Eggplant, or aubergine as it is called in France, is a vegetable long prized for its beauty as well as its unique taste and texture. Eggplants belong to the plant family of Solanaceae, also commonly known as nightshades, and are kin to the tomato, bell pepper and potato. Eggplants grow in a manner much like tomatoes, hanging from the vines of a plant that may grow several feet in height.
One of the most popular varieties of eggplant in North America looks like a pear-shaped egg, a characteristic from which its name is derived. The skin is glossy and deep purple in color, while the flesh is cream colored and spongy in consistency. Contained within the flesh are seeds arranged in a conical pattern.
In addition to this variety, eggplant is also available in a cornucopia of other colors including lavender, jade green, orange, and yellow-white, as well as in sizes and shapes that range from that of a small tomato to a large zucchini.
While the different varieties do vary slightly in taste and texture, one can generally describe the eggplant as having a pleasantly bitter taste and spongy texture. In many recipes, eggplant fulfills the role of being a complementary ingredient that balances the surrounding flavors of the other more pronounced ingredients.
The ancient ancestors of eggplant grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated, in the 14th century. It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Although it has a long and rich history, eggplant did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines. As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties, it seems that people also felt that it had a bitter disposition—eggplant held the undeserved and inauspicious reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer.
For centuries after its introduction into Europe, eggplant was used more as a decorative garden plant than as a food. Not until new varieties were developed in the 18th century, did eggplant lose its bitter taste and bitter reputation, and take its now esteemed place in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.
Place uncut and unwashed eggplant in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper where it will keep for a few days. If it is too large for the crisper, do not try to force it in; this will damage the skin and cause the eggplant to spoil and decay. Instead, place it on a shelf within the refrigerator.
Most eggplants can be eaten either with or without their skin. However, the larger ones and those that are white in color generally have tough skins that may not be palatable. To remove skin, you can peel it before cutting or if you are baking it, you can scoop out the flesh once it is cooked.
To tenderize the flesh's texture and reduce some of its naturally occurring bitter taste, you can sweat the eggplant by salting it. After cutting the eggplant into the desired size and shape, sprinkle it with salt and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. This process will pull out some of its water content and make it less permeable to absorbing any oil used in cooking.
Rinsing the eggplant after "sweating" will remove most of the salt.
Eggplant can be baked, roasted in the oven, or steamed. If baking it whole, pierce the eggplant several times with a fork to make small holes for the steam to escape. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 25 minutes, depending upon size. You can test for its readiness by gently inserting a knife or fork to see if it passes through easily.
Quick Serving ideas:
- For homemade babaganoush, purée roasted eggplant, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil.
- Use it as a dip for vegetables or as a sandwich filling.
- Mix cubed baked eggplant with grilled peppers, lentils, onions and garlic and top with balsamic vinaigrette.
- Stuff miniature Japanese eggplants with a mixture of feta cheese, pine nuts and roasted peppers.
- Add eggplant to your next Indian curry stir-fry.
Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew
Maybe you have a few eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and basil waiting for this recipe? It comes from Deborah Madison's Local Flavorscookbook.
Yield: About 6 servings
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 pounds waxy potatoes
2 large peppers
1 cup packed basil leaves
1 cup packed cilantro leaves
3 large garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon roasted ground cumin
2 large onions, peeled and cut into eighths
1 pound eggplant, cut into long strips
2-3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (1 can, rinsed)
- Preheat the broiler. Bring 6 cups water to boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Slice the potatoes lengthwise about 1/2 inch thick, boil them for 5 mintues, and drain. Halve the peppers lenthwise, press to flatten them, then brush with vegetable oil. Broil, cut side down, on a baking sheet until blistered but not charred. Stack them on top of one another and set aside to steam. When cool, remove the skins and cut the pieces in half. Set the oven temperature at 350 F.
- Coarsely chop the basil, cilantro, and garlic, then puree in a small food processor with the olive oil, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Toss all the vegetables with 1 teaspoon salt, some freshly ground pepper, and the herb mixture. Using your hands, rub the herb mixture into the vegetables, especially the eggplant, then add the chickpeas and toss once more. Transfer everything to an earthenware gratin dish. Rinse out the herb container with 1/2 cup water and pour it over all. Cover the gratin dish tightly with foil and bake until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the foil, brush the exposed vegetables with the juices, and bake for 20 minutes more. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
This versatile summer recipe is always a flavorful hit. Serve over rice, with pasta, as a topping for quiche or omelets, as a pizza sauce...the options are endless. The ingredients can be used in any combination or quantities.
2 onions, chopped
1 large eggplant, cubed
1 zucchini, sliced
1 green pepper, diced
5 tomatoes, chopped (optional to peel and seed them)
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
fresh basil for garnish
Preheat oven to 350. Saute the onions, eggplant, zucchini, green pepper, and tomatoes separately in a generous amount of olive oil and then combine with the garlic and thyme on a baking sheet. Bake uncovered for about an hour. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh basil.
Breaded Eggplant with Arugula and Parmesan
- 1 large eggplant, cut lengthwise into 1-inch-thick slices
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 large egg, whisked with 1 tablespoon water
- 2 cups panko or coarse homemade breadcrumbs
- 1 cup olive oil, for frying
- 2 cups baby arugula
- 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan
- Lemon wedges, for serving
Arrange eggplant in a large colander and season generously with salt. Let stand 30 minutes, then rinse and pat dry.
Divide flour, egg mixture, and breadcrumbs among 3 shallow bowls. Dip each eggplant slice, turning to coat and shaking off excess, in the flour, then egg mixture, then breadcrumbs.
Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet (oil should be about 1/2-inch deep) over medium heat, and, working in batches, fry eggplant until golden and crisp, about 4 minutes per side.
Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and season with salt and pepper.
Top each cutlet with arugula, Parmesan, and a squeeze of lemon.
Roasted Eggplant Dip with Greek Yogurt
*Can serve with flatbread, crackers, pitas or fresh garden veggies!
- 3 medium eggplants (about 2 pounds)
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1/2 cup plain full-fat Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 lemons)
Using tongs, cook eggplants one at a time over the flame of a gas burner (or a grill), turning as skin chars and bubbles, until completely soft, about 15 minutes. (If eggplant doesn't soften, finish cooking on a baking sheet in a 375-degree oven.) Let stand until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Peel off charred skin and discard. Coarsely chop the eggplants, and place in a colander to drain, about 1 hour. Finely chop, and transfer to a bowl.
Using a chef's knife, press flat side of blade back and forth across garlic and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt to make a paste. Mix into eggplant. Stir in oil. Mix in yogurt and lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. (Dip can be refrigerated, for up to 1 day.) Drizzle with oil before serving.