Sometimes, all I want is a steak. Not a rib-eye or a T-bone, but some vegetable or another.
Those moments come when I’ve tired of the rice bowls and the stir-fries and the salads, in which every ingredient has been prechopped to make for easy-to-scoop mouthfuls; and the tacos and pizzas and sandwiches, which need nothing more than my hands. Rather than choose “forks over knives,” to borrow a phrase from the documentary and cookbook franchise of the same name, I want something that requires me to use both utensils for a change. I want to cut up a slab of produce that’s sitting on a plate, definitely with a side dish, maybe with a sauce.
Cauliflower – roasted or pan-fried – often fits the bill. And portobello mushrooms are an obvious choice. But when I came home with the first eggplant of the season from the farmers’ market recently, I knew it would satisfy my recent hankering.
I’ve steamed eggplant slices to luxurious tenderness and paired them with an Asian-style sauce. I’ve roasted or grilled eggplant whole until it collapsed and used it, of course, for baba ghanouj, soups and other pureed treatments. I’ve cubed it and pan-fried it with vinegar, sugar and spices for a delectable appetizer. But I had never treated it like a schnitzel, that pounded and breaded meat cutlet usually involving veal or chicken, until I saw a tempting recipe in Maria Elia’s “The Modern Vegetarian” (Kyle, 2009).
Elia enlivens the breading with Mediterranean touches such as mint, parsley, lemon zest and sumac, that tart Middle Eastern spice. Other than ducking her call for fresh bread crumbs and relying instead on store-bought panko-style breadcrumbs, I followed her instructions to the letter. I was a little skeptical that the thick slices would get tender enough by the time their exterior turned brown; few things are as off-putting to an eggplant lover as that spongy, undercooked texture. But any fears were soon put to rest.
The slabs started to puff underneath the coating as they fried, the steam indicating that the vegetable was cooking pretty quickly on the inside. I let them drain, sprinkled them with a little more sumac and draped them over some tabbouleh.
I picked up the knife, and guess what? The eggplant was so tender I didn’t really need it. But I used it anyway.
The tart spice sumac, from a ground berry, gives this dish an unmistakably Middle Eastern flair. Find it at Middle Eastern markets or online spice purveyors such as Penzeys and Kalustyan’s. If you can’t find it, double the amount of lemon zest.
Sumac-Spiced Eggplant ‘Schnitzel’
1 large eggplant (1¼ to 1½ pounds)
1 cup unseasoned panko-style breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons ground sumac
1 tablespoon finely grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon whole or low-fat milk
¼ cup flour
Olive oil, for frying
Trim off and discard the eggplant’s stem, and cut the eggplant lengthwise into ¾-inch-thick slices.
Combine the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon of the sumac, the cheese, mint, parsley, lemon zest, salt and a few grinds of pepper, spreading the mixture in a shallow bowl or plate.
Whisk the eggs and milk together in a separate shallow bowl or plate. Place the flour in a third bowl or plate. Dust the eggplant slices with flour, dip them in the egg mixture, then coat with the breadcrumb mixture, using all of the latter.
Line a plate with several layers of paper towels.
Pour the oil to a depth of ½ inch in a large skillet set over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, work in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding; fry the eggplant for about 4 minutes per side, until golden brown outside and tender inside. (Make sure it is frying relatively slowly so the inside isn’t still too firm by the time the outside is browned.)
Use a slotted spatula to transfer the eggplant slices to the paper-lined plate. Season with salt and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sumac.
Note: The breadcrumb mixture can be assembled and refrigerated for up to 1 day. The eggplant can be coated with the breadcrumb mixture and refrigerated for up to 1 day.
Per serving (using whole milk): 220 calories, 7 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar.