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Sichuan-Style Braised Eggplant

Native to Southeast Asia, eggplants come in myriad shapes, sizes and colors, from oblong to round, big to marble-sized, white to nearly black. The two most common Asian eggplant varieties found in the West are the long, slender Chinese and Japanese types. The former have lavender skin, while the latter are usually a deep purple. Both are mild and tender and contain few seeds. Use either type in this recipe, being sure to slice the eggplant crosswise on an extreme diagonal to expose as much flesh as possible, thus ensuring quicker, more even cooking.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1⁄2 lb. Asian eggplant
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • 3 Tbs. canola or peanut oil, plus more
     as needed

For the sauce:

  • 3⁄4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 Tbs. chili bean paste
  • 1 Tbs. black vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
  • 1 1⁄2 tsp. light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. Asian sesame oil
  • 1⁄2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbs. peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 1⁄4 cup minced celery
  • 1 tsp. grated or prepared horseradish
  • 1⁄4 lb. ground pork
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

Directions:

Working with 1 eggplant at a time, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces. Place the eggplant pieces in a large bowl. Add cold water to cover and stir in the salt. Weight the eggplant pieces with a plate to keep them submerged. Soak for 30 minutes, drain and pat dry with paper towels.

In a wok or large sauté pan over high heat, warm 2 Tbs. of the canola oil until very hot. Working in 2 batches, add enough eggplant to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer and stir-fry until crisp and brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, adding more oil if needed. Set the pan aside without rinsing.

To make the sauce, in a bowl, stir together the stock, chili bean paste, vinegar, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, tomato paste, sesame oil, sugar and cornstarch. Set aside.

Return the pan to high heat and add the remaining 1 Tbs. oil. Stir in the garlic, ginger, celery and horseradish and sauté until just golden brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in the pork and stir-fry until the meat just turns opaque, about 5 minutes.

Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in the eggplant, reduce the heat to low, cover and braise the eggplant until just tender, 7 to 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few minutes more until the sauce thickens.

Transfer the eggplant to a warmed serving bowl and garnish with the green onions. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Collection Series, Asian, by Farina Wong Kingsley (Simon & Schuster, 2003).