With all due respect to falafel, a ripe summer tomato, or one single slice of melted yellow American cheese, the very best non-animal-flesh sandwich filling in existence is fried eggplant. Don’t even think about saying otherwise down in the comments, heretofore an empty place practically crying out for your garbage opinions. Don’t you dare.
Everyone who knows anything—anything—knows that two or three freshly fried slices of eggplant, slathered with bright tomato sauce, melted cheese, and crammed between a good soft roll, makes for an absolutely perfect sandwich. The fried eggplant sandwich might, in fact, be the best possible sandwich. As I think about this ... I dunno. It really might be the best.
It also makes for one of the most filling meals imaginable, which is probably some small part of why we aren’t all walking around with eggplant sandwiches hanging out of our mouths all the time. Life would be short indeed if very many of your meals were made up of fried eggplant sandwiches.
But, oh, what a way to die. Just thinking about the juicy crunch of a fried eggplant sandwich is making me sweaty. It’s disgusting that I am not eating a fried eggplant sandwich right now. An outrage!
Probably the rest of the reason why we don’t eat a lot of these is intimidation. You fear to handle and fry eggplant, because it’s a squishy and suspicious nightshade fruit that requires care in preparation, and because frying is a headache. Friends. There’s really nothing to it. This is an easy cooking project. We are going to fry up some eggplant. Right now. It’s going to be so good. Here we go.
Here’s what you’ll need: an eggplant; some cornstarch; some eggs; some breadcrumbs; some grated hard Italian cheese; some fry oil. Also, you should go ahead and grab some sauce-making stuff (a can of tomatoes; a can of tomato paste; an onion; a head of garlic; some pancetta or anchovies; some red wine; some herbs). And you’re gonna want some melty Italian cheese. And it won’t be a sandwich if you don’t get some rolls. Shit, man, do I have to think of everything? You will also need a stove and electricity and shelter.
So, eggplant. Look for one of those Italian eggplants, the ones that are more oblong than round, and have dark purple, almost black skin. They’re easy to find, because they’re everywhere. Pick one up, turn it over a few times, and nod solemnly, as if to say yes, I know what I am looking at, and this is certainly it. Your eggplant should be free of any egregious nicks or indentations. Beyond that, you’re good.
Plenty of eggplant types are fine for this purpose: graffiti eggplant (lighter purple with white stripes), white eggplant (umm, white), even Chinese eggplant (strikingly dong-like). I’d stay away from any that are much smaller than your hand, simply because you will have to prep and fry like four of them in order to fill a nice big eggplant sandwich. Grab a big honkin’ eggplant, is what I’m saying.
Get your eggplant onto your cutting board, cut off the stem end, and cut your eggplant into roughly half-inch slices. Raw eggplants have this special, weird, foam-like internal texture that gives the impression of general dryness, when, in fact, they are positively loaded with liquid. That eggplant liquid can sometimes be pretty bitter—not, like, radicchio bitter, but maybe a touch past where you’d want it. It’s got this special eggplant-specific flavor that, when concentrated, can be unpleasant: citrus pith-like bitterness with an unexpected metallic tone. Most eggplants you buy won’t have this flavor, but it’s the one that does—lurking in the pile, eager to muck up your cooking project—that you’ve gotta worry about. Or not.
Most eggplant preparations just let it rip, because in most eggplant preparations it’s not much of a problem, even at its worst. A cautious way of dealing with eggplant is to slice it, salt both sides of each slice, and then lay the slices in between a couple paper towels for up to an hour. Even after what I said about it never being a big problem, I’m going to recommend that you do this. Not necessarily because your eggplant will otherwise definitely have an unpleasant flavor, but because another thing the salting does is wither the eggplant slices as they dump liquid, which will help them cook faster in the oil, which will lead to a less oily finished product.
So! Lightly salt both sides of all slices of eggplant, then lay the slices between layers of paper towels and let them sit for an hour. Salt the eggplant as if you were going to just ram it into your mouth without cooking—don’t cake it in salt, is what I’m saying, even if your go-to snack is salt-caked raw eggplant (which, gross). Don’t freak out about the hour of waiting—we’re gonna be prepping and cooking throughout, so it’s not like you’re adding an annoying hour to your cook-time, you baby.
While the eggplant is drying, get some easy sauce going. Whatever your personal quick red sauce is, if you’ve got one. Or, here: chop up the onion and garlic and get them into an oiled sauce pan over medium heat with a couple anchovy filets or a handful of cubed pancetta (or both); stir this shit around for a few minutes, then give it, say, 15 minutes for the onions to just start turning faintly brown; dump a few glugs of red wine in there, and give it another few minutes to reduce and sweeten; and finally, dump in a can of tomatoes and a can of tomato paste, stir that stuff around, then lower the heat to low and clamp a lid over it. This is not a fancy sauce—it’s gonna come out bright and sweet and red, which is all we require, here.
You should have 20 minutes to kill after whipping up your sauce. We’re gonna use this time to prepare our breading ingredients. Like with fried chicken, if you’re sloppy or hasty or nonchalant about how you do this, there’s a good chance your kitchen will become actual hell. Pour roughly a handful’s worth of cornstarch into a deep dish or cake pan. Pour another handful’s worth of plain breadcrumbs into another deep dish or cake pan. Crack three or four eggs into a bowl and scramble them, as you would for scrambled eggs. Arrange these three plates so that they go cornstarch to eggs to breadcrumbs to stovetop. Put all these things close together, or by God the spaces between them will become caked with flour and egg, and you will feel either dejected or murderous, and that will interfere with the joy of eating fried eggplant.
