Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Caramelized eggplant

I never enjoyed eggplant much as a kid and probably didn't even bother ordering it -- much less eating it -- until I lived in Taipei. There, this rather insipid vegetable suddenly took on a new character. It was like a mousy little girl turning into a movie star. 

One of the things that turned the aubergine around for me was simply its new and (for me, at least) improved shape. No longer the enormous grease sponges that used to haunt my plate, these Asian eggplants were long and slender and cooked in a way that turned them silky and sensuous. It was a revelation.

There is another edge to eggplant, though, that is rarely tapped: its natural tendency toward caramelization. This is one of those little secrets that certain Chinese chefs keep locked under their toques, but I am here to tell you all about it.

Small Asian eggplants
I figured this out by wondering how certain Chinese restaurants could whip out an eggplant dish before I barely  had poured myself a cup of scalding tea. Prodding at the dish with inquisitive chopsticks, I came to the realization that the eggplant had been cooked ahead of time and only awaited a quick dive into whatever sauce was required before being plated up. Good, one problem solved.

It turns out that there were two ways this was accomplished: one was the more common method of steaming of eggplant batons, which allowed them to retain their white flesh and beautiful purple skins. A handful of other chefs did something else, though, that lent a richer note to their flavor, although the veggies were no longer quite so pretty cooked this way. As far as I was concerned, though, eating is mainly about the flavor, so I started obsessing over them until I figured out the secret.

My discovery: these little guys had been deep fried. 

Roll cut for more surface area
No batter was used; instead, these were fried all by themselves until browned all over. The edges in particular have a tendency to turn into sticky ridges when they encounter hot fat and the juices actually caramelize. I don't know about you, but I never thought of an eggplant as being sweet before this, but they definitely do have enough sugar in them to turn a luscious walnut hue.

Frying them in hot oil also quickly hardens up the cut edges and skin so that the eggplant forms a seal that keeps most of the oil out and the juices in. The pieces shrink impressively as they cook, but what is left is actually quite sweet and succulent, a word I would normally never associate with eggplant. Then, they are tossed in a vibrant sauce, like the red-cooked (or hongshao) flavors used here.

The secret to perfectly fried eggplant is therefore no more than this: small amounts are quickly cooked in a generous amount of hot oil. A handful of the veggies fries up rapidly this way, in less than five minutes, and browns beautifully, while too many pieces cool down the oil, increase the steam, and turn the eggplant into a fine mess of mush. 

What I do is fry the eggplant in small batches while I'm prepping other dishes. All I need to do is flip them around now and again so that they brown evenly, scoop them out, and then toss in more. It goes quickly and can be done way ahead of time.

Just like in a restaurant.

Red cooked eggplant

Caramelized eggplant Shanghai style 
Hongshao qiezi  紅燒茄子 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

1½ pounds Asian (long) eggplant
1 to 2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (used is okay here as long as it smells good)
8 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled
1 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped, optional (see Tips)
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon rock sugar, or to taste
Thinly chopped green onion or cilantro for garnish, optional

1. Rinse and pat dry the eggplants (see Tips). Remove the caps and trim off any bruises. Roll cut (see Tips) the eggplants into 1-inch chunks. Heat the oil over high in a wok (you want about a 2-inch depth of oil) until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil is immediately covered with bubbles. 

2. Carefully add about a quarter of the eggplant to the hot oil and stir it around. Let it fry to a nice brown, stirring the eggplant around occasionally, and then remove the veggies with a slotted spoon to a work bowl. Heat the oil up again (see Tips) and fry another quarter of the eggplant. Repeat until done. Drain off any extra oil from the work bowl. (The eggplant can be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)

3. Pour off all of the oil in the wok, leaving just a thin slick inside (see Tips). Heat the wok over high again and then add the ginger, optional garlic, and green onions. Stir-fry them until their edges start to brown, and then toss in the rice wine. Let it bubble for a second, and then add the cooked eggplant, soy sauce, and sugar (see Tips).

4. Quickly bring the wok to a boil again, tossing the eggplant so that each piece is coated with the sauce; taste and adjust seasoning. When most of the sauce has been absorbed (in just a minute or two), plate, garnish if you like, and serve.


Deep fry the eggplant first
The garlic is optional here, so feel free to use as much or little as you like. Consider the other foods you will be serving, too; if something else will have a good helping of garlic, don't use any garlic here at all so that you can counterbalance the flavors of that dish.

You can use any type of Asian eggplant you like. Be sure and wipe them dry, as water will explode in the hot oil. For the same reason, any time you deep fry foods, wipe your hands dry before approaching the stove, as droplets can backfire onto your arms or even your face.

To roll cut, slice any round, thin vegetable (like a carrot) while rolling it on the chopping block with the palm of the other hand. This gives irregular pieces with maximum surface area. They should all end up being about the same size, so cut any bigger pieces as needed.

Roll-cut eggplant
When deep frying, be sure that the oil is hot before adding more ingredients to the wok. As soon as you remove fried foods, give the oil a little time to return to its original temperature and test the oil again with your chopsticks. This will keep the oil hot enough to immediately fry the foods; otherwise, the foods will soak up the oil rather than form a fried exterior.

Since the eggplant already has some oil in it from the deep frying, don't add any more to the wok when you make the sauce. The thin layer remaining in the wok will be sufficient to quickly stir-fry the aromatics. Some of the oil will leak out from the eggplant into the sauce as the sauce is made, and this will be just the right amount in the finished dish.

Use a small amount of sugar for this recipe and taste it before adding more; I like just a tiny bit to smooth the edge of the sauce here. Also, rock sugar gives a nicer sheen and has none of the sour aftertaste of regular white sugar, so try it if you have it on hand.