The grill brings out eggplant’s best flavours in this colourful summer salad

Joe Yonan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Eggplant takes to grilling like perhaps no other vegetable I know. The spongy flesh soaks up smoke flavour from a charcoal or wood fire and turns buttery without the use of much oil, which eggplant usually devours.

Try to grill thin eggplant slices and you’re in for heartache; they go from lightly charred to incinerated in the blink of an eye. You’ve got much more wiggle room if you keep it whole, the way I do when making baba ghanouj or other spreads, or almost whole, as with this recipe for a grilled eggplant salad that’s destined to become a summertime go-to.

It’s from Leela Punyaratabandhu’s beautiful new book, Flavours of the Southeast Asian Grill, which celebrates the roadside barbecue dishes of her native Thailand and its neighbours. She wisely insists that the key to success here is to use long, slender Japanese eggplant, which has very little of the bitterness that turns some people off one of my favourite vegetables. You halve them lengthwise, grill them for a few minutes, then cut into chunks, layer over a coconut-milk dressing and top with peanuts, fried shallots, mint and red-pepper flakes.

GRILLED EGGPLANT SALAD

Four to six servings

Grill slender Asian eggplants whole until they are charred on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside and they become the perfect canvas on which to paint a colourful combination of flavours and textures.

In Southeast Asia, long, thin, light green eggplants are the most common variety, and are the best choice for this recipe thanks to their lack of bitterness. In the West, purple Japanese eggplants are more available and will also work well.

Slender eggplant can be found at Asian markets.

INGREDIENTS

3/4 cup vegetable oil

One shallot, thinly sliced lengthwise

1.5 cups unsweetened full-fat coconut milk

Two tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1.5 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

Six long, green Thai or purple Japanese eggplants (no substitutes; Two to 2.5 pounds total), halved lengthwise

One teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup unsalted roasted cashews, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves

Cooked jasmine rice, for serving

STEPS

Line a small plate with a paper towel or clean dish towel. In a small frying pan, combine the oil and shallots, place over medium heat, and cook, stirring often, until the shallots are crisp and golden brown, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots to the towel-lined plate and let cool. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the oil for brushing on the eggplant, and save the rest for another use.

Prepare a grill (preferably charcoal) for a direct fire over medium heat (350 to 400 degrees). If using a charcoal grill without a built-in thermometer, medium heat means you should be able to hold your hand five inches above the cooking grate for five to seven seconds.

Meanwhile, make the dressing: In a one-quart saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk and cornstarch then place over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking occasionally. Lower the heat and simmer, until thickened, about one minute.

Remove from the heat and let cool to lukewarm. Stir in the lime juice, sugar and salt, then taste and add more salt, if needed. Aim for a dressing that’s equally sour, sweet and salty.

When the grill is ready, brush the eggplant with the one tablespoon reserved shallot oil and grill the eggplant all over, flipping them as needed, until charred and a fork slid into the flesh meets no resistance, about 15 to 20 minutes total. Transfer to a cutting board.

When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, cut them crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Swoosh the dressing on the bottom of a platter and arrange the eggplant on top. Sprinkle with the crisp shallots, followed by the pepper flakes, cashews and cilantro. Sprinkle the mint leaves over the top. Serve with the rice.

NUTTRITION

299 calories, 5g protein, 20g carbohydrates, 22g fat, 12g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 137mg sodium, 6g dietary fibre, 6g sugar