We’re frying, here, and so we’re gonna need to get some fry oil going. As with fried chicken, it will be a very good idea to use a deep, heavy vessel, so that any spattering will mostly stay inside the vessel and won’t make it all the way to your countertops or arms. Get a deep, heavy pot over medium heat, and pour two or three inches of high-heat oil down into it. Some of you will surely take issue with this quantity of oil—a common way of doing this is pan-frying, where the slices are cooked in a small quantity of oil and flipped midway through cooking to expose both sides to the hot surface. That’s a fine way of doing it, but it also requires more active cooking, and carries the minor risk of food sticking to a pan and turning into a smoky disaster. I don’t know why pan frying would be preferable to deep frying in this instance, other than moderating oil usage, and so I urge you to just drop a couple inches of canola oil into a deep pot and do the shit. Also, position a few dry double-layers of paper towels on the opposite side of your oil vessel.
You could stop your setup here, and just go cornstarch dredge, egg bath, breadcrumb coating, fry oil. But we’ve got a few minutes before the oil is ready, and no one to stop us from making our eggplant as delicious as possible. Here’s what I recommend: drop a handful of grated hard Italian cheese into the breadcrumbs, and a couple pinches of dried herbs, and stir the mixture around until it’s blended. I like to go with dried oregano and fennel seeds, but you could use dried basil, dried parsley, whatever. Herbs are good. Cheese is good. This breading will be good.
Is the oil ready? Do the old wooden utensil trick, where you stick a wooden chopstick or spoon in there and look for bubbles. When you notice little bubbles rising from the wood, drop, say, a little cube of bread or a hunk of cucumber or something in there. If the oil starts to boil around the object right away, the oil is ready.
Okay. What you’ve got, now, is a quantity of eggplant drying away under some paper towels, a pan of cornstarch, a bowl of beaten eggs, a pan of breading, and a pot of hot oil. All these things are lined up closely together, and you are ready to cook. One thing we’re not gonna do here is wash off the salt on the eggplant. You will have noticed we did not add salt to our breadcrumbs, nor have we added salt to our sauce. The eggplant is as salted as it will need to be. Just lay a slice of eggplant onto the cornstarch, then use ONE HAND or a fork to flip it over, such that both sides are completely coated. The cornstarch dredge will eventually add to the crunchiness of the breading, but first it’s there to give the egg something to hold onto. And the egg is there to give the breading something to hold onto. So, without further ado, use that SAME HAND to gently slide the eggplant slice into the beaten egg, then use THE OTHER HAND to flip it over in there so that both sides are coated in egg. This is the dry hand/wet hand method, and if you fuck it up you will wind up with gross cracked dough gloves before this is over, and that is just the worst.
Now, use the WET HAND to pick up the egg-coated eggplant slice and gently drop it onto the breadcrumb mixture. Use the DRY HAND to pile breadcrumbs on top of the eggplant slice and press them down into the eggplant. Flip the eggplant over and repeat, so that the eggplant is completely coated. You should probably go ahead and bread two of these before you get to frying, since they fry very easily and very quickly, and so you can confidently fry them two at a time. Why plod along, here? NO TIME TO WASTE.
When you’re ready, use the DRY HAND to gently shake off any excess breading, then carefully slide the eggplant slice (or slices) into the hot oil. I like to give each slice a couple minutes to fry before turning it over in the oil, so that both sides get full exposure to the hot oil. Keep an eye on the heat in the oil—if the breading is turning dark brown within a minute of hitting the oil, you’ll need to back off the heat. If you turn the eggplant after a couple minutes and it’s pale colored, or if the oil doesn’t boil vigorously around the eggplant, you’ll need to bump it up. When both sides are golden brown, use tongs or a fry basket or a big slotted spoon to haul the eggplant out of the oil and onto your paper towels. Easy as hell, right? The slices don’t need more than three or four total minutes in the oil to turn a tantalizing rusty brown color, and they come out clean and crispy and—crucially and very un-chicken-like—just as fully cooked as you could ever want them to be. Repeat this process until all the eggplant is breaded and fried.
If you can talk yourself into waiting for the eggplant to cool just a tad, now would be a fine time to quickly run a knife through some fresh basil or parsley and drop the chopped stuff into your sauce. Grit your teeth and do it, man.
Shit, that’s really all there is. You don’t need me to tell you how to build a goddamn sandwich. Open that roll, stuff two or three big round slices of hot, crunchy fried eggplant in there, slather some of that bright, bold tomato sauce over them, slap a slice or two of provolone on top, and fire it home. CRUNCH. Oh god yes. That earthy, mildly bitter flavor of eggplant; the impossibly good interplay between its soft flesh and the brittle, orgasmic crunch of the breading; the bright acidic zing of tomato sauce; the creamy decadence of melty cheese; and the warm, glutenous chew of your delicious bread gloves. It’s too much! Oh god I might pass out.
Or, alternately, if you really want to go for it, overlap your slices in a baking dish, ladle tomato sauce all over them, lay fat slices of fresh or dried mozzarella over the top, and sock the whole shebang under the broiler for a couple minutes. Man, that wet, stretchy dairy overload from the melted mozzarella is gonna be fucking ridiculous, your sandwich like something designed by a demon specifically to pull you away from any righteous path. No shit, you will feel like you’re breaking the law when you bite into that damn thing.
Either way, this is a meal worthy of a glass of that red wine from before. Grab one and find a seat and go nuts. Just contemplating your joy is making me sick with envy. Screw you.