Local and Seasonal: Eggplant and Lentil Salad

When eggplant was introduced to England in the 16th century, the British treated the plant with much suspicion. The low-growing bush with purple veins and leathery leaves was appreciated for its beauty but was never eaten. At the time, all members of the Nightshade family, of which eggplant is one, were thought to be highly poisonous. Like those early British eggplant growers, I am often drawn to the eggplant for its lovely color and striking shape, but I never quite know what to do with it in the kitchen.

For a long while, I thought that I didn't even like eggplant. I changed my mind when I tasted eggplant pizza at Casa Bianca Pizza Pie, the legendary Eagle Rock establishment. There, atop melted cheese and sweet tomato sauce, were thin, crisp slices of breaded eggplant. From that first bite, I was hooked. It was a revelation to me that eggplant could have a crunchy exterior and velvety interior.

In the past I've ended up with slimy eggplant, mushy eggplant, and eggplant cooked to an unpalatable grey color. One time, I cooked a single eggplant in a hot skillet, adding spoonfuls of olive oil every few minutes as the pan dried up until I had added nearly an entire bottle of oil. Eggplant really is as absorptive as a sponge! However, if you sprinkle raw eggplant slices with salt, which draws out moisture, they will absorb much less oil. I've sampled a remarkable range of colors and sizes: midnight blue, dinner plate-sized Globe eggplants, slender Japanese eggplants in varying shades of iridescent purple, and charming, petite lavender-and-white-striped Italian eggplants. The flavors of these varieties were only subtly diverse, and I have yet to encounter a bitter one. The best were the freshest, shiny with taut skin and a still-green stem, which had not been in cold storage for too long. In fact, the sun-loving tropical plant, native to India, prefers to never be below 50ºF and is thus best kept outside the refrigerator.

There are countless ways to cook an eggplant. Most of the classic dishes require an oven or grill to be lit for nearly an hour. I knew the crunchy coating that I craved would take some time at the stove, but I hoped it wouldn't be nearly that long. And since we are in the sweltering depths of summer, I yearned for an accompanying salad that didn't demand too much fuss. A cool lentil salad with mint and radishes perfectly fit the bill.

Eggplant with Lentil Salad and Tahini Yogurt
With a nod to falafel, this eggplant dish combines crisp breaded eggplant, lentil salad, crunchy radishes, and creamy tahini yogurt in a warm, toasted pita.

Serves 4

1 small eggplant (about ½ pound)
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 large eggs
¼ cup buttermilk
1 ¼ cups panko bread crumbs
¼ cup olive or vegetable oil
¾ cup Greek-style yogurt
2 tablespoons tahini
3 green onions, white and green parts thinly sliced
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup French green lentils
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, sliced
1 bunch radishes, thinly sliced
Pita bread, for serving
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Slice the eggplant into ¼-inch-thick rounds, and place them in a single layer on a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt, then set aside for at least 15 minutes. Flip the eggplant rounds, sprinkle the other side with salt, and set aside for another 15 minutes. Blot any droplets that appear on the surface.

Set three shallow bowls side by side. In the first bowl, combine flour, red pepper flakes, and ¼ teaspoon salt. In the second bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk, and ¼ cup cold water. In the third bowl, scatter the bread crumbs. Dredge each eggplant round in the flour mixture, then dip it in the egg mixture, and finally toss it in the bread crumbs.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in 2 tablespoons olive oil, tilting and lifting the skillet so that the oil covers the entire surface. (Add a bit more, if needed.) Working in batches, add breaded eggplant rounds to the skillet in a single layer. They should sizzle immediately. If they don't, wait another minute or two for the pan and oil to heat up before adding more eggplant. Cook for 3 minutes or until golden brown, flip, then cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer cooked eggplant to a large plate. Wipe skillet with a paper towel to remove any burned crumbs, then add more oil and cook remaining eggplant.

In a small bowl, stir together yogurt, tahini, a pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Chill tahini yogurt until needed.

In another small bowl, whisk together sliced green onions, lemon juice, lemon zest, red wine vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, ¾ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Rinse the lentils, then drop them into the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, then transfer lentils to a large bowl. Pour dressing over warm lentils and stir to combine well. Add sliced mint and radishes.

Serve eggplant alongside lentil salad with a dollop of tahini yogurt and lots of warm, toasted pita bread.

(Note: The lentil salad will keep, covered in the refrigerator, for several days. It makes a fantastic lunch on the following day. The breaded eggplant, however, is best on the day it is made.)

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