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Grill brings out eggplant's best


Until recently I never paid much attention to eggplant. I regarded it as one of those tasteless, personality-free vegetables that squat on cafeteria steam tables.

Nor was I attracted to the eggplant when I saw it in the grocery store produce aisle. It had that strange purple skin. And that pear-shaped body, with most everything sagging downward and outward. That body-image hit a little too close to home.

Nonetheless, I bought some eggplant at the Sunday morning Farmer's Market downtown, because it, like me, was cheap.

I saw a sign at the Pahl's produce stand saying going price for eggplant was three for $1. However,the clerk she had an even better deal for me. They were running a take-the-eggplant-so-we-don't-have-to- load-it-back-on-the-truck-special, of four for $1.

So I ended up with an armful of eggplants, and had to figure out what to do with them. I decided to grill them. That is my preferred method of cooking almost anything that falls in front of me. I toss it on the grill and see what happens.

What happened to eggplant was that when it hit the grill, it changed personality. Maybe it was the outdoor air, or the charcoal fire, or being bathed in olive oil. Whatever it was, this once-timid, white-bread of vegetables became deliciously salty.

Instead of just pushing it around my plate, in the hope that it might get lost in the potatoes, I sought this eggplant out. Sometimes I couldn't even wait for the grilled eggplant to get to the serving point, I simply snatched it off the grill and popped it in my mouth.

I never thought of myself as an eggplant snatcher, but circumstances change you.

In this case the mitigating factors were the presence of a big container of olive oil, a small bottle of capers, a handful of fresh parsley, and some lemon juice.

I found a recipe for these ingredients and grilled eggplant in "The Thrill of the Grill," the cookbook by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby that shares my basic philosophy of cooking: When in doubt, barbecue it.

As I sliced the eggplant into 1/2 -inch thick slices, I was doubtful. The interior of the plant looked pulpy and had the texture of a hard-boiled egg, one of the few foods on this earth I run away from.

But as I brushed the slices with olive oil and sprinkled them with salt and ground black pepper, the eggplant took on the hue of a vacationer after three days at the beach. The bland look was fading, the tan look was settling in.

And after about four minutes on the grill, the slices turned a fetching dark brown.

Another reason I took a liking to the eggplant slices was that I discovered that if I left them on the grill long enough, they would develop "grill marks." I live for grill marks. They are the signs of searing that distinguish the master griller from the weekend hobbyist. And eggplant slices give good grill marks.

They also tend to dive into the fire. I had a couple kamikaze slices that disappeared through the slats in the grill and ended up as cinders. But on the whole the event was a big success. I plan to do it again. And again. I certainly have plenty of eggplant.

Grilled eggplant

From "Thrill of the Grill" by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

Serves six.

2 large eggplants

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup chopped parsley

4 tablespoons capers

8 tablespoons lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Just before grilling, slice the eggplant into 1/2 -inch-thick slices. Brush with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Over medium heat, grill the eggplant slices on one side until golden to dark brown, about three to four minutes. Turn and grill the other side in same manner.

Remove slices to a platter large enough to lay them out in single layer. Pour the remaining olive oil over the slices, sprinkle them with the parsely and capers, and squeeze the lemon juice over them. Serve at once.

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