good, but there’s an even simpler and incredibly delicious preparation that I’ve highlighted in this week’s recipe – marinate & grill. Okay y’all, let’s dive into this experience…I’m so excited to share because I already want to eat this dish again and I hope you’ll give it a try!

The Misunderstood Berry – Grilled Eggplant & the Perfect Bite

Prep Time:  2-4 Hours (Eggplant) / 20 Minutes (Everything Else)

Cook Time: 45 Minutes (Collectively)

Yields: 4 Servings

Ingredients (bold ingredients found in your Fresh Box or at Jacksonville Fresh Market/Shop this week):

  • 1 LG Eggplant (thick sliced)
  • 1 CUP Congaree & Penn, Jupiter White Rice
  • 2 CUPS Vegetable Broth (or 2 CUPS of Water w/ Dissolved Vegetable Bouillon Cube)
  • 2 CUPS Water
  • 2 Lemons (Juice & Zest)
  • 2 TBSP of Olive oil
  • 4 OZ Mushroom Medley (Baby Bellas / Oyster / Shiitake) (cut into small dice – doesn’t have to be perfect, just make sure it’s small – these will become “bacon” bits)
  • 4 TBSP of Butter (you can sub a vegan butter)
  • 10 TBSP of Salt (I know this seems like a lot, but I’ll explain below)
  • 2 TBSP of Black Pepper
  • 3 TBSP Tamari (Low Sodium) OR Soy Sauce (Low Sodium)
  • 1 TBSP Red Wine Vinegar
  • ½ TSP Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Bag of Scallions (Small chop the stalks – I ended up only needing ½ the bag – just store the rest in a ziploc and use within a couple days)
  • 1 MEDIUM Onion (diced small)
  • 10 SPRIGS of Thyme (Pulled & Chopped)
  • 1 – 1.5 Lbs. of Multi-Color Cherry Tomatoes (whole)
  • 6 Medium leaves of Basil (julienned)
  • 1 CUP of Cream (Almond Creamer (Unsweetened) would also be delicious)
  • 1 Cup of Buttermilk (if you are vegan, just double up the cream you use equaling 2 cups, or enough to cover the eggplant pieces)

The order of things:

  • Get out all dishes and tools needed (I like to set up my stations as much as possible before starting any prep – it makes things move a lot smoother during the cooking process)
  • Wash & Cut Eggplant
  • Prepare Cream & Salt Soak for Eggplant
  • Wash/Rinse/Dry and Prep all veggies
  • Prepare Marinade for Eggplant
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • Start rice
  • Put tomatoes into oven
  • Prepare Mushroom Bacon Bits
  • Prepare Onions for Rice
  • Prepare Rice
  • Prepare Grilled Eggplant

Dishes/Tools (this is just to show you what I used – feel free to improvise, no kitchen is the same):

  • Boiling Pot
  • Large Grill Pan OR Grill (I don’t have a grill right now, so I use a grill pan on stove top)
  • Small Frying Pan
  • Tupperware w/lid or shallow dish w/aluminum foil or plastic wrap
  • Chef’s Knife
  • Baking Sheet
  • Parchment Paper
  • Microplane
  • Cutting Board
  • Measuring Cups & Spoons

Instructions for Cream & Salt Soak:  

A note about soaking eggplant before cooking with it…so those little seeds that make the eggplant a berry, are the same seeds that make the eggplant frustrating for some cooks. The seeds of the eggplant are incredibly bitter and crunchy. The eggplant is also 90% water so pulling out some of the moisture is helpful for texture purposes. The solution for those issues is soaking the eggplant in dairy and salt! So – here’s what I did for this dish…and it made it a firm, but creamy texture that was successful in mouth feel and flavor.

  1. Get out a Tupperware or shallow dish that will fit your eggplant pieces and enough dairy to cover them. You’ll also need to cover and refrigerate this dish while it soaks, so a Tupperware with a top works, but foil over any shallow dish will work just as well.
  2. Cut the eggplant into ½ inch circles.
  3. Place the eggplant circles in the Tupperware/dish and sprinkle a decent amount of coarse salt on both sides of the eggplant pieces. (Don’t be shy about the salt here – its main purpose is to draw out a good amount of the moisture from the eggplant flesh to give it a spongy, creamy texture)
  4. Pour the cream and buttermilk into the Tupperware/dish until it just covers the eggplant pieces.
  5. Cover the Tupperware/dish and put it in the fridge for 2-4 hours. (I prepared this before running a couple hours of errands, then got busy with chores and finally was ready to cook dinner so it soaked for almost 4 hours and because of the results – I will absolutely soak it for the same amount of time when I make it again)

Instructions for Roasted Tomatoes:

  1. Your oven should be preheated to 400 degrees.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In a bowl, combine grape tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and basil.
  4. Arrange seasoned tomatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet.
  5. Set aside while you prepare the marinade for the eggplant. Once you’ve completed the eggplant marinade, you’ll put the tomatoes in the oven.  Cook at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes (they’ll be burst and browned)

Instructions for Eggplant Marinade:

  1. In a small bowl, mix Tamari or Soy Sauce, Garlic Powder, Red Wine Vinegar, Red Pepper Flakes. Set aside for now.
  2. Remove the eggplant pieces from the soak and lay them out on a paper towel. Use another paper towel to gently press on the tops of the eggplant pieces. (This will help remove even more of the moisture from the eggplant which is everything to help the texture and remove the bitterness)
  3. Wash the Tupperware/shallow dish that you soaked the eggplant in.
  4. Arrange the “dry” eggplant pieces in a single layer back in the Tupperware/shallow dish.
  5. Pour the marinade over the eggplant pieces. Make sure both sides of the eggplant are coated in the marinade (it will be just enough for a thin layer on both sides – see pic).
  6. Set the marinating eggplant container to the side, on the counter (not fridge) as you prepare everything else. You will revisit the eggplant last when we grill it off right before plating.
  7. Preheat oven to 400 degrees for the roasted tomatoes.

