A Grain of Salt

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

To salt or not to salt? When it comes to cooking eggplant, that is always the question.

Pro-salters say that their eggplant is sweeter, that salting draws off the bitter brown water (some of which is solanine, the active ingredient in poisonous nightshade). They say salting improves the texture and decreases the amount of oil absorbed during cooking.

The anti-salting argument can be summed up in one word: "huh-uh." Advocates claim eggplant cooked without any advance preparation is just as sweet, just as firm and just as fat-free. As evidence, they point to all of those eggplant purees that are based on roasting eggplant in the oven whole (and, of course, unsalted).

I have always been of the non-salting school, though this is more a tribute to my native laziness than the result of any kind of trial or test. In most cases, I firmly believe that the easiest preparation that gives a good result is the best. I usually grill eggplant, and it always tastes good without salting.

But now, after spending the better part of two weekends cooking eggplant, I can safely say that both sides are right. Salting does make a difference, but only if the eggplant will be fried, and even then there are peculiarities to the process.

The first step was to find out whether salting made a difference in different types of cooking and, if it did, how long the eggplant had to macerate to make a difference. I cut a grocery bag full of eggplants into half-inch-thick slices and salted half of them.

Every 30 minutes for two hours, I cooked a couple of slices of salted (which I rinsed and patted dry with paper towels) and unsalted eggplant on the grill and in the frying pan.

First, the salted slices looked different from the unsalted--especially after they'd macerated for more than an hour. The bowl under the colander that held the macerating eggplant had a quarter of an inch of brown water in it, and the slices turned flimsy and took on a greenish cast.

The next thing I realized was just how much fat an eggplant can soak up. It has a reputation for being an oil sponge, but until I actually measured it, I had no idea just how bad it was. Two slices of eggplant fried over medium-high heat will absorb roughly a quarter of a cup of oil. And it made no difference whether the eggplant had been salted or not.

When it came time for tasting, there was only a slight difference between the salted and the unsalted--mostly the saltiness, which could be corrected by seasoning after cooking. There was no detectable bitterness.

There was a difference in texture, though, but only for the fried eggplant. The unsalted eggplant had a firmer, slightly fibrous texture while the salted eggplant was creamier and slightly pillowy. This difference became more pronounced the longer the eggplant had been salted.

Even the confirmed salter among us said salting made no difference in the texture of the grilled eggplant.

If salting eggplant before frying improves the texture by drawing off liquid, what about pressing the eggplant in addition? Theoretically, anyway, you'd think the more liquid that was expressed, the better the texture would be.

So in the next experiment, another sack full of eggplant was sliced and salted and left to stand from half an hour to four hours. But this time before cooking, I pressed half the slices between two plates, squeezing them tight to get rid of as much of the moisture as possible. After rinsing them and patting them dry, I cooked the pressed and unpressed slices at the same time, along with a freshly cut unsalted, unpressed slice.

During the cooking, the pressed slices browned more quickly than the others, cooking as much as five minutes faster. Oddly, the salted but unpressed slices seemed to brown slowest.

But, again, the differences were primarily textural. The slices that had been salted--whether pressed or not--had a creamier texture. This was particularly noticeable in the slices that had been macerated for an hour and a half or longer. The difference between the slices that had been salted for an hour and a half, however, and those that had been salted for four hours was much less than that between those that had been salted for 30 minutes and those that had been salted an hour and a half.

The pressing seemed to make little difference and only with the extended salting times. The four-hour pressed eggplant was soft but slightly denser than the unpressed, which had more of a mousse-like quality.

Then, while rummaging through the refrigerator the next day making dinner, I found a bag full of leftover salted eggplant slices. Hmmm, I thought, let's see what happens with stuff that's really been salted.

These slices were really limp and oddly pale. When pressed, they exuded even more liquid than the others had. When I fried them, they browned even more quickly than the others and, amazingly, two slices soaked up less than two teaspoons of oil--as opposed to the quarter cup of the previous experiments.

But there was a trade-off. These fried slices, flat as wafers, had a texture more akin to a dried slice of eggplant than to the luxurious pillow of regular fried eggplant. The flavor was odd, too, with an exaggerated vegetal edge. When stewed with chopped tomatoes and onions, they kind of sat there apart from it all, rather than absorbing the flavors of the sauce the way the unpressed eggplant did.

Obviously, reducing the absorption of oil is not the ultimate goal in cooking eggplant.

So how did all this affect the way I'll cook eggplant in the future? I'll still grill without salting, but if I fry the eggplant before baking it in a sauce (like eggplant parmigiana), I will take the time to salt it for an hour and a half or so. The texture was improved enough to warrant the effort.

On the other hand, I can see that in some kinds of stews, where you want the eggplant to have a little more bite, I'll fry it without salting.

The main effect, though, after two weekends of cooking eggplant, is that it'll probably be a good long while before I do it again.

GRILLED EGGPLANT

If using globe eggplants, cut in 1/2-inch-thick crosswise slices. If using Asian eggplants, cut in 1/4-inch-thick lengthwise slices, leaving eggplants attached at stem end so slices will fan when cooked.

1 1/2 pounds eggplants

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups mixed torn fresh herbs: basil, oregano, thyme and parsley

In small bowl, mix together oil, garlic and salt.

Grill eggplant over medium heat until slices begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Brush tops with garlic oil and turn. Grill until bottoms are marked, about 5 minutes. Brush tops with garlic oil and turn once more. Cook until other side is marked, about 5 minutes.

While eggplant is grilling, scatter half of herbs across bottom of platter. When eggplant is done, remove to platter on top of herbs and brush tops with oil once more. Scatter remaining herbs over top and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

110 calories; 397 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 1.04 grams fiber.

GRILLED VEGETABLE SANDWICH

The best loaf for this sandwich is the ciabatta, a long, flat rectangle that splits neatly into sandwich-size lengths. You can also use any long round loaf--preferably the larger batard, though even the small baguette will do in a pinch. If using either of these, remove some of the soft inner bread after splitting.

Grilled Eggplant

2 red bell peppers

1 onion

1 loaf rustic bread

1 tomato, sliced

1 (6-ounce) piece fresh goat cheese

1/4 cup finely sliced basil leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare Grilled Eggplant as below. While eggplants are cooking, grill bell peppers, turning until blackened on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove peppers and place in plastic bag to cool. Peel onion, being careful not to trim root end, and cut in six pieces, lengthwise. Grill onion until soft, about 7 minutes. Peel peppers and remove stems, seeds and veins.

Slice bread in half lengthwise. Arrange Grilled Eggplant, peppers, onion and tomato slices in layers on bottom half. Crumble goat cheese over top. Sprinkle with basil leaves. Whisk together oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over top.

Place top half of loaf on top of sandwich and press lightly. Cut in 8 pieces and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

357 calories; 760 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 45 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 1.30 grams fiber.

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