This post is dedicated to my friend Nacho, who inspired me to try this recipe, and who probably thought I had forgotten his request, as well as the jar of cane syrup his sister brought me from Córdoba (jar pictured below). Nacho – you will see why it has taken me so long. Thank you for the syrup, and the inspiration!
These addictive eggplant fries with Moorish roots are most commonly served in Andalucía. They appear in different guises (round and/or battered), but the basic premise is the same, and each enchanting bite is crisp, tender, salty and sweet all at once. The dark cane syrup, akin to molasses, has a slightly bitter edge, which keeps the sweet interesting.
Manolo and I quickly devoured this plateful as an accompaniment to roasted fish for a non-traditional Thanksgiving feast, and boy was I thankful I had dared to try the recipe. This was a test, you see, for my newfound frying mettle.
The truth is, I used to be afraid of frying. My family never did much if any, and as a result, the process seemed mysterious and challenging. How much oil should I use? And how would I know when it had reached the proper temperature? Recipes with instructions to use a thermometer only upped the anxiety. This made frying sound so technical, and, as a result, even more intimidating.
Yet in Spain, frying is a basic technique for most home cooks I know, which has helped make the process seem far less mysterious. By now, I have watched Manolo’s mother Valen fry potatoes countless times, gleaning a bit of the frying intuition she has acquired through years of experience. She has never used a thermometer, and instead, relies on the look and smell of the oil. It’s ready, she says, when the surface begins to stir and the oil is fragrant and just starting to smoke.
Sensing I didn’t fully trust my eyes and nose, Valen also taught me a local trick to test the oil’s temperature, using a curl of lemon zest. When the zest sizzles and begins to brown, she told me, the oil is hot enough for frying. I find this thermometer-free approach gives me confidence.
It will be a while before my inner sensor is as reliable as Valen’s, but it has definitely matured. And as they say, the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, in the eggplant fries.
Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup
I consulted a number of recipes in both English and Spanish to write this version, and am particularly indebted to Claudia Roden for her Eggplant Fritters with Honey in the The Food of Spain, as well as to Anya von Bremzen for her Eggplant “Fries” in The New Spanish Table.
Several recipes I read suggested soaking the eggplant for one hour before frying to minimize absorption of oil. I tried soaking in beer, as recommended here, and in milk, as Roden recommends. I preferred the milk. The beer-soaked fries seemed slightly more bitter (but still a delicious vegan option), although I did use different eggplants, so my results are far from scientific. First dredging the eggplant in flour also reduces oil absorption.
And the frying itself? Well, knowing what to look for and trusting your senses, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.
In the tapas spirit, you can serve these fries with just about anything. I think they go particularly well with roasted meats, like chicken and lamb, or fish. Add a green salad, and you’ve got what I’d call the perfect meal.
The quantities here are for two people, but the recipe can easily be doubled.
1 medium eggplant (about ¾ of a pound)
1-2 cups milk for soaking
All-purpose flour for dredging
Olive oil for frying **SEE NOTE
Dark cane syrup (or a flavorful honey)
Cut the eggplant, peeled or unpeeled, into slices (about 2 1/2” long and 1/3” thick).
Soak the sliced eggplant in a bowl of milk (or beer) for 1 hour. Weight slices down with a plate so they are fully submerged.
Meanwhile, place a generous amount of flour (about ½ – ¾ cup) on a dinner plate and mix with a pinch or two of salt. When you’re ready to fry, drain the eggplant slices and dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess (I did this with my hands, letting the flour fall between my fingers back onto the plate). Set the floured slices aside on a separate plate.
Line another plate with paper towel for post-frying.
Heat oil, poured to a depth of about 1 inch, in a deep skillet over high heat. (I used a 9-inch skillet and fried in three batches.) When the surface of the oil begins to quiver and starts to smoke, test a floured eggplant slice. If the oil sizzles right away, that means you’re ready to fry. Add a batch of eggplant slices, being careful not to overcrowd the pan, and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high if the eggplant is browning too quickly.
Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper towel-lined plate to eliminate excess grease. Sprinkle with fine sea salt to taste.
Place on a serving plate and drizzle with fine ribbons of cane syrup or honey.
**NOTE: While you can use your choice of oil for frying (like canola or sunflower), the authentic recipe of course calls for olive oil. (See Janet Mendel’s comment on this post).