One of my friends is lucky enough to take part in a community supported agriculture (CSA) group, meaning that by “investing” in local farmers she gets “shares” of the harvest which translates into fresh, seasonal produce that also helps the local economy. The strange reality of that golden bounty is that after the first week or so you’re racking your brains trying to come up with yet another way to chow down on this week’s 10 lbs of eggplant. So the next few eggplant recipes are here by special request–pretty funny since here on the west coast our farmer’s markets are still sporting berries and I personally associate eggplant with hearty fall dishes. Guess it’s fall already in NY?
茄子田楽, or nasu dengaku in romaji, is very a common dish in Japanese izakaya (pubs that serve small plates) creating a sweet, salty, smoky flavor profile that will have even hardened eggplant haters into born again groupies. By grilling or broiling the eggplant you not only impart an earthy smokiness to it but you also change that spongy texture into something tender and slurpalicious. Yum. Since this dish is grilled/broiled, it’s also very low fat but never fear, that nutty earthy saltiness from the miso, briny dashi, sweetness from the sugar and mirin, and zesty shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice pepper) will have your taste buds dancing for joy. While technically this is a side dish, you could easily turn it into a meal by serving it with steamed rice with tofu or chicken that’s been grilled and glazed with kabayaki sauce–a sweet, salty sauce made with equal parts soy sauce, sugar, and mirin and traditionally served with unagi (grilled freshwater eel).
A few good things to know:
1) Sugar burns pretty easily so when using a glaze that has sugar in it, unlike marinades, it’s best to brush it on at the end of the cooking process to avoid turning your eggplant into charcoal briquettes.
2) Dashi is a briny stock that’s pretty ubiquitous in Japanese cooking used not only in broths but also as a liquid seasoning and in sauces. There a many different types of dashi stock but most people are familiar with the type which is made from bonito flakes (which is dried skipjack tuna) and dried konbu kelp (a dried seaweed). I’ve sometimes heard of this referred to as hon dashi or “real dashi” as it’s the most traditionally used stock. My favorite is konbu dashi which is simply seaweed kelp stock as I find the bonito flakes a bit too fishy (strangely I love dashi at restaurants so I’m probably just fooling myself, lol). There’s also katsuo dashi (made with bonito flakes only) and shiitake dashi (dried shiitake mushrooms) just to keep beating a dead horse. You can either make your own stock using dried ingredients with the soak (7 hours) and boil (7 minutes) method or you can you buy dashi granules. My favorite konbu dashi granules are Shimaya brand, just keep in mind that there’s quite a bit of salt in dashi concentrates which isn’t the end of the world but you’ll have to adjust your seasonings accordingly.
3) This dish is Japanese in origin so contains quite a few ingredients that may be difficult to find in your local grocery store. If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area that has Asian grocery stores you’ll be able to find pretty everything on the ingredients list. Don’t worry if you can’t, there are some substitutions that you can make with the caveat that the flavors you end up with will be a little different or you can also get things from online specialty stores. I’m lucky enough to have a Uwajimaya locally but for those of you who don’t they also sell items online through their Uwajimaya Amazon.com site. Marukai is another company that sells grocery and even sake and kitchen items online. I always try to pop in when I’m in LA just for funsies as they have cute, inexpensive Japanese dishware too.
4) Substitutions for the adventurous:
–If you can’t get a hold of dashi granules or dried konbu kelp you can always make your own mushroom dashi stock. Ideally dried shiitake will give you a more Japanese flavor but other dried mushrooms like porcini would work. Soak 5-7 dried mushrooms in 4 cups of water for 7 hours at room temp. Bring almost to a boil then strain out mushrooms/mushroom dust et voilà! Shiitake dashi.
—Mirin is a lower alcohol content (~14%) sweet rice wine that’s readily available in most Asian markets. A reasonable substitute would be sweet sherry or Marsala. I wouldn’t substitute sake in this instance as sake has a higher alcohol content (~20%) and is not sweet.
—Miso. Hmm, this is a tougher one. I’ve never had to substitute but I suspect that you could substitute 1:1 with soy sauce. You won’t have the nutty earthiness of miso paste but the salty umami taste will still be there though your eggplants will look darker.
—Shichimi togarashi (also called nanami togarashi) is a 7 spice pepper seasoning that usually contains black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, roasted orange peel, nori (roasted seaweed), ground sansho (Sichuan pepper), ground chili pepper, ground ginger, and poppyseed. The main ingredient is red chili pepper so you could substitute just the chili pepper but I would only use a pinch so as not to make the glaze too spicy or you could omit it completely.
—Toasted sesame oil gives a smoky flavor and in this case I would just use extra virgin olive oil.
5) A little word on MSG. As an MD I find the vilification of MSG pretty funny with many of my friends being “allergic” or highly suspicious of it. Glutamate is a very important neurotransmitter, a signaling messenger if you will, and is actually one of the main excitatory or “on” switch signalers in the brain. So, can you be allergic to something naturally found in your body and necessary for your brain to work? Not really. Can some people need less glutamate to activate the same neuro pathway? Most likely. Of note, most people I know who are intolerant of MSG seem to have no problems with foods that are naturally high in MSG such as hard ripened cheese (eg parmesan), sun-dried tomatoes, dried konbu kelp, bonito, cured meats (eg salami), dried mushrooms, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Marmite, a hydrolyzed yeast extract, also known as Vegemite down under has the highest natural concentration of MSG of all foodstuffs and is one of the saltiest things I’ve ever tasted and I’m so traumatized by the taste I’d like to say I’m allergic to it ;). FYI, the Japanese call MSG 旨味 umami meaning literally “good taste.” For an informative and witty look at the demonification of MSG check out this article in the Guardian. In the end, my motto is “everything in moderation,” while we need to eat to live, you can always have too much of a good thing. Hopefully I haven’t insulted anyone and have shared some interesting factoids with you. And now, back to those eggplants….
4 Japanese or Chinese eggplants, halved (or 1 medium Italian or Black Beauty eggplant cut into 3 inch wide lengths by 2 inch thick strips)
2 tbsp mirin
2 tbsp shiro (white) miso paste
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 c konbu dashi
1/4 tsp shichimi togarashi
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
In a small pot bring mirin, miso paste, sugar, and dashi to a low boil until the volume is reduced in half. Keep a close eye on this as it can boil over very quickly. Remove from heat and mix in shichimi togarashi.
Brush cut ends of eggplant with sesame oil and place cut side up (rounded, skin side down) on a baking sheet. (FYI, you can score the cut ends of the eggplant in a hatchmark pattern so that they will retain more of the glaze but truthfully they soak it up just fine without.) Broil for 3-4 minutes with the oven rack in the highest position. Remove from oven and poke cut end with a fork, it should easily go through. If they still feel firm, return to the oven, place on middle rack, and bake at 400F for 3 minutes. Brush cut ends with miso glaze. Return to oven and broil for an additional 1-2 minutes till glaze is a golden brown. Makes 4 side dish servings.