Weeknight Vegetarian: Craving a vegetable ‘steak’

Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/TABLEWARE FROM CRATE AND BARREL - Sumac-Spiced Eggplant “Schnitzel.”

Sometimes, all I want is a steak. Not a rib-eye or a T-bone, but some vegetable or another.

Those moments come when I’ve tired of the rice bowls and the stir-fries and the salads, in which every ingredient has been pre-chopped to make for easy-to-scoop mouthfuls; and the tacos and pizzas and sandwiches, which need nothing more than my hands. Rather than choose “forks over knives,” to borrow a phrase from the documentary and cookbook franchise of the same name, I want something that requires me to use both utensils for a change. I want to cut up a slab of produce that’s sitting on a plate, definitely with a side dish, maybe with a sauce.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Cauliflower — roasted or pan-fried — often fits the bill. And portobello mushrooms are an obvious choice. But when I came home with the first eggplant of the season from the farmers market recently, I knew it would satisfy my recent hankering.

I’ve steamed eggplant slices to luxurious tenderness and paired them with an Asian-style sauce. I’ve roasted or grilled eggplant whole until it collapsed and used it, of course, for baba ghanouj, soups and other pureed treatments. I’ve cubed it and pan-fried it with vinegar, sugar and spices for a delectable appetizer. But I had never treated it like a schnitzel, that pounded and breaded meat cutlet usually involving veal or chicken, until I saw a tempting recipe in Maria Elia’s “The Modern Vegetarian” (Kyle, 2009).

Elia enlivens the breading with Mediterranean touches such as mint, parsley, lemon zest and sumac, that tart Middle Eastern spice. Other than ducking her call for fresh bread crumbs and relying instead on store-bought panko-style bread crumbs, I followed her instructions to the letter. I was a little skeptical that the thick slices would get tender enough by the time their exterior turned brown; few things are as offputting to an eggplant lover as that spongy, undercooked texture. But any fears were soon put to rest.

The slabs started to puff underneath the coating as they fried, the steam indicating that the vegetable was cooking pretty quickly on the inside. I let them drain, sprinkled them with a little more sumac and draped them over some tabbouleh.

I picked up the knife, and guess what? The eggplant was so tender I didn’t really need it. But I used it anyway.

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