• The San Juan Daily Star

When eggplant meets eggs

Spiced eggplant and tomatoes with runny eggs, in New York, Sept. 1, 2021. This silky end-of-summer dish is reminiscent in some ways of shakshuka.

By Melissa Clark

One of the biggest compromises I had to make with my husband, Daniel, back when we were dating was about eggplant. I realized he hated it, so I avoided cooking it for our together meals for years.

Whenever I was alone, though, I went all out on the eggplant front, stewing it down with olive oil, garlic and herbs into a dun-colored mush that looked suspect but tasted fantastic. Sometimes I added peppers and tomatoes to make it red and ratatouillelike. Sometimes I broiled it until it was burnished and the skin crunchy.

In her wonderful book “Home Cooking,” Laurie Colwin wrote an entire chapter called Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant, and her list of weird combinations inspired mine. She ate it both hot and crisp and cold and sludgy; with garlic and honey; with spaghetti; with tamari and lemon juice; with fried onions and Chinese plum sauce.

Somehow knowing that there were other people in their kitchens with solitary eggplants made it feel convivial and special, rather than lonely and obsessive.

A favorite eggplant recipe of mine during that period was to cook chunks of it with loads of spices, garlic, tomatoes and herbs until everything was collapsed and silky, then add a few eggs to the pan to poach, like a shakshuka.

This dish made sense to me on many levels. Have you ever seen a white eggplant? When small and ovoid, it really does look like an egg, or an egg wearing a little green hat, which is the calyx.

The culinary wordplay of combining eggplant and eggs was pleasing to me, and I liked the way the yolks broke into a sauce over the savory vegetables in the pan.

I probably ate more eggplant after I met Daniel than I had in my entire life before. My craving pulled strongest when satisfaction was limited.

Then, one day after we moved in together, Daniel came home early and interrupted me and my eggplant and eggs, which he asked to share. Turns out I had misunderstood; he just doesn’t like baba ghanouj.

Part of me was delighted. Finally, I could bring my eggplant creations out in the light and savor them with the person I loved.

But I was also a little sad. Now that I had company in the kitchen with my eggplant, it would never be quite the same.

Spiced eggplant and tomatoes with runny eggs

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

A little like an eggplant version of shakshuka, this velvety skillet meal features sautéed eggplant and tomatoes seasoned with garlic, spices and lemon zest. It’s topped with runny eggs and a crunchy garnish of toasted nuts. The yogurt and hot sauce simultaneously heat things up and cool things down, and really add a lot to this hearty, meltingly soft dish. Serve it for brunch or dinner, with a crisp green salad and some flatbread on the side.

1 1/2 pounds Italian eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (Diamond Crystal), plus more as needed

1/3 cup pine nuts or slivered almonds

1 1/4 teaspoons baharat blend (or use another spice blend, such as garam masala)

Freshly ground black pepper

5 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

3 fat garlic cloves, finely grated, pressed or minced

2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes (about 1 pound)

3/4 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, cilantro, parsley, dill or any combination, plus more for garnish

4 to 6 large eggs

Lemon wedges, for serving

Plain whole-milk yogurt, for serving

Hot sauce (such as Tabasco), for serving

1. Put eggplant in a colander in the sink and toss with 1 teaspoon salt. Let drain while preparing the nuts.

2. In a small bowl, combine nuts, 1/4 teaspoon baharat and a large pinch of salt and pepper. Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pine nut mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and toasted, 2 minutes. Pour nuts back into the small bowl and stir in lemon zest. Set aside for serving.

3. Add 3 tablespoons oil to the skillet and heat over medium-high until oil thins out, about 20 seconds. Add enough of the eggplant to fit in one layer without overlapping. Cook eggplant until browned, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer eggplant to a plate. Repeat with more oil and eggplant, taking care not to crowd the pan.

4. When all the eggplant is browned, push the last batch still in the pan to one side. Drizzle the empty part of the pan with a tiny bit of oil and add garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Return the rest of the browned eggplant back to the pan and stir well to incorporate garlic.

5. Add tomatoes and remaining baharat, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a big pinch of pepper. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes and eggplant become stewy, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in herbs. Taste and add more salt, if needed.

6. Make small hollows into the stewed eggplant with the back of a spoon. Gently crack an egg into each hollow. Season eggs with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid or piece of foil and cook on medium-low until the eggs are just set, but still soft, 4 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid, and garnish with the spiced nuts, more herbs and a squeeze of lemon. Serve with yogurt, hot sauce and more lemon wedges on the side.