All About Eggplant
With recipes for
There are two issues involving eggplant, other than the name (see History). One is salt, the other is oil.
The issue of salt involves bitterness and the issue of bitterness may involve seeds but probably not sex. Huh? Many recipes call for routinely salting eggplant slices or cubes to leach out bitterness. But some believe that knowing the sex of the eggplant helps to avoid bitterness.
According to this theory, it’s the female’s fault. She’s got the abundance of seeds. The sex of the eggplant can be determined by the blossom end, the end opposite the stem. The distaff side has an oval scar or indentation at that end, the male a round scar. Another theory says that the female eggplant has a sheen on the outside and the male has a dull appearance.
At a Turkish cuisine conference a few years ago (the Turks love eggplant), Paula Wolfert, the author of many cookbooks and an expert on Mediterranean cuisine said, in effect, baloney. Others I’ve consulted or read about seem to concur. In “Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia” (Times Books, 1985), the author says he consulted a botanist who pooh poohed the sex theory saying, among other things, that an eggplant has both female and male parts.
However, not all eggplant is bitter. Younger eggplant is usually not bitter. But Wolfert says you never really know how old an eggplant is even if it has all the positive characteristics. So Wolfert says to choose eggplant that is lighter - and will thus have fewer seeds which cause bitterness - even though the conventional wisdom says to choose eggplant that is heavy. The Produce Availability and Merchandising Guide, the bible of the produce industry, would seem to concur with Wolfert when it advised in its 1995 edition, “Product should be firm and light in relation to size.”
In an article in Cook’s magazine some years ago, Alice Waters, owner of the legendary Berkeley, Calif. restaurant Chez Panisse, says the key to non-bitter eggplant is freshness. That means eggplant which is not too large and is shiny on the outside with taut, deep-colored skin. The flesh should spring back when pressed. Dull skin and rust-colored spots are a sign of age. The inside of the eggplant should be white with few seeds and no green. Green indicates an immature eggplant. Also, eggplant that is not used right away will have a tendency to become bitter as well.
Claiborne thinks all the fuss about salt and bitterness is just hooey anyway. Says he, “I never thought that salt improved either the flavor or texture.”
For the lowdown on oil, see Preparation. For more sex, see History.
Like the grapefruit, the name for the eggplant is confusing, but also like the grapefruit, there is a logical explanation. Early versions of the eggplant were white and about the size of an egg. The first written record of eggplant was in China during the fifth century, though some believe India is the vegetable’s birthplace. Eggplant made its way from India to Europe through the Middle East via Arab traders, which accounts for so many eggplant preparations from India to Morocco.
As with the tomato, another member of the nightshade family, the eggplant is steeped in lore and superstition. Society women in China used the skin of dark eggplants to color their teeth a fashionable black, long before the residents of the East Village in New York ever thought of it. A Turkish sultan favored one of his wives over the 170 others he had taken because she was adept at preparing eggplant, which the sultan believed provided long life and sexual potency.
Sex was certainly on the minds of 16th century Spaniards who called eggplants “love apples.” Others in Europe at the time weren’t so sure. They thought eggplants caused insanity.
The Spanish brought eggplant seeds to the New World. But before the 20th century most eggplant grown in the United States was used for ornamentation.
Florida provides most of the United States crop. New Jersey is second and California third. A substantial amount of eggplant comes in from Mexico.
The egg-shaped globe or American eggplant (which to me often looks like a giant purple Roma tomato) has many commercial varieties. Most are deep purple, almost black in color, with a green stem and green calyx or leaf protrusion that shoots out from the base of the stem and wraps the top of the eggplant like the cap of an elf. Some of the smaller varieties of the globe-shaped eggplant are called Italian eggplants, which should not be confused with the Rosa Bianco, a more obscure purple and white eggplant with a pronounced calyx.
Also purple and white (but more purple than white) and with a distinct calyx is the Puerto Rican Rayada eggplant, though its shape is more cylindrical than the Rosa Bianco.
The smaller, thinner Japanese eggplant has a purple skin with a calyx that may also be purple instead of green. It is sweeter than larger globe varieties with less tendency toward bitterness. The primary variety is Millionaire. There is a miniature version of the Millionaire which has violet and purple streaks and is straighter than the full-size Japanese eggplant.
The French Bonde de Valence is a deep purple, medium-sized eggplant whose calyx and stem are somewhere between the Japanese and globe in color.
White eggplants are generally somewhat larger than their egg-sized ancestor. Ghost Buster is the main white variety, about six to eight inches long. But you may also see other white varieties in specialty and ethnic markets. There is the softball-sized Easter egg and the smaller White egg. The Casper is another white eggplant, about the shape of a large zucchini. The Chinese white eggplant is similar in size to the Japanese eggplant.
In recent years, with the increased popularity of Asian cuisines, Thai eggplants are becoming more evident, though they are still a specialty item. They are small and round and may be green-streaked, purple or white. One variety, the green bunch, comes in clusters like grapes.
