s a professional cook, I have loads of vegetable preparation methods filed in my brain, which makes it easy to shop for and throw together weeknight meals. Are carrots looking good at the market? Roast them with a touch of butter and flavor according to whatever else is on the menu. Spinach? Sauté with aromatics. Asparagus? Pan-steam until crisp‑tender. And so it goes: I have equally straightforward one-pan techniques for almost every vegetable out there. Except eggplant. Faced with a pile of these dark, glossy specimens, I’m stumped. Sure, I can make a great eggplant Parmesan or fire up the grill for authentic baba ghanoush, but that’s project cooking. If I just want a simple side, I’m out of ideas.
The result is that I often bypass eggplant, and that’s a shame, because it is such a lovely vegetable (actually, botanically speaking, it’s a berry). Eggplant is easy to prep and mild in flavor (modern varieties are bred to be less bitter than they once were), with extremely porous flesh that soaks up seasonings.
If I could come up with a one-pan side, my eggplant hang-ups might just be resolved forever. I had a hunch that braising might be the way to go: Braised eggplant shows up in a diverse set of cuisines, from Thai to Japanese to Chinese to Mediterranean. Methods vary widely, but the result—pieces of eggplant that are supertender and almost custardy but remain intact—is always meaty, comforting, and deeply satisfying.
In the test kitchen, we often use a Dutch oven for braising, but here I reached for a 12-inch nonstick skillet. Its shallow, flared sides would allow for quick evaporation so I could simmer the eggplant in a sufficient volume of liquid and then quickly reduce it to a flavorful, clingy sauce. But before I considered the seasonings, I’d work out the cooking method using just water.
I knew that the eggplant would shrink during braising, so I loaded roughly 1 pound of eggplant pieces into the skillet, added some water, put the lid on, and simmered for 15 minutes until the pulp was soft. At this point I removed the lid and let the water bubble for another 15 minutes or so until it reduced to about ¼ cup. This dead-simple approach worked quite well.
In the test kitchen, we often use a Dutch oven for braising, but here I actually reached for a 12-inch nonstick skillet.
Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement: I was pleased with the texture of the eggplant, with its supple skin and creamy flesh, but whenever I stirred, the delicate pieces tended to break apart. So instead of using a spoon, I simply swirled the skillet.
That helped, but the size and shape of the pieces, as well as the eggplant variety, also had an impact on whether or not the chunks stayed intact. I knew that each piece needed to have some skin attached, since skinless flesh fell apart and muddied the sauce. Also, I wanted the recipe to work with the most commonly available types of eggplant, each with a different size and shape: long, slender Chinese or Japanese eggplant; larger, bulbous globe eggplant; and smaller Italian eggplant. Coin‑shaped slices worked well for the Asian varieties but were too large for the others. Conversely, slicing into rounds and then into pie-shaped wedges was well suited to larger eggplant but not the smaller ones. The only method that worked across the board was cutting the eggplant in half crosswise and then lengthwise into slim, even wedges. This way, each piece was guaranteed to have a uniform ratio of skin to flesh no matter the dimensions of the eggplant. (It was also important to choose moderately sized Italian or globe eggplants: Cut into wedges, the big swaths of flesh that were created with large eggplants were more liable to break away from the skin.)
Now that I had nailed an accessible, adaptable technique that produced gorgeously creamy eggplant, the flavor possibilities were infinite.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy eggplant is in the rich, complex Sichuan dish yu xiang qie zi (“fish-fragrant eggplant,” since the sauce is also used for fish). Here, the pieces are coated in a potent soy-garlic sauce, so I decided to simmer my eggplant in a braising liquid inspired by those flavors. I diluted a mixture of rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and broad bean chili paste with water and bolstered it with a bit of cornstarch for body. As the eggplant simmered, its spongy flesh absorbed the delightfully salty, sweet, and spicy ingredients. I crowned the glistening dish with a couple of sliced scallions and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil. This was everything I wanted my eggplant to be: impossibly tender, intensely flavorful, and easy to put together.
And so I continued, next preparing a variation rich with warm Mediterranean spices and gussied up with fresh cilantro and a drizzle of tangy yogurt. Another, inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, calls for spiking the braising liquid with pomegranate molasses and finishing with a tahini-lemon sauce and sprinklings of toasted almonds and parsley. All are a snap to prepare, leaving plenty of time to make a main course. That said, the recipes are so incredibly satisfying that I also like to offer them with white or brown rice as a vegetarian or vegan main course.
Can an eggplant inspire confidence? With these recipes in your back pocket, the answer is a resounding yes.