The day that my mother acquired her Eggplant purple Volvo was the day I fell in love. It wasn’t the dual seat cushion warmers. Nor was it the enduring counter-culture chic of the Volvo brand. It was that color. Every morning on my way to school, I lost myself in deep aubergine.
Perhaps that explains my particular affection for the eponymous vegetable. Few things seem as perfect and evocative as a plump globe eggplant (except perhaps, a plump baby eggplant). Alas, where flavor is concerned, my feelings are less absolute. Between eggplant’s notorious bitterness and its spongy constitution, the challenge is in finding a culinary preparation to do it justice.
Of late, I’ve had some luck in that department: Eggplant fries with sea salt and buckwheat honey at Poppy. Smoky baba ghanouj. A sharp, capery bite of caponata. Bechamel-smothered moussaka. Each one was able express eggplant’s nutty, sweet-sour flavor.
This recipe does exactly that, and more. Mired in a delicious tar pit of harissa-honey sauce, eggplants become almost silken in texture.
Eggplants in a Spicy Honey Sauce
Adapted from Traveler’s Lunchbox and Claudia Roden
If baby eggplants aren’t available, substitute 2 large globe eggplants, peeled, stemmed and sliced into 1/3-inch rounds.
1½ pounds fairytale eggplants, halved lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
5-6 tablespoons honey
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon harissa or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2/3 cup hot water
Chopped cilantro, to garnish
Lay the slices of eggplant out on a towel or cloth and sprinkle all the cut surfaces generously with salt. After 15 to 20 minutes, wipe the pieces dry with paper towels.
Preheat a large, heavy skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush both sides of each eggplant slice with olive oil and cook, not overlapping the slices, until browned on both sides. [You'll no doubt have to do this in batches.] Remove the slices to a plate and set aside.
In a bowl combine the honey and lemon juice with 2/3 cup hot water, stirring to dissolve. Heat your skillet again, adding a little more oil if there is none left. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring for about 30 seconds, then add the cumin and harissa, stirring for another 30 seconds. Stir in the honey-lemon water and bring everything to a boil.
Lay the eggplant pieces into the pan, overlapping if needed, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning the pieces as necessary to ensure all are coated with the sauce, until it has been reduced to a thick glaze and the eggplant pieces are completely soft. [Hoping to maintain the eggplants' structural integrity, I removed them from the pan after 2 minutes, and returned them once the sauce had reduced fully.] Season to taste.
Let cool, sprinkle with chopped cilantro, and serve at room temperature, preferably as part of a meze spread.