The globe or American eggplant is a year round commodity though supplies may dwindle somewhat in late spring. Florida produces from October through July. New Jersey from July through October and California from May through December. Mexico provides a substantial supply from January through March. Local crops of eggplants are at their peak in mid to late summer and early fall.
Japanese eggplants come from Mexico and California in February, March and April with baby versions coming from May through October.
SELECTION, HANDLING & STORAGE
All eggplant should be shiny and firm (but not rock hard) with taut skin that is free of blemishes (such as worm holes or dark brown spots) or bruises. Heavy scaring is an indication of poor handling, but small scaring may just signal wind damage. The color should reflect the specific variety. Even with the larger globe variety, avoid eggplant that is too large. (“Lois Burpee’s Gardner’s Companion and Cookbook”, Harper and Row, 1968, suggests eggplants that are less than three inches in diameter.) The stem - which should always be on the eggplant - should be bright green when it is appropriate to the variety.
Eggplant does not like severe cold, 46 to 54 degrees is the ideal temperature range for storage. Because eggplant is ethylene sensitive, store it away from ethylene-producing items such as apples. Kept in plastic bags (to retain moisture) eggplant will last up to five days.
Eggplants are like potatoes in one respect. As long as you keep the fat off them, they’re a low-calorie food. An 84 gram serving (barely 3 ounces) has only 25 calories as well as 2 grams of dietary fiber, 5 grams of carbohydrates and 1 gram of protein. A serving also contains 2% of the RDA for vitamin C and iron.
Eggplant may have some beneficial effects on stomach cancer. It may help to lower blood cholesterol and counter the negative effects that fatty foods produce in the blood. Eggplant also acts as a diuretic.
Depending on the type of preparation, one large eggplant (about 11/2 pounds) will serve 4 people. It will yield about 4 cups of chopped or cubed eggplant, peeled and trimmed.
The first decision you need to make is to peel or not to peel. With most preparations such as eggplant Parmesan, grilled eggplant and caponata, I like to keep the skin on. If you do need to salt the eggplant, or you just want to salt it as a precaution against bitterness, cut the eggplant into slices, the thickness of which accommodates your recipe. Sprinkle both sides with salt and line the slices inside a large colander for at least 30 minutes. Then rinse, pat dry with paper towels and prepare as directed.
As I alluded to, oil is a problem with eggplant because eggplant soaks it up like a sponge. For this reason, I like to broil or grill eggplant instead of frying it. Before doing either, slices (prepared as above) are sprayed with olive oil spray. You can also pan fry slices after spraying, but only in a non-stick skillet.
If the recipe calls for cubed eggplant, follow all the directions for salting and cooking slices. Once the slices are cooked, cut them into cubes.
Eggplant lends itself to a multitude of ethnic preparations from Indian to Moroccan with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes in between. Garlic, onion, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil and sesame oils are merely a few of the many seasonings and vegetables that go with eggplant.
This is one of the signature dishes of Sicily. It is most often served as an appetizer, sometimes topped with albacore tuna. However, I think this fresher and more intensely flavored version is best used as a condiment with roasted or grilled meats, or as an hors d’oeuvre spread on rustic bread - plain, toasted or grilled.
2 to 21/2 pounds eggplant (unpeeled), cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 medium onion
3 inner stalks of celery
6 fresh plum tomatoes or 8 canned
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 anchovy fillet, rinsed and minced
3 tablespoons capers (a 3-ounce jar), rinsed
1/2 cup pitted green olives, whole if small, halved or quartered if large
2/3 cup quality red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Olive oil spray
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts garnish
1)In a large bowl, sprinkle eggplant with 1 tablespoon of salt, then line the slices in a colander. Set aside for 30 minutes for moisture to be drawn out. Line a sheet pan with paper towels, line eggplant on sheet pan, cover with more paper towels, then press down with a cutting board to squeeze out any more moisture. Pat slices dry. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
2)Meanwhile, chop onions, cut celery into very thin crescents, trim and dice tomatoes. Put oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and celery and cook just until onion softens, 3 or 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook about 10 minutes. Add anchovy, capers, olives, vinegar and sugar. Simmer 10 minutes
3)Spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray and layer eggplant slices on the sheet. Spray with olive oil spray and bake 20 minutes (turning slices over once) or until soft and browned but not falling apart. Remove, cut into 1/2-inch dice and add to onion/celery/tomato mixture.
4)Simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a little water if necessary. Adjust seasoning - it should be pleasantly sweet and sour and quite thick. Cool and serve at room temperature topped with pine nuts. It’s just as good or better the next day. Serves 6.
EGGPLANT CAVIAR top
This dish is so-called because poor folks can mound it on pita bread (or crackers or bread) the way rich folks mound real caviar on toast points. Variations on this theme run the length of the Mediterranean.
