There are certain things synonymous with summer. A mixture of childhood rituals, nostalgia, ideas I’ve collected and things I’ve lived along the way. Many center around activities like swimming in cool green salty water and the rest, unsurprisingly, around food – looking up from sandy beach seats to watch bi-planes pulling banners white against pure blue summer skies; the cooing of morning doves in the hot dawn; blueberry muffin making and black raspberry ice-cream in hand rolled sugar cones after dinner.Summer, like all seasons has its own set of rules, its own set simple pleasures – specific, potent, persistent. And it smells of peaches ripening on trees, of summer rains and wet asphalt, of sweet basil and tomato vines and of charcoal, hot and smoky.
It is a season spent outdoors with hands in the dirt, sun warmed shoulders and bare feet in the grass. It is the season of picnic blankets and warm evenings that stretch out and unfurl into the darkness of humid nights. Its seems we transfer almost all activities outdoors including cooking. The kitchen too hot and stuff but the grill offers a freedom and the charm of being outside – alfresco, en plein air and all the other romantic terms we have given to the action of dining out of doors.
A few weeks ago I stopped in the gorgeous Curio Spice Shop here in the city to stock up on a few pantry staples including their za’atar. It’s an absolute must if you are in the area. A little jewel box of a shop importing directly from farmers, its shelves are lined with all manner of spices from local and far-flung places. Entering is like a journey for the senses and I always leave with something amazing tucked up under my arm. On this particular visit, owner Claire, just back from a sourcing trip to Japan, handed me a tiny green sansho pod to try. A shock of citrus, earthiness and a pleasant cheek numbing effect left me more than intrigued and excited to try it out in my own kitchen. As Claire and I chatted about the potential for using the sansho, she suggested paring it with yuzu to bring out intoxicating floral notes and play on that citrus flavor of each. We got to chatting cooking and flavours and of course spices and something she said sparked the idea for this recipe below. “Don’t forget dried spices in the summer, they are what creates the layers”
one of the things I loved about watching people cook in Vietnam, mostly out doors and often on the street or the narrow winding paths of the night markets, was the depth of flavor created with few ingredients and even less time. I often think of deeply flavorful food in terms of those dishes which take hours or even days to create. Slowly cooked, multiple steps, big kitchen mess. Im notorious for making a huge mess in the kitchen, having on more than on occasion used nearly every pot, bowl and spoon we have… and then some. The bigger the mess the better the food right? But the ability of the cooks I spent time with in Vietnam who were able to achieve such depth of flavor, with very few ingredients in a short amount of time invariably on the grill, has been a source of awe and inspiration since.
And so lay the ground work for this dish – quick, good hot or cold and deeply flavourful.
I’ve used young (sometimes called italian) eggplant in this recipe because I wanted the grilled tender skin to be part of the dish. I imagine long japanese eggplant would also work well here. Salting the eggplant and letting it weep is a trick I learned while cooking in Turkey. Cut the eggplant in half and then score cross hatches into the cut side of the eggplant. Salt generously as it will be washed off before cooking. The salt helps to take out the bitterness and sting of this nightshade plant. Leave them in a shallow pan or colander in the sink as a good amount of liquid will be released. After letting the eggplant sit 30 minutes to and hour gently squeeze each half to remove any more liquid and rinse under cool water to remove all the salt. They will absorb a little water and that’s ok. It’s helpful to keep them from absorbing too much oil while cooking. Lay each half, cut side down on a towel to dry a little before rubbing with the marinade as below.
To make a heartier meal out of this dish – serve with brown rice and a large leafy green salad.Grilled Eggplant with Sansho & Yuzu
serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side
- 3 small eggplant (about 1000 grams)
- 1/4 cup mirin
- 2 tbsp ume plum vinegar
- 1 tbsp champagne vinegar
- 1 small shallot finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic smashed
- 1/2 tsp yuzu powder
- 1/4 tsp sansho (lightly muddled)
- 1/2 tsp honey
- 1 tbsp each parsley & mint chopped very finely
- 1/4 + 3 tbsp evoo
- 1 tbsp toasted black sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp toasted white sesame seeds
- 2 green onion, sliced very thinly
- cut eggplant in half lengthwise. Being careful not to cut through the skin, slice vertically and diagonally forming small cubes. Sprinkled generously with salt and set aside in a pan 30 minutes to 1 hour. Then, gently squeeze each half over the sink to remove any remaining bitter liquid. Wash eggplant under cool running water to remove salt, and place flesh side down on a towel to dry while preparing the marinade
- finely chop shallot and place in a large bowl along with the smashed garlic, mirin, ume plum vinegar, champagne vinegar, honey, yuzu powder and sansho. Leave it to stand 10 minutes
- Add chopped mint and parsley to the sansho mixture. mix well
- Whisk in olive oil in a slow stead stream until fully emulsified
- Rub about half of the marinade into the eggplant. grill skin side down, about 7 minutes on a hot grill. flip and turn the grill off, cook about 2 minutes more. or until flesh is very soft.
- To serve. arrange cut side up on a platter and top with remaining sansho mixture, thinly sliced green onions and toasted black and white sesame seeds.