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A fried holiday appetizer that’s still healthy

  • This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

    This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

  • This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
  • This Oct. 14, 2013 photo shows fried spiced eggplant with cucumber garlic sauce in Concord, N.H. One can make fried foods a little more healthy by changing what one fries. In this case, eggplant. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

This dish is my idea of a one-size-fits-all appetizer for the looming holidays, whether we’re talking about Hanukkah, Thanksgiving or Christmas.

It’s particularly apt for Hanukkah because the eggplant is “fried” in oil – and oil is one of the holiday’s central symbols. The good news is that the eggplant is pan-fried – not deep-fried – and vegetarian, so it’s still reasonably healthy. Heck, if you built a bigger version, you could even turn it into a vegetarian entree.

Buying fresh eggplants is key. Whatever its size – and they range from thin Asian strains to big and bulbous Italian-Americans – an eggplant should have a very shiny skin and be firm and smooth to the touch. Also, it’s best to cook it as soon as possible after you buy it. Eggplants don’t like the refrigerator; they tend to deteriorate quickly in the cold.

I did salt my eggplant here, but more for flavor than any other reason. I definitely didn’t want to extend the prep time by salting and letting it sit for hours; we’re already spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking for the holidays. I chose small eggplants for this recipe, mainly because I wanted one-bite tastes, but also because the skin on the smaller eggplants usually is more tender. But if all you can find is the larger guys, just slice them into rounds, then cut the rounds into quarters.

The eggplant’s blandness makes it a terrific host for spices. I went Middle Eastern here, with cumin, smoked paprika and cayenne. But you’re welcome to roll instead with a curry or Cajun mix, or with chopped dried herbs. However you spice it, the recipe’s yogurt-cucumber sauce, which consists of exactly three ingredients and requires only 5 minutes to prep, provides a lovely cooling counterpoint.

One note about the breading procedure: it’s important to knock off the excess flour, let the excess egg mixture drip off, and to tap off the extra breadcrumbs. If you don’t, you’ll end up with an over-breaded slice of eggplant and too few crumbs. Breading the eggplant keeps it from absorbing too much oil. The end result is wonderfully creamy. My husband, no fan of eggplant, scarfed up these tasty little bites with no complaint.

FRIED SPICED EGGPLANT
WITH CUCUMBER-GARLIC SAUCE

1 small eggplant (1∕2 pound and about 2 inches wide), cut crosswise into 1∕3-inch-thick slices (See note)

kosher salt

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1∕4 to 1∕2 teaspoon cayenne (to taste)

1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

21∕2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2-inch piece seedless cucumber

1∕2 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt

1 small clove garlic, minced

chopped fresh parsley, to garnish

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the eggplant slices lightly on both sides with salt. Transfer to a large colander, then set in the sink and let drain for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine the flour, cumin, paprika and cayenne. In a second bowl, whisk the egg and water. In a third bowl, place the breadcrumbs.

Pat the eggplant slices dry. One at a time, dip each slice first in the flour, shaking off the excess, then the egg, letting the excess liquid drip off, then the breadcrumbs, knocking off the excess crumbs (they will clump).

In a large skillet over high, heat 11∕2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the eggplant slices, reduce the heat to medium and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the slices, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and cook until golden on the second side, about 2 minutes. Transfer the slices to a sheet pan. Bake on the oven’s middle shelf until the slices are tender (a knife will go through them easily), about 15 minutes.

While the eggplant is baking, grate the cucumber on the coarse side of a grater. In a small bowl, combine the grated cucumber with the yogurt, garlic and a bit of salt.

To serve, transfer the eggplant slices to a platter and top each with a generous spoonful of the yogurt sauce. Sprinkle with parsley.

Serves 6.

Note: No small eggplants at the grocer? About 1∕2 pound of a larger one can be substituted, but you’ll need to cut it differently. Start by cutting the larger eggplant into 1∕3-inch-thick slices. Then cut each slice into quarters.

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