Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce.
Even if you don't call them "eggplant steaks," it doesn't hurt to look to meat for inspiration if you're making main dishes out of vegetables. For the whole grilled eggplant from chef Diego Moya of New York City's Racines, what that means is technique: treating the humble eggplant with as much care as you would an animal protein, and cooking it the way you might cook a steak.
When Moya arrives in the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen to root through our rooftop garden, he knows he wants to work with eggplant. He's in luck because we've got plenty, including skinny Japanese eggplant and the larger prosperosa eggplant. The latter is an heirloom variety that's large and pleated with a firm, meaty interior, and Moya likes to char them whole so they can be the star of the show. As for the rest of the dish, he'll see what else speaks to him outside.
On the rooftop, Moya is ready to pick some vegetables. Growing up in the north fork of Long Island, he spent a lot of time foraging "beach stuff" like sea beans, beach radish, and beach plums. While he doesn't have as much time for foraging these days, with kids and a restaurant to run, Moya says that there's still plenty to find in the city in Central and Prospect Park, where he and his children pick spruce tips and juneberries. He grabs the biggest prosperosa he can find, as well as a few Japanese eggplants, a handful of sungold tomatoes, a few ground cherries, and fennel and herbs for garnish.
The game plan when we get back inside is grilled eggplant served with even more eggplant. "I kinda like to use one thing and then play around it. I like to use purees instead of sauce and put the focus on what things taste like," Moya says. At Racines, a wine-driven Parisian bistro, Moya cooks duck breast and dry-aged pork, but he still loves working with vegetables. Today, his "one thing" will be the prosperosa. Around it, he'll serve a puree of Japanese eggplant with tomatoes, herbs, and flowers as garnishes on top.
First, he makes the Japanese eggplant puree, which will serve as the base of the dish. He cuts the Japanese eggplant into rounds, most of which get blanched, though he reserves a few for later. The blanched eggplant goes into a blender with the tomatoes, ground cherries, lemon juice, olive oil, and water. After he seasons the mixture with salt and pepper, the result is a silky sauce with the perfect balance of sweet and tart.
Then, it's time for the real star: the big prosperosa eggplant. Moya places it directly over the open flame of the stove. Like a steak, he lets the eggplant sit for a decent amount of time on each side in order for it to pick up some char, turning it occasionally. The upside to an eggplant this meaty is that it can take quite a bit of fire—in fact, that only adds to the appeal of this dish. As the outside darkens and inside softens, Moya says, "I like to have varying textures where the top is a little more crunchy. When you cut through it, it's like cutting through a piece of steak."
Moya didn't always like eggplant. "I hated eggplant for the longest time," he says. "I used to work at my parent's pizza place and they'd do catering and make eggplant parm by, like, the metric ton." Clearly, things have changed: during his visit, Moya says that eggplant is his favorite vegetable, but that's just this week. Ever since he worked at the Paris institution Arpège, acclaimed for its vegetable-driven fine dining, he's loved to work with vegetables. This technique, he notes, will also work with squash.
He spreads the eggplant puree onto a plate and adds the grilled prosperosa, which he's sliced into big chunks, on top. Moya decorates that with the remaining sliced and blanched Japanese eggplant, as well as the assortment of flowers and herbs. The finished dish is satisfying and delicious—with the eggplant being simultaneously soft, smooth, and crispy—but it's also incredibly simple. Look past the garnish and it's basically just eggplant; you just have to know how to work with it.