What is it about summer and fried food? It doesn’t make sense. Why would we want, on the hottest of afternoons, foods at nuclear temperatures encased inside hot, thick, sometimes greasy breading that, should we make them ourselves, require rivulets of sweat and a pot of shimmering, toe-endangering oil? Is it the hazy memory of a thousand state and county fairs of collective childhood, studded with corn dogs and funnel cake and battered oreos? Is it the only kind of seafood we would eat for lunch as kids, and thus required for a beach day? Is it just that green tomatoes are only really worth eating when they are lovingly smothered by a cornmeal crust?
I’ve done this height-of-summer-frying thing before, and here I am again, dunking breaded vegetables in hot oil to create a sandwich inspired by Disneyland and babaganoush (there’s an unexpected pairing, eh?), that ticks all the flavor marks including that deep, primal urge for crisp coated, meltingly soft centered fried food, on a sun-streaming, fan-screaming kind of week.
I said Disneyland and babaganoush, and that truly is how the sandwich was imagined. A few months ago on a trip to that happiest of places, I ordered a fried green tomato sandwich. It was good – the tomatoes were tangy and sharp, and the sandwich format made creamy, fatty remoulade a requirement – but I thought it could be more. Instead of just the green tomatoes, there could be zucchini. There could be eggplant. There could be, rather than a mayonnaise based sauce, something with yogurt, with herbs, with lemon. There could be tahini.
With the addition of that idea of sesame, I was suddenly in babaganoush territory, that lovely roasted eggplant dip, soft and pulpy and aromatic.* From there, all links to green tomatoes were cleanly severed, and I was daydreaming Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor combinations.
The sandwich we ended up with – the one that ticks every box (or perhaps every taste bud) – has the crunch-into-barely-resistant-softness of panko-coated fried vegetables, a tangy, rich spread of yogurt and tahini lightened with lemon and a mixture of herbs, and a shower of tangy crumbled goat cheese. It has pickled onions for a sour astringency, and the sticky sweet coup de grace of a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. You don’t want too much of it, but this wouldn’t be the same sandwich if you left it off. The bread is lightly toasted, and the breading for the vegetables carries a light dusting of cayenne pepper for a suggestion of heat. What’s more, you can eat the leftovers – if there are any – without the sandwich: stacked up kindling style and sprinkled and drizzled with the extras, the vegetables shine even more brightly. I had them for lunch this way the day after our sandwiches, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo or two before I plunged in.
A few notes: the pomegranate molasses can certainly be purchased if you don’t want to make it yourself – look for a Middle Eastern grocery store – but it’s pretty easy (and much cheaper) to make if you don’t mind taking the time. You will probably wind up with extra, which could be drizzled over everything from salad to grilled poultry to ice cream. Because it takes a while, to speed up the dinner prep you could make the molasses the day before, and store it in a glass jar in the fridge, where it will thicken considerably overnight. A minute or two before you are ready to assemble the sandwiches, immerse your jar of pomegranate molasses in a bowl of very hot water. It will warm and liquefy enough to be pourable again. As for the bread, we ended up with ciabatta rolls, but I think something seeded might also be nice for these sandwiches – perhaps these shaped like hot dog buns instead of full loaves. In any case if you use a roll or a bun instead of sliced bread, you’ll want to dig out the soft center so there’s room in the middle to stack up plenty of the vegetable slices.
* I realize not all babaganoush contains tahini, but the ones I’ve liked do, along with lemon, and some herbs, and a shower of pomegranate seeds.
Fried Zucchini and Eggplant Sandwiches
Quantities listed are for two sandwiches, but are easily doubled
About 45 minutes
1 cup pomegranate juice (I like the POM brand)
Tahini yogurt spread:
2 tablespoons tahini paste
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) greek yogurt
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt, to taste
1 cup vegetable oil
2 zucchini, cut into long planks
1 Chinese or Japanese eggplant, cut into long planks
¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt + more for post-frying sprinkling
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons pickled onions or to taste
2 sandwich rolls of your choice about 6-8 inches in length; we used ciabatta
- Begin with the pomegranate molasses, as this takes the longest: pour the pomegranate juice into a small pot and boil over medium heat until you have only about 2 tablespoons left; 20-25 minutes. The juice will have a slightly thicker viscosity, and you’ll know it’s seconds from being done when the whole thing seems to be a frantic stack of bubbles. Set it aside to cool – it will thicken into a syrup. (You can also refrigerate overnight – see note above.)
- While the pomegranate juice reduces, make the tahini yogurt spread. In a small bowl, whisk together the tahini and yogurt with the lemon zest and juice. Add the herbs and the salt, whisk again to thoroughly combine, and taste for seasoning. Adjust quantities of salt and lemon juice as desired. Set aside.
- For the sandwich filling, set up a three-part breading station: you will need three plates or shallow bowls. Pie plates work very well. On the first plate/bowl, combine the flour with the salt and cayenne, mixing well with a fork or a small whisk. Spread out the flour mixture in an even layer across the plate. In the second plate/bowl, crack the eggs and beat well to combine. In the third plate/bowl, dump 2 cups of the panko and spread out in an even layer.
- In a large, deep skillet with straight sides, heat the oil to about 350F. While it warms up, bread the vegetables. First coat each slice of eggplant and zucchini in a light layer of flour. Then transfer to the egg and coat again, being sure all dry flour is covered. Finally, press lightly into the panko on both sides. Set each slice on a separate plate or a wire cooling rack until the oil is ready. Set another wire rack over a baking tray and place in an oven set for 300F. This is to keep the finished slices warm and crisp while the rest are frying.
- When the oil hits 350F, begin adding the vegetable slices. Carefully place them into the oil individually, only adding four or five at a time to avoid crowding the skillet – the more you put in there, the lower the oil temperature gets, which can lead to a greasy end product. Fry over medium to medium-high heat until the panko coating is nicely browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. As the slices are finished frying, sprinkle them lightly with salt and add them to the wire rack set-up in the warm oven until you are ready to assemble and serve. Repeat until all slices are fried.
- Split the sandwich rolls lengthwise and dig out most of the interior, leaving a thin layer of crust on all sides (you can keep the hunks you dug out for bread crumbs). Lightly toast the remaining crust in the oven with your fried vegetables or in a toaster oven, just until it is warm and slightly crisp on the outside.
- To assemble, smear a tablespoon or two of tahini yogurt spread on each side of the sandwich rolls. Stack a few slices of vegetables onto the bottom of the roll, being sure you have both zucchini and eggplant on your sandwich. Strew on a few slices of pickled onion, about 2 tablespoons of crumbled goat cheese, and drizzle over about a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Clamp on the top of the roll, cut the sandwich in half with a serrated knife for easier eating, and serve immediately.