Instructions for Mushroom Bacon Bits:

  1. Heat large frying pan to medium. Add 2 TBSP of butter.
  2. Add diced mushrooms to the pan.
  3. Let them cook for a while at medium/medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
  4. Once they’ve reduced some, add I TSP of Tamari or Soy Sauce and stir.
  5. Then add the prepared fresh thyme and stir.
  6. Continue to cook the mushrooms while stirring frequently. (You are looking to almost burn the mushroom pieces so don’t be afraid of the heat or the doneness. The main key to this is to stir, stir, stir once they start crisping.
  7. As soon as you think they have taken all the heat possible (before it smells like burning 😊) remove them from the heat and immediately transfer to a couple layers of paper towels so they can drain.
  8. Set them aside on the counter (not the microwave – this will cause the crispness to be soggy) until you’ve plated and are ready to garnish.

Instructions for Mock Risotto:

  1. Heat your vegetable broth to a boil and then add the rice. (Do not add salt – the broth or bouillon cube provides plenty at this point)
  2. Stir frequently and turn the heat down to medium heat.
  3. Once the starch starts releasing and your rice is plumping, add the other 2 cups of water ½ cups at a time and continue to stir frequently. (This has the same effect as if you’re using arborio rice for risotto which is the texture we are looking to achieve here)
  4. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and let sit for about 10 minutes after all water has been added. (I would still check on this and stir every few minutes)
  5. Drop a TBSP of butter in as well as the juice of 2 lemons and stir, then continue to let sit until you complete the instructions for the onions.

Instructions for Onions:

  1. In a small frying pan, heat 1 TBSP of butter on medium heat.
  2. Add small diced onion to the pan and cook them down until they are translucent.
  3. Kick the heat up to medium-high to get some browning on the onions.
  4. Once they are browned, add the prepared thyme, lemon zest (1 lemon), ¼ TSP salt, ¼ TSP black pepper and stir frequently for a few minutes.
  5. Stir finished onions into cooked rice.

Instructions for Grilling Eggplant:

  1. At this point, your eggplant is thoroughly soaked and marinated and ready for the grill. I use a stove top grill pan, but you can also use an outdoor grill (this is probably better if you are planning to multiply the recipe for a larger crowd).
  2. Heat up your grill pan between medium and medium-high heat. Use a cooking spray to coat the grill pan well (don’t be shy here – you can also use olive oil, but make sure it covers every nook and cranny of the pan.
  3. Once your grill pan is hot and oiled, lay down your eggplant pieces and let it cook for about 3 minutes on the first side and then flip the pieces to grill off the other side. (Watch the heat and smell for this step as it’s easy to burn eggplant on a grill pan just as it is on a grill)
  4. Remove your eggplant from the heat once you see defined grill marks on both sides and the eggplant is still somewhat firm, but the center is squishy.

Putting it all together:

Arrange a helping of the mock risotto on your plate, lay down 1-2 eggplant “steaks”, place roasted tomatoes cascading to the side of the pile, sprinkle “bacon” bits and chopped scallions to finish.

I know it seems like another recipe full of steps, but if you do the prep work before you even start, it reduces your prep time and allows you to move around the kitchen while cooking as if you were conducting a symphony. It really is a sort of dance and the prep is your warm-up.

The best part about the dish is the balance of flavors. I mentioned in my introduction a few weeks back how important the balance of flavors is in the cooking experience, and it’s what I strive for in every dish. This dish allowed for what I consider to be a “perfect bite”. The textures gave a pleasant mouth feel with the sponginess of the eggplant, the burst of the tomatoes, the chewiness of the rice and the crunch of the mushroom bacon bits and scallions awarded an amazing balance. But – it was the taste that caused an explosion! The flavor balance of heat, spice, savory (umami), sweet, salt and acid were on point! Remember – sometimes a sprinkle of lemon or lime can change the experience of a dish. Acid provides balance and light to a dish, just like salt can intensify and highlight a particular flavor. I love to encourage people to embrace their spices and utilize their garnishes – season at every layer and enjoy the most decadent of food without having to add that extra sprinkle of salt or sweet or acidic tang. Incorporate those important texture and flavor elements into your dishes from the jump.

I hope everyone is doing well. Please send me a comment below if you have any questions or comments about this recipe, or if you are curious about other recipe options or tips for using your eggplant, or any other ingredients.

Remember that the Jacksonville Fresh market on Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach is open now and they just extended their hours to Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. So – if you’re reading this recipe (on Monday) and want to attempt it, then head over to the market (on Tuesday) and grab up some of these awesome local ingredients! I’d also love to see what you’re creating so be sure to post on social media and either tag @JacksonvilleFresh or @TawnysKitchen.

All the best to everyone…until the next recipe…be well and kindness to all!