Making Over the Much-Maligned Eggplant

Eggplant i i

hide captionGiven the right vehicle, eggplant can show off its versatility and velvety texture.

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Eggplant

Given the right vehicle, eggplant can show off its versatility and velvety texture.

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Choosing Eggplant

Look for firm, heavy specimens with richly colored, glossy skin — duller skin means the eggplant is likely past its prime. You also want flesh that will give a little and then spring back when pressed with a finger. Some sources refer to "male" eggplants having fewer seeds, and thus tasting better than "female" eggplants. Apparently the notion of gendered eggplants is a botanical fallacy; but if you'd like to pursue the folk wisdom, the ones with a rounder, shallower indentation at the base are said to be less seedy.

Salting Eggplant

Slice the eggplant as you plan to use it in your recipe, then cover the surface of the flesh in a thin coating of kosher salt. Let the salted eggplant sit in a colander in the sink for 30 minutes to an hour, then rinse the pieces off with cold water and pat dry. Some recipes call for weighting the eggplant while it sits in the colander, but salt alone will do the job just fine, and you can give a press or two with your hands while it sits.

About the Author

A former editor and producer for Web sites including NPR.org, Christina Nunez is an event planner with the Bay Area company Parties That Cook. She also regularly volunteers as a kitchen assistant during Saturday cooking demonstrations at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market.

One day I was in the kitchen rubbing salt onto some slices of fresh eggplant and tossing them in a colander. My husband paused to watch.

"Putting lipstick on a pig, huh?" he said.

Poor eggplant. Is there any produce item so homely and so misunderstood? Whether because of its Mr. Potato Head looks or its befuddling nature, it seems to draw more wrinkled noses than enthusiastic pleas for seconds.

Without a fancy PR campaign ("It's what's for dinner" probably wouldn't sell much eggplant) or marquee status on trendy menus, eggplant is left to struggle for word of mouth in bit parts such as baba ghanouj or caponata. Worse, it gets typecast in obvious roles such as eggplant Parmigiana or roasted vegetable sandwiches, where it gets weighed down by the other players.

When eggplant is bad, it's very, very bad: soggy, bitter and rubbery enough to turn a person off it for good. But when given the right vehicle, eggplant can show off its versatility and velvety texture.

Yes, eggplant is one misunderstood vegetable. For starters, it's not even a vegetable. Like the tomato, it is a stealth fruit that belongs to the nightshade family.

As someone who actually likes eggplant and has prepared it many times for myself, I've held a surprising number of misconceptions about it. For a long time, I got nervous if I saw a dearth of seeds when cutting open an eggplant. Where were those reassuringly familiar seed clusters? "I hope there isn't something wrong with this one," I would think, not realizing that seeds are the source of eggplant's bitterness. Younger fruit with fewer seeds are actually desirable, with a mellower, more pleasant taste than seedy eggplants.

I also assumed that throwing eggplant in the refrigerator and forgetting about it was the obvious, sensible thing to do. Refrigerating eggplant, it turns out, is a subject on which no one agrees. "Eggplants don't like cold, and can brown and alter in flavor if refrigerated," according to The Produce Bible, by Leanne Kitchen and Deborah Madison. However, other cookbooks recommend refrigerator storage, sometimes in tandem with a damp paper towel.

This is a personal issue best left to you and your eggplant. My kitchen has proved too sunny and warm for eggplant to withstand for more than a day without dimpling, so I find refrigeration necessary. The only sure advice is to use them as soon as possible after purchase.

And then: to salt, or not to salt? Again, controversy abounds. In her Food Lover's Companion, Sharon Tyler Herbst recommends salting only for older eggplants, to temper bitterness. Others recommend salting regardless of the eggplant's age, to avoid absorption of too much oil in preparation.

I'm no Cook's Illustrated, but I did conduct my own side-by-side tests. My conclusion is to err on the side of salting, but let the method of preparation be your guide. When roasting 2-inch pieces of eggplant in a small amount of olive oil, for example (one of my favorite ways to eat it), salting didn't seem to make much difference. But in marinating, frying or roasting large chunks, the extra step of coating the sliced eggplant in salt and letting it sit for at least 30 minutes produces a notable improvement in flavor and texture.

Should you peel an eggplant? Herbst recommends it for older ones, but let's just agree to avoid older ones altogether and skip the peeling unless something about the eggplant's deep, glossy skin offends your sensibilities. Personally, I like the way it enrobes the fruit's cooked flesh, and it can add to the smokiness if you do something so daring as char grilling: placing a whole eggplant over an open flame until it collapses, becoming the base for a dip or spread.

There seem to be as many varieties of eggplant as there are ways to enjoy it. Most of us are familiar with the deep purple globe or Japanese eggplants, and the lavender-colored Chinese variety, but it's also fun to experiment with the elegant ivory-colored members of the family, and the tomato-sized, pale-green Thai eggplant. I didn't notice any differences in taste among the eggplants that I used in the recipes below, but it's said that Thai eggplant is a bit more bitter than other varieties.

