Crazy Good Slow Cooker Eggplant with Yogurt and Saffron

October 7, 2014

Indian food is ideal for the slow cooker.  Eggplant with yogurt and saffron from Neela Paniz's new cookbook, The New Indian Slow Cooker, is the perfect example of how Indian dishes can be prepared with ease in the crock pot.  While this recipe does require a few steps prior to the ingredients being added to the slow cooker, they remain straightforward and aren't time consuming.  The mini Indian eggplants and split lengthwise and rubbed with a spice mixture to ensure each bite is exploding with flavor.  This dish can be served on it's own on a bed of basmati rice or as part of a larger Indian feast.  Check out other recipes from this book including spiced cauliflower with ginger and cumin and spiced rice with potatoes and peas.

Eggplant with Yogurt and Saffron
kashmiri baingan
Serves 6

While we were vacationing at Dal Lake, Kashmir, the staff of the houseboat served us their specialties. I remember this one in particular, as it was the first time I had tasted the combination of eggplant, yogurt, and saffron. As saffron grows in Kashmir, is used widely in their food, and often with yogurt as its medium. The eggplants used in this recipe can be purchased from Indian markets or specialty stores. They look like baby versions of large globe eggplants; choose the larger of those available. Though there is a little bit of work required prior to cooking this dish, the result is well worth it.

2 pounds small Indian eggplants (about 18, see Note)
10 to 12 threads saffron
1 tablespoon warm milk
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1⁄2 teaspoon ground Indian red chile*
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
1⁄3 cup corn oil
2 whole black cardamom pods
2 (1-inch) sticks cassia 5 or 6 whole cloves
2 small bay leaves
5 or 6 whole black peppercorns
1 (1⁄2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thin
1⁄4 cup plain yogurt, store-bought or homemade
Chopped cilantro leaves, for garnish

Trim the tough ends of the eggplant stems, leaving the caps intact. Make a crosswise slit halfway through each eggplant from the blossom end. Soak them in water to cover for at least half an hour to open the slits and remove any bitterness.

Before continuing to prep the ingredients, turn the slow cooker on to the high setting for 15 minutes, until the insert is warmed through.

In a small bowl, soak the saffron threads in the warm milk and set aside. In another small bowl, combine the coriander, ground red chile, and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the salt.

Drain the eggplants in a colander. Working over a plate, pry open the slits with your fingers and press about 1⁄4 teaspoon of the spice mixture into each eggplant, letting any excess fall onto the plate, and push the slit closed to distribute the spices evenly.

Heat the oil in a large skillet on high heat. Add the cardamom, cassia, cloves, bay leaves, and peppercorns and fry until they sizzle, about 30 seconds. Add the ginger and onions and continue to sauté until the onions turn translucent, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Transfer the onion-spice mixture to the heated insert of the slow cooker. Add the prepared eggplants, any spices that have fallen onto the plate, the yogurt, the saffron and milk, and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Reduce heat to low. Cover and cook on low heat for 3 1⁄2 hours; if possible, turn the eggplants over once, to allow the drops of water collected from the steam to fall back into the pan. Remove the cardamom, cassia pieces, cloves, and bay leaves. Garnish with the cilantro and serve.

NOTE: Indian eggplants are small in size and are often referred to as baby eggplants, though they are fully mature. They can be bought at many specialty markets and at Indian grocers, too. Substitute 6 small Italian eggplants, or small, fat Japanese eggplants if unable to get the Indian variety.

Makes 3 cups

Indian households make yogurt each night for the next day, culturing fresh milk with a bit of that day’s yogurt. It’s easy, and worth it: the taste of homemade yogurt is just that much better. A few helpful hints: the milk should feel warmer than your body temperature—if it is has cooled too much, the culture will not develop; and do not use too much starter or let it set too long as it will be too tart. I prefer to use whole milk, though you can use 2 percent fat milk. Use a good brand of plain yogurt for a starter and thereafter use the yogurt you have cultured to start the process.  

3 cups milk
1 rounded teaspoon plain yogurt, store-bought or a previous homemade batch

Rinse a 4-quart stainless (or stainless lined) saucepan and while it is still wet, add a few cubes of ice and pour the milk into it. (Using a wet pan helps prevent the formation of a skin on the bottom of the pan during cooking because the heat melts the ice first, tempering the milk before it starts to heat through.)

Over high heat, bring the milk to a full boil without stirring it; beware of its boiling over. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the milk to cool in it. When it is still warm to the touch, about 95° to 100°F, pour the milk into a ceramic or glass bowl and stir the yogurt into it. Cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap, then wrap it with a few kitchen towels to keep the heat and set it in a dark, warm place overnight or for at least 8 hours.

You will know that the yogurt has cultured when a thin film of whey appears on the top. Refrigerate for at least 4 to 5 hours to set completely. Like store-bought yogurt, homemade yogurt can be kept in the refrigerator for about a week.

NOTE: For a thicker consistency, like Greek yogurt, once the yogurt has set and cooled in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours, drape a thin cotton napkin or kitchen towel in a colander with a bowl under it to catch the whey. Spoon in the desired amount of yogurt and set in the refrigerator to drain for at least 5 to 6 hours or until you get the consistency you like.

Reprinted with permission from The New Indian Slow Cooker by Neela Paniz (Ten Speed Press, © 2014). Photo Credit: Eva Kolenko.

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