Don Mauer: Draining eggplant secret to success

Jan. 29, 2013 @ 03:20 PM

Most of my early experiences with eggplant did not bode well for its future in my life. Here’s how it began: I grew up in a household where eggplant never graced our dinner table and I do mean n-e-v-e-r. I had long since flown the nest when I first tasted eggplant in a restaurant, where I found it soggy, oily and ... uhh, barely interesting.
Flashback to the mid 1970s, when I’d been married for a few short years: Susan, my wife, loved eggplant and when we shopped, often held up a shiny purple specimen for a buy/no-buy decision. It didn’t matter to me how perfect that eggplant appeared; I didn’t buy it, since I didn’t know what to do with it.
My first attempt at preparing eggplant led to disastrous results, which almost closed my appreciation path. This recipe required sautéing eggplant slices in olive oil until golden brown, which seemed simple enough, until I’d gone through almost a pint of olive oil and still had eggplant to sauté.
Those eggplant slices acted like little sponges and absorbed olive oil almost as fast as I added it to the pan. Tomato sauce, garlic, two cheeses and oven-time did not make the resulting greasy mass any more appealing either.
My road to eggplant appreciation began in a garden where I first noticed a striking purple flowered plant. My garden guide pointed out that soon those blossoms would produce eggplants. Returning a few weeks later, I saw those blossoms transformed into miniature eggplants.
A few years later, while leisurely reading a new Italian cookbook, I spied a recipe for eggplant that began by salting and draining the slices before sautéing. The author claimed it made eggplant far less likely to absorb oil.
Hunting through my food magazine collection, an article titled “The Gastronauts” in a decade-old issue of Gourmet magazine brought it all together for me. Those glibly named “gastronauts” turned out to be an eclectic group of chefs, food industry scientists, chemists and cookbook authors who gathered in Sicily for their fifth International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy.
At this conference, Harold McGee, the renowned food scientist and author of “The Curious Cook” and “On Food and Cooking,” explained why salting, draining and squeezing actually changes how an eggplant slice reacts to hot oil.
The short story: An eggplant is loaded with water-filled cells packed together with big “empty” air pockets (similar to a sponge). When heat squeezes air out of those pockets in the presence of oil, the oil fills the emptied pockets – taa-daa – soggy, oily eggplant. Salt draws out water; collapsing both the cells and the air pockets between them. No empty pockets = nowhere for the oil to migrate.
The article also noted that any method to collapse those water cells and air pockets mirrors the salt and squeezing effect. That’s why McGee microwaves eggplant slices for a few minutes before sautéing them in oil. Gastronaut’s exacting kitchen tests proved McGee correct, too. Salted, drained and squeezed eggplant, sautéed in 20 milliliters of oil absorb a fraction of a teaspoon of oil, yet produce a thin, crisp crust and leave the slices with some bounce.
For lean diners like you and me, this is great news. The only bad news has to do with eggplants’ potential for bitterness. Some cookbook authors have listed a reduction of bitterness in eggplant thanks to the salt/drain/squeeze process.
Our chummy gastronauts found this to be untrue. Eggplants bitterness resides in the water and so since there is some loss of water, there is also the potential for bitterness reduction. However, it turned out that the small water loss did not reduce a bitter eggplant’s bitterness in any significant way.
In my limited experience, it seems that the younger and fresher the eggplant, the less potential for bitterness.
The recipe I prepared that first time came from a friend of my mother’s who was known for this dish. She probably would have been better known if she’d known what we now know.

Neo Moussaka a la Grecque

3 medium-large eggplants
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 large yellow onions, peeled and minced
2 pounds 93 percent lean ground beef
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 quart 1-percent milk
4 eggs
Ground nutmeg
2 cups 1-percent cottage cheese, drained
1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
1 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese

1. Peel the eggplant and slice into 1/2-inch rounds, lay out onto jelly roll pans and lightly salt each slice with the Kosher salt; drain for one hour. Squeeze using whatever method works well. Set aside.
2. Heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium to medium-high heat until hot. Add slices of eggplant, without crowding them, and sauté until a light golden brown, removing the slices as done with tongs and placing them on paper towels. Keep adding and removing eggplant slices until all are browned.
3. Remove and reserve all but 2 teaspoons of the olive oil; add the onions and cook, stirring once in a while, until starting to turn a light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook, breaking it up with edge of a spoon or spatula until it looses its pink color, about 5 minutes. While the beef cooks, in a medium bowl whisk together the tomato paste, wine, parsley, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste until combined. Drain off the fat from the pan, stir the wine mixture into the ground beef, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat.
4. Add the oil removed and reserved from the eggplant pan to a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium heat. Add the flour, stir together and when the flour begins to turn a light golden brown whisk in the milk; whisking until combined and it thickens. Remove from the heat, cool slightly, whisk in the eggs one at a time and then the cottage cheese and nutmeg. Set aside.
5. Place the oven rack in the lower-middle position and begin heating the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray an 11-by-16-inch pan with vegetable oil and dust the bottom with 1/4-cup of the breadcrumbs. Beginning with one-third of the eggplant, place a layer in the pan, top with one-third of the meat mixture, one-third of the remaining breadcrumbs and 1/3-cup of the Parmesan cheese. Repeat layering twice, ending with the Parmesan cheese. Pour the sauce over all and bake for one hour, until browned on top and bubbling. Cool for 15 minutes, cut into squares and serve. Makes 10 servings.
Nutrition values per serving (without salt added for flavor): 370 calories(29.2 percent from fat), 12 g fat(4.9 g saturated fat), 24.9 g carbohydrates, 4.7 g fiber, 32.5 g protein, 115 mg cholesterol, 700 mg sodium.
Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at leanwizard@aol.com.