August is the beginning of eggplant season in the Northeast, so this is as good a time as any to indulge in my favorite plump vegetable.
When I was living in Beijing and teaching Sichuan cooking classes, one of the recipes that became a regular part of the curriculum was Fish-Fragrant Eggplant. Most students were indifferent to eggplant until they tried making this particular dish. The eggplant is cut into thick slices, stir-fried, then braised in a mouth-tingling Sichuan pepper and chili bean sauce. It's one of the few hearty main dishes in Chinese cuisine that's completely vegetarian (well, if you subtitute chicken stock with vegetable stock.)
This eggplant dish I'm posting today doesn't even pretend to be vegetarian. It's more Hunan-style, and uses chopped bacon to flavor the sauce. (You can also use ground pork.) In Hunan, it's more common to see eggplant deep-fried. However, I find that with deep-frying, the eggplant gets way too soggy a day later. This is an important consideration if you're cooking for one and end up with a ton of leftovers. Plus, there is no point in wasting a couple liters of oil.
So I end up shallow-frying my eggplant. You will need about 1/3 cup of oil for 1 1/2 pounds of eggplant, since the vegetable is pretty spongey. But no more than 1/3 cup. That amount of oil will get the outsides nice and golden brown. With the addition of the bacon and mushroom sauce, this dish is great for anyone whose taste buds scream for salt, spice, and this. And it'll reheat beautifully.
Hunan Eggplant with Bacon and Shiitakes
- 3 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 1/2 pounds eggplant
- 1/3 cup peanut or vegetable oil
- 3 ounces uncooked bacon, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon chili bean sauce
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- Salt to taste
- 3 scallion stalks, thinly sliced
- Soak the shiitake mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes, until they soften. Drain the mushrooms and squeeze them dry. Discard the stems and finely chop the mushroom caps.
- Quarter the eggplants length-wise, then cut 1/2-inch thick slices from each quarter.
- Heat the 1/3 cup oil in a wok over high heat until just beginning to smoke. Add the eggplants and stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often, until the outsides turn golden brown. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain on paper towels.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the bacon. Cook the bacon for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and shittakes and stir-fry for another minute. Add the chili bean sauce and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return the eggplant to the wok. Pour in the chicken stock, soy sauce and sesame oil. Allow everything to simmer for a few minutes while the flavors penetrate the eggplants. Add salt if needed.
- Add the chopped scallions to the eggplant mix and cook for another minute. Remove from the wok and serve.