2 small to medium eggplants, 11/2 to 2 pounds
1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small tomato, juiced and diced
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons flat Italian parsley, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1)Make a few slits in the eggplants and bake in a 450 oven about 30 minutes or until it collapses and becomes soft. (This can also be done on a charcoal or gas grill.) Cool.
2)Mince the garlic and onion by hand or puree in a food processor. Scrape out flesh from eggplants into a mixing bowl with onions and garlic, discarding skins. Mash with a fork or puree in a food processor along with remaining ingredients.
2)Use as is for a dip. As a sandwich spread (delicious on a baguette, sprinkled with creamy feta cheese), drain in a sieve for 15 minutes to remove excess moisture. Makes about 3 cups.
Sam's Cooking Tip: Unlike most versions of eggplant caviar or baba ganooj (as it's called in the Middle East) that use a fair amount of olive oil or tahini (sesame paste), this version uses sesame oil which is so intensely flavored you can use a small amount
EGGPLANT PARMESAN top
This interpretation of a most clichéd dish, inspired by Palermo restaurant in San Jose, Calif., is light and fresh, unlike the heavy and fat-laden versions in most mom and pop Italian restaurants. Serve it at room temperature as part of an antipasto table (the way it's served at Palermo). You can also serve it by itself as a first course for dinner or, as a light entree for lunch.
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, seeded and chopped, with their juice
11/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 medium eggplants, about 2 pounds
Olive oil spray
1/4 to 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 to 4 basil sprigs
1)Heat oil in a saucepan over moderate heat. Add onion and cook a few minutes. Add garlic and cook until onion is soft but not browned. Add tomatoes (and juice), tomato paste, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Stir, bring to a boil and simmer 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat, add basil and let cool at room temperature. Check for seasoning.
2)Meanwhile, trim (but don't peel) eggplant. Cut into 1/4-inch thick slices. Spray a nonstick skillet with olive oil spray and cook slices over medium-high heat in batches until nicely browned, 3 to 4 minutes on each side. (Add more spray to the skillet--off the heat--or to the eggplant slices, as needed). As eggplant slices are done, put them on a serving platter, slightly overlapping each other. Season slices with salt and pepper.
3)Pour tomato sauce over eggplant, sprinkle with cheese and garnish with basil sprigs. Serves 6 to 8 as a first course.
Sam's Cooking Tip: As the Italians have long since found out with their sumptuous antipasto tables, many room temperature foods taste as good or better than foods that are hot or cold. That's because the flavors aren't masked by extreme temperatures at either end of the spectrum.
EGGPLANT PIZZA top
Making regular pizza from scratch isn't hard, it's just time consuming because you have to knead the dough and wait for the dough to rise. But with rapid rising yeast you can make the dough and let it rise while you prepare the toppings.
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 package Rapid-Rise yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup barely hot water at 125 to 130 degrees
Olive oil spray
1 medium eggplant, about 1 pound
2 medium tomatoes or 3 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1)Turn on the broiler. Put 2 cups of flour, yeast, sugar and half the salt in the bowl of a food processor. With the motor running, add olive oil and 3/4 of the water. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough forms a ball. Then continue processing another 30 seconds to knead. Spray a bowl with olive oil spray and put dough in. Spray again and cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Set bowl in a warm, draft-free place. (If mixing by hand, knead dough about 10 minutes before setting aside.)
2)While dough rises, trim (but don't peel) eggplant. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Spray a baking sheet that will fit inside the broiler with olive oil spray. Put eggplant slices on the tray and spray the tops. Put in the broiler and brown, about 5 minutes. Turn and brown other side. Remove from the oven and reduce heat to 500 degrees. Sprinkle eggplant with half the remaining salt and half the pepper.
3)After the dough has doubled in size (20 minutes or more) punch down and roll out on a work surface dusted with remaining flour. Dough should be 14 inches in diameter for a thin crusted pizza, about 12 inches for a thicker pizza. Place on a pizza stone, pizza pan or on the back of a baking sheet. Top with eggplant, then tomato slices. Sprinkle tomato with basil, remaining salt and pepper. Spray edges with olive oil spray.
QUICK RATATOUILLE WITH POULTRY SAUSAGE top
Ratatouille is normally stewed for 45 minutes or longer. This version is quick, light and fresh and becomes a vegetarian entree by omitting the sausage.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 small medium-hot pepper
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, diced
1 small to medium eggplant, diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
8 to 10 ounces cooked poultry sausage, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 cups cooked rice
1)Put the oil in a wok or large saute pan over high heat. Add the peppers, onion, garlic, squash and eggplant. Cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tomato and cook about 3 minutes.
2)Add the sausage, herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 3 minutes. Put over rice. Serves 4.
Sam’s Cooking Tip: Most supermarkets and butcher shops now carry poultry sausage of some kind. Check the labels, however, and don’t assume it’s low fat just because it’s poultry. The sausage I used in this recipe totaled 9 grams of fat for three links, about 9 ounces.