A couple things happen when you eat alone as often as I do.
First, you sort of give up on plates and silverware. You get home at 10 p.m. after drinks with your ex, and instead of heating up leftovers in the fridge (the only thing in your fridge right now), you eat white cheddar Cheez-Its over the sink. Maybe an oozy block of Gorgonzola that’s so hot it burns the roof of your mouth. You’re still hungry, so you take those leftovers out of the fridge after all, a greasy takeout box of cream cheese and crab Rangoons. Even cold, they’re still crunchy. When you’re full, finally, it dawns on you that your entire meal was cheese. It also dawns on you that you probably eat with your hands because a boy once said to you, “You have nice hands.”
You imagine your mother watching you, you with the small apartment that doesn’t even have a table to eat Cheez-Its or blue cheese at. And in that moment, you can see yourself from above, as if you’ve astral projected out of your own body and are observing as a bystander.
And then, finally, you imagine not eating over the sink anymore. You imagine a better version of yourself, maybe a civilized one sitting at a table, any table, with a fork (even a knife). A less-harried version of yourself, taking time out of his night to treat himself to that one elusive thing that, for some reason, seems impossible to come by in this day and age: dinner.
One night, you skip happy hour with the ex and instead go to the grocery store like everyone else. It’s colder than you remember. You walk around aimlessly, unless hunger is an aim (which we all know it is). You pick out a large eggplant because it’s pretty. You buy a lemon because it smells good. It’s summer, so you grab fresh mint (wait, that’s cilantro). You grab fresh mint. You go home, chop up the eggplant roughly into cubes, anoint it with olive oil, watch the olive oil dissipate like greased lightning, like sweat on summer asphalt, like what! Anoint it with more olive oil, watch the thirsty eggplant suck that up too, regret using your hands to shmoosh it all together because now they’re all greasy. Then you roast it because you saw Nigella Lawson do that once.
You wonder if Nigella puts the traybake in the oven like that when she’s home alone, touches the oven door like that with greasy olive-oil hands. Or if they just show you the edited version without the part where she washes them. You bet she washes them, so why didn’t you?
When the eggplant comes out of the oven, it’s spongy, not quite done in the center. You cringe, remembering why you’ve always hated eggplant—what made you think this would be different?
You remember the lemon. It still smells good. You squeeze half of it over the bronzed, rubbery nogoodniks and watch them drink it up like your uncle drinks Santa Barbara Chardonnay. You remember the half-empty bottle of Santa Barbara Chardonnay in your fridge (you don’t have an uncle, that person was you).
Oh, the eggplant. Without thinking, you dress it with more olive oil because that’s how you dress your salads (because they all start with half a lemon, too). And you think: Wait, this isn’t a salad. But cooking is ritual, maybe. Half repetition, half intuition. Maybe this can be a salad. You go with it. You chop the mint roughly, scatter it over the eggplant like cut grass (directly in the sheet pan because you hate doing dishes), season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar because that’s what Mom would do.
You take a bite and everything you thought you knew about eggplant was a lie. The eggplant you knew, growing up, was a bland, bitter Korean banchan called gaji bokkeum (“stir-fried eggplant”). Sesame oil, burnt garlic, salt, maybe soy sauce.
This is not that.
It’s simple, but effective. Three ingredients (not counting salt, pepper, and olive oil, the cooking medium): When you roast the eggplant, char it at the edges, you somehow make it earthy again, like ash, which is a welcome substratum for fresh mint and a bright, yellow squeeze of lemon. The lemon juice is insurance against that styrofoam texture you sometimes can get with undercooked eggplant, as are the extra five minutes at the very end, when you leave your warm, fully dressed sheet pan salad in the oven to finish alloying.
They were, as Amanda Hesser writes in her essay “Single Cuisine,” “separate entities tied together by nothing more than the fact that I liked each part.” And in the parts of this lazy summer salad are where you’re able to give eggplant a second chance, finally.
- 1 large eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 1 pound)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 lemon, juiced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 pinch sugar
- Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh mint, roughly chopped
Eggplant, yay or nay? Let us know in the comments below.