It you ever want an authentic taste of traditional southern cooking at it’s best; stop at a restaurant in the tiny town of McComb, Mississippi, on your travels along Interstate 55 which goes between Chicago and New Orleans. This is where I first tasted eggplant — their version is breaded and fried — and fell in love with this vegetable — it is a flavorful “melt in your mouth” eggplant dish. Don’t travel this way often? Too bad, you are missing much of the rural South and alot of good cooking.
McComb — Mississippi Delta
The Dinner Bell Restaurant is located in McComb, Mississippi, also known as the “Camelia City,” and just over the state line from Louisiana. It is a 96 mile drive from Baton Rouge into the very deep Delta of Mississippi. You travel back in time reaching the town — nothing seems to have changed in years. The town is a few miles off the Interstate 55, so you have to seek out the town and restaurant. It also has an Amtrak station stop, so you can reach McComb by passenger train.
The pine trees along the interstate have grown tall over the past 20 or more years obstructing the view past the sides of the road — unlike driving through the mountains where a person can see for miles. Just imagine the scenery and experience the smell of fresh pine trees, red dirt and the hot summer sun as you drive through the countryside of Mississippi. Culturally, little has changed in this Pikes County town, too.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s we often ate at the Dinner Bell Restaurant in McComb, Mississippi, when camping at a near by state park with large lake. In the 2000’s we stopped at the McComb restaurant after dropping our kids off at summer camp in Mississippi where they stayed for a month. That was always a hectic trip — getting everything labeled for camp and leaving early in the morning. The stop at the restaurant on the way home was quiet and anti-climactic wondering how the kids would make out at camp.
Dinner Bell Restaurant
The Dinner Bell Restaurant has been around since the 1950’s with several changes in ownership. I believe it is now only open for lunch, Tuesday – Sunday. The menu is still very traditional. This is “soul food” cooked in the finest fashion: fried chicken, country ham, chicken and dumplings, mustard greens, sweet potato casserole, beans, cornbread and fried eggplant.
The restaurant is unique in that the meals are served “family style” — there is no menu. Diners sit around large wooden tables with about 15 people. The dishes are placed on a “Lazy Susan” in the middle of the table which circles around. A person takes off as much of a helping as he likes, as the serving dish passes by you. It is always amazing to see more and more food come to the table. Easy to over-eat — come with an appetite!
Fried Eggplant Rounds
The restaurant’s pride and joy is their fried eggplant. It is truly a “melt in your mouth” dish. Of course, the recipe is a well-kept secret. And it is not easy to duplicate the recipe or figure out how they make the fried eggplant. However, the restaurant published a Golden (50 year) Anniversary Cookbook and a version of the recipe appears in the cookbook. The recipe can also be found on several internet recipe forums.
The secret to the Dinner Bell’s eggplant is using a prepared dry cornbread mix in the batter. The baking powder in the mix causes the breading to “puff up” as the eggplant pieces are fried. It makes a flavorful and crunchy topping.
Here’s my version of the the Dinner Bell’s Fried Eggplant. I had to try making this recipe about a half-dozen times before getting something that is similar and tasty. We ate alot of eggplant! The technique takes some effort.
To make the eggplant authentically, the recipe takes time and returns to “old southern” cooking. The eggplant is soaked in salt to get rid of bitter compounds. And this dish is not low in calories as the eggplant is deep-fat fried. I tried baking the eggplant in the oven — spraying it with “Pam” — but the breading turned out more like cardboard. I have adapted this dish for baking and have a version that is lower in calories–refer to my blog post on “Eggplant Stacks.” But this time I wanted to try the “authentic” southern method.
Here’s what I did. These are the ingredients — and eggplant, Kosher salt, buttermilk, egg and cornbread mix, optionally creole seasoning, and of course peanut oil for frying. For the cornbread mix, either white cornbread or yellow cornbread mix can be used — but I don’t recommend purchasing a “sweet” cornbread/muffin mixTo make the dish, first, purchase a large eggplant and peel it. You don’t need to leave the peeling on — it contributes to bitter flavors — and after a couple of tries I decided that peeling the eggplant first worked best. Use a sharp vegetable peeler. It is worth it to get a new peeler from time to time — one that has a sharp edge makes things alot easier and allows you to cut close to the eggplant peel.
Sprinkle each eggplant slice generously with Kosher salt and set on a rack over a baking sheet. Let the slices sit there for an hour or more — turning from time to time — the salt will bring out the bitter liquids. (Here is one trial where I left the peel on — don’t do this.) When you are ready for frying, rinse the salt and liquid off the eggplant pieces and let drain. The eggplant slices will have a shriveled appearance.
Get the breading step ready. Place the beaten egg and buttermilk in one bowl and the dry cornbread mix in another bowl. Add a little creole seasoning to the cornbread mix if you like. Dip each slice of eggplant into the buttermilk/egg, then the cornbread mix and back into the buttermilk/egg and then a second time into the cornbread mix.
I don’t have a deep fat fryer. Instead, I use my cast iron skillet. It is heavy and heats oil evenly. Add an inch of peanut oil — yes, you need enough oil to keep the eggplant slices off the bottom of the skillet. Heat until the oil is 350 degrees or until the smoke starts to appear. I kept the burner on medium-high or at “7” setting throughout the frying. Add half of the breaded eggplant pieces. Fry on one side until golden brown which is about 3 to 4 minutes. Then turn over and fry for 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. It takes a little practice to get the eggplant cooked without burning the breading. Here you can see the batter “puffing up.”
When cooked on both sides, remove the eggplant slices and drain on paper towels. Fry the remaining pieces in the same manner. Then transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately. The eggplant medallions would taste good with remoulade sauce or étouffée.
This dish passed the taste test, as my husband and I ate these up without any leftovers. Just once in awhile, I like to try to duplicate favorite restaurant recipes. This one came close. It’s not low in fat, so I don’t deep-fat fry things often. But it brings back a lot of nostalgia and memories of trips to this part of Mississippi.
Enjoy the recipe!
Deep South Fried Eggplant Medallions
- 1 (1 lb) large eggplant
- Kosher salt
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 (6 oz) package Martha White Cornbread Mix; (either yellow or white cornbread mix)
- 1/2 tsp Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (optional)
- Lots of peanut oil
Method and Steps:
- Using sharp vegetable peeler, peel the eggplant. Slice crosswise into 1/2 inch rounds.
- Set rounds on a baking rack placed over a sheet pan. Generously salt rounds with Kosher salt. Turn over and salt second side. Let eggplant rounds set on kitchen counter for an hour, turning over several times.
- When ready to fry, thoroughly rinse salt off the eggplant and let rounds drain in colander.
- In a medium bowl, combine beaten egg and buttermilk.
- Place the package of dry cornbread mix in second bowl. Add creole seasoning, if desired.
- Using a heavy 10″ cast iron skillet, add peanut oil to one inch depth. Heat on stove over medium high-heat, about “7”, until hot and and 350 degrees or until oil begins to smoke.
- Dip each eggplant round in buttermilk/ egg mixture, let excess drain off. Then dip in cornmeal mix, back into buttermilk/egg mixture and lastly into cornmeal mix. Prepare about have the eggplant rounds.
- Then carefully place the eggplant rounds into hot oil.
- Cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully flip over and fry on second side for an additional 3 to 4 minutes.
- Carefully remove with from oil with a slotted spoon and drain on plate covered with paper towels.
- Fry remaining egg plants in the same manner.
- Transfer to serving platter and serve while hot.