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Fry up eggplant for holiday appetizer

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press

Freshness is key, so cook soon after buying vegetable.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

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 five 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

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, as directed. Then cut each slice into quarters. Proceed as directed in the recipe.

Start to finish: 40 minutes (20 minutes active)

Servings: 6

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

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

2 1/2 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 oven to 350 F. Sprinkle eggplant slices lightly on both sides with salt. Transfer to large colander, then set in sink and let drain for 15 minutes.

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

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

In large skillet over high, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil. Add eggplant slices, reduce heat to medium and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Flip slices, add remaining tablespoon of olive oil and cook until golden on second side, about 2 minutes. Transfer slices to sheet pan. Bake on oven's middle shelf until slices are tender (a knife will go through them easily), about 15 minutes.

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

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

Nutrition information per serving: 140 calories; 60 calories from fat (43 percent of total calories); 7 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 4 g protein; 220 mg sodium.