Anatomy of a Classic

Eggplant Surprise

Fall squash salsa amps up an overlooked ingredient

Photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

Maricela Vega learned early that a dish can rise or fall on the right ingredient. The Atlanta-based chef says her mother, who is from a village in Guanajuato, Mexico, was very particular about her peppers. “When we would go to Mexico, she would say we had to get these peppers from these stalls for these reasons,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand it then.” 

Now sourcing is everything to Vega. The deliciousness of an ingredient matters, of course, but so do its provenance and the personal connections she makes with farmers and producers. “I think about it all,” she says. “Even when you cook, you can see how everything is connected to everything else.”

Vega, who moved to Dalton, Georgia, from California when she was eight, always loved cooking but turned it into a profession in Atlanta, where she built her name at restaurants including Empire State South and 8ARM before throwing herself full-time into her food business, Chico (named for Chicomecóatl, Aztec goddess of agriculture), making masa nixtamal from landrace corn for tamales and creating dishes that honor both Southern ingredients and Mesoamerican influences.

Her recipe for eggplant Milanesa makes excellent use of the Southern garden as it transitions to fall. To start, she mixes buttermilk with a good small-batch Southern hot sauce to make a bath for half-moons of raw eggplant. She then dredges them in cornmeal—she prefers Anson Mills—seasoned with turmeric and Guntur Sannam chile powder from Diaspora Co., a spice company dedicated to supporting farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. You can substitute spices from the grocery, but it’s worth tracking down the best vegetables you can.

The heart and soul of the recipe is a fall salsa built from a roasted butternut squash or a small heirloom pumpkin, blended with citrus, garlic, ginger, and fresh peppers. Make it ahead and store in the fridge for a meal  that comes together quickly. Spoon a good amount of salsa on the plate, either family style or individually, then arrange the hot eggplant on top, add some juicy tomato slices, and drizzle it all with olive oil—Vega likes to use a good-quality oil from Georgia.

Finally, toss on a few crisp sage leaves fried for about a minute in the same oil as the eggplant, a vegetable she says farmers at the local market always seem to have in abundance. “I don’t know if eggplant gets enough attention,” she says, “but it should.”  


  • Fried Eggplant Milanesa (Yield: 4 servings)

    • ½ lb. Italian eggplant, sliced ¼-inch thick and then cut into half-moons

    • ½ cup grapeseed oil, for frying (more if needed)

    • 1 bunch sage, picked

    • Fall squash salsa (recipe follows)

    • 1 or 2 large ripe fall tomatoes, thinly sliced into quarter-moons

    • Very good olive oil

    • Chopped parsley or other herbs, for garnish

  • For the soak:

    • 1 cup buttermilk (vegans can substitute coconut milk)

    • 2 tbsp. Southern-made hot sauce

    • 1 tsp. salt

  • For the dredge:

    • 1½ cups medium-grind Anson Mills cornmeal

    • ½ tsp. baking powder

    • ½ tsp. Guntur Sannam chile powder or cayenne pepper

    • ½ tsp. turmeric

  • Fall Squash Salsa (Yield: 3 cups)

    • 1 small heirloom pumpkin or a butternut squash

    • 10 cloves garlic, divided

    • 3 tbsp. grapeseed oil

    • ¼ cup ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

    • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar

    • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

    • 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

    • 2 tsp. sea salt

    • 2 ají limon chiles or 1 small habanero chile, halved


  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the ingredients listed for the soak for about a minute. Add the eggplant, coating all sides thoroughly. On a shallow plate or in a bowl, thoroughly combine the ingredients listed for
    the dredge.

  2. Remove each eggplant slice from the soak and press it into the dredge, flip, and press again. Place each slice onto a sheet pan lined with parchment.

  3. Add grapeseed oil to a large sauté pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Test with a pinch of the dredge, which should bubble immediately when the oil is hot enough. Working in batches, fry eggplant for a couple of minutes on each side, or until golden brown and a crust forms. Watch the oil and scoop out any extra dredge that begins to burn. Remove the slices to a
    tray lined with paper towels or parchment.

  4. Once the eggplant is finished, toss sage into the hot oil for just about a minute. The oil will stop bubbling when the herb is fried. Set aside with the eggplant.

  5. To assemble, spoon salsa generously on a plate, arrange eggplant over the top, then add sliced tomatoes. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, a little salt and pepper, the fried sage, and a scattering of fresh-chopped herbs (if desired).

  6. For the salsa: Preheat oven to 400°F. Pierce the pumpkin a few times with a sharp knife to let steam escape and place the whole pumpkin on a large rimmed baking sheet. If using a butternut squash, halve, scoop out seeds and lightly oil the flesh, then place cut side down on a baking tray. Put 6 garlic cloves and the grapeseed oil in a small ovenproof dish or wrap in a foil packet so no oil will leak out.

  7. Roast the squash until very tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. The butternut will require less baking time than the pumpkin, which can take an hour. Roast the garlic along with the squash for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until soft.

  8. Let squash and garlic cool. If using pumpkin, halve through stem end and discard seeds. Scoop out enough flesh so you have 1½ cups.


  9. Add squash to a blender with the raw and roasted garlic, the roasting oil, ginger, vinegar, lime and lemon juice, salt, half of the chiles, and ½ cup ice water, and process until very smooth. Taste and add remaining chiles if you’d like a spicier sauce. Season with more salt if needed.

Meet the Chef: Maricela Vega

Hometown: Orange County, California

The food from the United States she misses most when she’s in Mexico: “Honestly, it’s pizza. It’s the only thing I miss.”

The food from Mexico she misses most when she’s in the United States: “I’m not trying to be negative about the taco scene, but the tacos are better down there. Especially my aunt’s tacos. I won’t eat all day, so I can eat six or seven at dinner.”