Eggplant Fries

I love eggplant, but I struggle with creative ways to cook it.  It often isn't soft enough or doesn't have enough flavor and yet I have had eggplant dishes at restaurants and friend's houses that I love.  When I saw the recipe for eggplant fries featured in Bon Appétit I was intrigued... unfortunately, I've never fried anything before and truthfully it terrifies me.  A vat full of incredibly hot oil?  Yikes.  Plus, what are you supposed to do with the oil afterward?  This continues to be a mystery to me.  We never fried anything in my house growing up, so I suppose part of my fear stems from lack of experience, which I decided it was time to overcome.  
Well, I am glad I chose this recipe to overcome my fear of frying because it was absolutely worth it.  These fries are crispy and salty and the eggplant inside is soft and the frying accentuates the flavor of the eggplant.  The creamy, za'atar-seasoned dipping sauce is the perfect complement to the fries and you even feel a bit healthier eating these fries since they are made from eggplant rather than potatoes.  I was glad that I used a splatter screen because frying can be a bit messy, but I'll be making these again (and soon... and maybe with other vegetables)... and if anyone can tell me what to do with the oil afterward, I'd love to know!

Eggplant Fries
Bon Appétit, August 2011

Dipping Sauce

1 cup plain low-fat yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped kosher pickle or pickle relish

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fries

1 1-pound eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/2 rounds, then into 1/2-thick strips

Vegetable oil (for frying)

1 cup rice flour

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tablespoons za'atar

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon fine sea salt plus more for seasoning 

Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that includes sumac, herbs, and sesame seeds.  It's available at specialty foods stores, Middle Eastern markets, and igourmet.com.

Preparation

1. Whisk yogurt, chopped pickle, lemon zest, and oregano in a small bowl to blend.  Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Place eggplant in a large bowl.  Add 2 cups ice and enough water to cover.  Place a plate on top of eggplant to weigh it down.  Cover and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours.

3. Pour oil into a large deep pot to a depth of 2".  Attach a deep-fry thermometer to the side of pot and heat oil over medium heat to 325°.  Meanwhile, whisk rice flour, lemon zest, za'atar, garlic powder, and 1 teaspoon sea salt in a medium bowl to blend.  Drain eggplant.  Working in batches, toss damp eggplant in flour mixture to coat

4. Working in batches, fry eggplant, turning occasionally, until golden brown, 3-4 minutes per batch.  (Reheat oil to 325° between batches.)  Transfer to paper towels to drain. Season with lemon juice and sea salt.  Serve immediately with dipping sauce.