When the farmers market still looks like summer but the air starts to feel like fall (and I absolutely love it when and if this happens), it’s a good time to make a slow-simmered vegetable curry. We’re not quite in winter squash season, and lord knows we make all sorts of wintery stews with those. And roots? They can wait in the ground for now. So let’s enjoy the harvest’s final hurrahs of a certain nightshade that must be cooked somehow, at least, the longer for certain at no harm.
In fact, I often have a tendency to undercook large, European eggplant varieties (due to their far superior stature to snakelike Asian eggplants, my preferred, usually). These more squishy seed-pocketed species can fall apart easily when cooked, creating a thick sort of sauce wherever found. I think a gentle simmer with spices is a good foil for this propensity of eggplant, as they absorb any flavors added like a sponge.
I was to bring a couple dishes to a baby shower for a friend of mine recently, and this was one; within the menu that I pseudo-organized for it, a faint Italian-South Asian theme arose (the mom’s family was Italian, mostly, and the father’s was from Pakistan). My first dish was a summer vegetable lasagna, with slats of roasted summer squash and fresh tomatoes layered between ricotta, pesto and pasta sheets. This was my second.
There were ghostlike white eggplant (an heirloom variety that many speculate probably inspired the term “eggplant” to begin with) in my farmers market bundle that weekend, along with some deep purple ones and a few stray items like a serrano pepper, onions, and a couple tomatoes. You can make something tasty indeed with these before you, from any sort of heritage. But I went for the coconut milk-drenched South Asian curry style on pure whim, and because I’d never seen it done with eggplant before.
Noting that there were vegetarians in our crew, I strayed away from fish sauce and used only a minimal dab of Thai green curry paste. The rest of the flavors came from a few shakes of dry spices and fresh citrus right at the end.
Eggplant is such a neutral canvas to drench these flavors with that this curry doesn’t have that smack of sweetness had I used instead cauliflower, carrots, even green peppers—and certainly winter squash. It’s just a plain-old tasting plant, that deadly nightshade; hardly deadly, it’s like it’s playing dead instead.
You’ll want to surround this eggplant coconut curry with some basmati rice and a few garnishes like crispy fried shallots, perhaps, and some fresh chopped cilantro and scallions. Or, just serve it as part of a multicourse meal where it’ll meet and mingle with perhaps a tart, refreshing salad and more savory dishes to spread on that rice. Thanks to our baby shower spread, we had plenty of such distractions for this curry but I’d like to think that it played its part well amongst. It was a part of a whole, which hopefully served to help symbolize the many pieces that make up a person when they are born. And a new start of life or season wherever you may already live.
Eggplant Coconut Curry
(makes 3-4 servings)
2 lbs eggplant
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 plum tomato, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1-2 teaspoons Thai green curry paste
1 14 oz can coconut milk
1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice
salt to taste
chopped fresh cilantro and/or scallions for garnish (optional)
Trim the eggplant and slice lengthwise into halves, then again into lengthwise quarters. Cut eggplant into roughly 1-2″ pieces along their lengths. Sprinkle all the pieces generously with salt and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes (they should evaporate some juices in the meantime which bead up in dark droplets on the surface). Rinse the pieces quickly under water and squeeze dry of excess liquids.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan or Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent and softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and stir another minute. Add the tomatoes and stir occasionally for 2-3 minutes, or until mixture resembles a pastelike consistency. Add the green curry paste and the dry spices (turmeric, coriander, cumin, cayenne and black pepepr) and another pinch of salt, and stir another minute. Add all the chopped eggplant and stir well to incorporate. Increase heat to high and stir in the coconut milk. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Taste and add salt, pepper, and any spices as desired to taste. Stir in the lemon or lime juice. Serve with the optional fresh herbs for garnish.
(for 3-4 servings)
2 lbs eggplant (at $3/lb): $6.00
1 onion: $0.50
1 plum tomato: $0.75
3 cloves garlic: $0.25
2 tablespoons olive oil: $0.20
1/2 tsp turmeric, 1/4 tsp each cumin, coriander, cayenne, black pepper: $0.25
1-2 teaspoons green curry paste: $0.50
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice: $0.50
Four brownie points: Deliciously nutritious. Despite eggplant’s blandness, it’s a good source of potassium, fiber, and B-vitamins, and many vitamins and minerals are best preserved when you keep its skin intact (unilke babaghanoush, you should do it for this). Coconut milk adds a toll of saturated fats to the profile, but we’re quickly warming up to the numerous health benefits of these in spite of its calorie toll (chiefly, those medium-chain triglycerides which are so boasted of faddish drinks like butter coffee). Then, conventional wisdom also says that this ingredient has been used readily in warm climates with good overall healthfulness, so something’s gotta be going right.
Six brownie points: It’s vegetarian and vegan and even works as an entree-worthy dish, so a good substitute (or antitode) to meat-eating. Given the plant-based nature, it’s low on the carbon footprint too, but all the better when you can get the fresh vegetables in season around you locally. Enjoy them while they’re here.