Conquer Your Fear of Nightshades with This Grilled Eggplant Sandwich

Ox's recipe is aubergenius.

By Benjamin Tepler August 14, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

It’s a common experience: You spend an hour prepping an eggplant lasagna, caponata, or baba ghanoush, only to find that your glossy aubergine was a dud—more bitter than an overhopped IPA, with the texture of insulating foam. At Ox Box, the summertime stand outside of Northeast Portland’s perpetually packed Ox, owners Greg and Gabi Denton have turned the Russian roulette of eggplant cookery into a sure thing.

Their open-air grill takes inspiration from choripán, Argentina’s unofficial national dish, basically a much-improved hot dog and bun. The Dentons turn out mean versions of the meaty standards (made with paprika-spiced chorizo, or morcilla blood sausage), and they borrow the same principles for their eggplant: a thick rub of chiles and herbs followed by a hard sear on the grill. For toppings, the Dentons take their cue from another Argentine classic, provoleta—essentially a hunk of bubbling provolone, melted over bread and sprinkled with oregano. The result is something like the best eggplant parmesan you’ve ever tasted: a smoky, roasty masterwork melted through with sharp cheese, dressed in vinegary chimichurri, and snugged into a hoagie roll.

This sandwich is next-level with peak-season eggplant, but the chorizification and a hard sear can turn even sad specimens of the nightshade flavor sponge into a winning lunchtime treat.

Ox Box Grilled Eggplant Sandwich

Makes 4 sandwiches

  • 1 large globe eggplant
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 8 slices deli provolone
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • ¼ cup chorizo spice mix*
  • 4 hoagie or sub rolls, split lengthwise and toasted (Greg Denton recommends Dos Hermanos Bakery.)
  • Chimichurri**

BAKE Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel eggplant in strips lengthwise, leaving equal part skin between every peel so that it looks striped. Slice into 1-inch-thick rounds and place on a baking sheet. Brush both sides generously with olive oil and season with kosher salt. Bake until just cooked through but still firm, about 10–15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

GRILL Preheat grill over high heat. Heavily coat both sides of each eggplant round with chorizo spice mix and more salt to taste. Place on grill and cook 2–5 minutes, or until nicely grill-marked. Flip the rounds and place sliced provolone on top, cooking until cheese is melted and bubbling. Sprinkle melted cheese with dried oregano. Remove from heat and divide evenly among four rolls, cutting eggplant rounds in half if they are too wide for the bread. Drizzle with chimichurri and serve.

*Ox Chorizo Spice Mix

Makes ½ cup
Combine 3 tbsp ancho chile powder, 4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika, 2¼ tsp smoked sweet Spanish paprika, ½ tbsp onion powder, ½ tbsp dried marjoram, ½ tbsp toasted fennel seed, ½ tbsp cayenne pepper, ½ tbsp aji amarillo powder (available at the Spice & Tea Exchange), 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 tsp black pepper, and a big pinch of grated nutmeg in a small jar, and mix well. Spice mix can be stored in an airtight container for up to 6 months. Use leftovers in ground pork for chorizo sausage patties, as a dry rub on chicken, beef, or fish, or with olive oil and vinegar to make a spicy chorizo vinaigrette for roasted or grilled vegetables. 

**Ox Chimichurri

Makes 1 cup
Combine ¼ cup minced yellow onion, ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 2 tsp chopped fresh oregano, ½ tsp finely grated garlic, ¾ tsp kosher salt, ½ tsp black pepper, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, and ¼ cup red wine vinegar in a bowl and mix well. Chimichurri will keep, refrigerated, up to 3 days.

How to Make an Eggplant Taste Good (According to Associate Editor Benjamin Tepler)

  • Buy seasonally, between July and October, and use within a week. Out-of-season eggplants are like tomatoes: they’re picked underripe in Mexico, turning flavorless and bitter by the time they reach the supermarket.
  • Choose young, firm, shiny eggplants. Avoid mushy, bruised, brown, or faded skin. The stem should be bright green, not brown and moldy.
  • Overcooked eggplant is forgiving; undercooked eggplant is bitter and chewy.
  • Be generous with oil. Eggplants are flavor sponges.
  • Females have more seeds and are therefore more bitter. Look at the bottom of the eggplant: one with a small, round dimple is a male, while a wide, elongated dimple indicates a female—just like in sex ed.
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