Though I loved trying out Mediterranean-inspired recipes for globe eggplant, I always felt a bit at sea when it came to other varieties, such as the long, svelte Asian ones. One day at San Francisco's Ferry Building Farmer's Market, I paused in front of the Balakian Farm stand, admiring its eggplant array.

When I mentioned to the woman there that I was on a quest for an Asian eggplant recipe, she paused and then shifted her stance as something came to her. "The Japanese have a dish called nasu," she said. "They use brown sugar, it's very good. Look for that."

"Nasu," I repeated.

"Nasu," she said, nodding solemnly.

Well, it turns out that nasu is just the Japanese word for eggplant. But the mention of brown sugar led me to recipes for nasu dengaku, eggplant that is cut in half lengthwise, fried or grilled, and dressed in a sweet, miso-based sauce. I found a variation on this preparation that retains the sauce, but seems less heavy.

I trotted out the Japanese-style eggplant for my husband one night, and he paused before it with a frown. After some coaxing, he tried a bite. "Hey," he said almost accusatorily, "this is good!"

Eggplant got its moment of triumph with at least one skeptical audience. Take a bow, little guy.

Eggplant with Avocado Cream

Eggplant with Avocado Cream i i
Christina Nunez
Eggplant with Avocado Cream
Christina Nunez

This refreshing dish is a great way to extend summer into the fall. It makes a lovely lunch for one person or an appetizer for two to four people.

1 medium globe (Western) eggplant

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 an avocado

3 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons cream or milk

1/4 cup cilantro leaves plus 1 tablespoon chopped, for garnish

1 medium tomato, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons goat cheese

Salt to taste

Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise and salt it (see instructionshen turn on the broiler of your oven. Brush each eggplant half on both sides with the olive oil and place on a cookie sheet. Place under broiler, cut side down, for about 10 minutes. Flip eggplant halves and continue broiling until flesh is thoroughly browned, about five minutes more.

To assemble the avocado cream, scoop out the flesh of the halved avocado and combine with the sour cream, cream or milk, cilantro leaves and salt in a food processor. Blend until smooth.

Top each eggplant half with avocado cream, diced tomato, crumbled goat cheese and chopped cilantro. Serve immediately.

Eggplant with Miso Sauce and Spinach

I like the contrast that the spinach provides here, but you could just as easily simplify the recipe and turn this into a side dish by making just the eggplant with the addictive sauce. This recipe is adapted from Cooking One on One by John Ash (Clarkson Potter 2004).

Makes 4 servings

Eggplant:

4 Japanese eggplants

1/4 cup rice flour*

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pinch of salt

Canola or other vegetable oil for frying

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Miso Sauce:

6 tablespoons sake

2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons red or white miso, or combination

Spinach:

12 ounces spinach

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and grated

Canola or other vegetable oil for frying

Cut the eggplants into 1/2-inch coins and salt (see instructions). Whisk together the rice flour, cayenne pepper and salt and place on a large plate. Dredge the slices in the flour and transfer to a platter, shaking off any excess. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring sake and mirin to a boil, then add sugar and miso and stir over medium heat, without boiling, until smooth. Cover and keep warm over a very low flame.

Toss the spinach with the soy sauce, sesame oil and grated ginger. Add oil to large saute pan and saute spinach until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat about 1/4 inch of oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then begin frying the eggplant slices in batches until golden on both sides, about five minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.

Briefly reheating the spinach first if necessary, mound 1/4 of it on each plate, top with 1/4 of the eggplant slices, drizzle with the miso sauce and scatter with sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

* You can make rice flour at home by running white rice through a spice or coffee grinder until finely ground, then sifting it through a fine strainer. It is also sold already ground at some specialty stores.

Sweet-Sour Marinated Eggplant

One good way to think about eating and cooking eggplant is to consider the way its flesh can so readily absorb the flavors around it. Start by eating some roasted with a bit of salt and olive oil and then think of other complementary tastes. For me, it was honey, mustard and sesame, which resulted in this recipe.

Makes 4 servings

1 medium globe eggplant or four Asian eggplants

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1/2 cup (regular) sesame oil plus 2 tablespoons for roasting

2 scallions, sliced thinly

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the eggplant into 2-inch wedges or 1/2-inch coins and salt (see instructions). Toss slices with 2 tablespoons of regular sesame oil and roast on a baking sheet in the oven until golden, about 20 to 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together lemon juice, mustard and honey. Whisk in the remaining regular sesame oil and toasted sesame oil. Add salt to taste, about 1/4 teaspoon or more.

Place the roasted eggplant in a shallow, medium-sized baking or serving dish, scatter scallions and sesame seeds over the top, and then drizzle marinade over everything. Toss together briefly, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Serve at room temperature.

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