Four Southland chefs explore the versatile eggplant.

Deputy Food Editor

It sits among the leafy greens and familiar fruits of summer looking fairly foreboding. A big bold vegetable, as dark as late afternoon shadows, almost black.

But those who favor eggplant see it as one of the garden's beauties. Its sleek deep purple exterior is as smooth as satin, its green top a sculpted headpiece. Some describe the eggplant as regal, a king among vegetables for its potential.

On its own, the eggplant tastes rather mild for a vegetable of such forceful looks. Simply sliced, brushed with olive oil and grilled for a warm-weather side dish, its pale flesh takes on a nutty creaminess. But let a variety of cultures get hold of it, and the eggplant becomes a chameleon, seemingly perfect in myriad ways.

The French marry chunks of eggplant with zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers in ratatouille, a slightly sweet, multiuse vegetarian stew. Italian cooks bread eggplant slices, fry them, then arrange them in layers with tomato sauce and cheese in melanzana alla parmigiana. In India, eggplant might be sauteed with black cardamom and peppercorns for spicy Kashmirian bangain, while the Turks use eggplant for everything--stuffing it, pureeing it, wrapping it in pastry.

"It's one of the most important vegetables to our cuisine," says Neela Paniz, chef-owner of the Bombay Cafe in West Los Angeles, where she serves eggplant in a variety of Indian dishes. "It's so versatile. You can smoke it, cook it, saute it. And it makes for very satisfying eating."

For years--centuries--suspicion and skepticism have plagued the eggplant, however. Its path to popularity has been a long one.

It was domesticated in Southeast Asia about 4,000 years ago. As the eggplant spread, newcomers were often suspicious of it: It belongs to the same family as poisonous deadly nightshade (as do potatoes, tomatoes and petunias).

In the Middle East and then in Europe, doctors blamed it for all sorts of things, from epilepsy to cancer to causing men to lead less than upstanding lives.

It had its believers, though not necessarily in the kitchen. In the fifth century, Chinese women made a black dye from eggplant skins to stain and polish their teeth. And some in medieval Europe considered eggplant an aphrodisiac.

Although the purple Globe variety is most prominent, an assortment of eggplants can be found at ethnic groceries, farmers markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

The many varieties of eggplant offer vast cooking possibilities. They have names like Neon, which has magenta skin, and Easter Egg, which is small, creamy and about the size of an egg. Of the two most common long eggplants, the Chinese is a lighter shade of purple than its Japanese cousin. Italian eggplants are small and lobed and look a little like soft purple squashes. Southeast Asian eggplants come in a wide variety of colors and sizes, ranging from tiny green ones that cling in grape-like clusters to ivory billiard balls that give an indication of the origin of the name "eggplant."

Since living in Los Angeles, Paniz discovered the Japanese eggplant. She prefers the small eggplants for stuffing, sauteing and cooking whole. One dish, featured in her "The Bombay Cafe Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $17.95), is similar to ratatouille, made with Japanese eggplants and seasoned with cumin seeds and turmeric.

In another bit of cross-cultural cooking, Gino Angelini, chef at Vincenti in Brentwood, likes to use Japanese eggplants for a recipe from his Italian grandmother. For Melanzane in Porchetta, he grills thin eggplants, stuffs them with a bread crumb mixture seasoned with fennel and garlic and cooks them over low heat or in a low oven for a long time.

He has altered his recipe a bit, reducing the cooking time. He also prepares eggplant parmigiana a less traditional way, boiling the eggplant slices in salted water rather than frying them as Sicilian cooks do. In Emilia-Romagna, the region of north-central Italy where he's from, the boiled slices are then layered with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, sometimes prosciutto, and baked, Angelini says.

Eggplant has a reputation for being heavy, justly so. Much of its tissue is intercellular air pockets, so the eggplant absorbs oil like a sponge. Most cooks choose to salt eggplant before cooking it in oil. That collapses the air pockets. Salting isn't necessary, though, if an eggplant is to be grilled or baked whole.

Many chefs and cookbook authors also believe salting reduces an eggplant's bitterness; often the more mature eggplants with dark seeds do have a sharp taste. But in tests in The Times Test Kitchen, this has not been the case.

In a side-by-side comparison of unsalted eggplant and slices that had been salted and drained, there seemed little difference. None of the slices, which had been fried a few minutes per side in olive oil, was bitter. The only noticeable difference was in the texture; the salted slices seemed softer, with the chewy, creamy consistency that makes eggplant so delicious.

Tim Goodell, who gets creative with eggplant at his two restaurants, Aubergine in Newport Beach and Troquet in Costa Mesa, likes to play off the sweet flavor of cooked eggplant. He serves an eggplant marmalade made with Japanese eggplants, ginger, garlic and soy sauce atop seared ahi tuna that is somewhat sweet yet sour.

"You can make some traditional dishes with eggplant, such as tapenade," he says, "but I've also put grilled eggplant on top of pizza with house-made chorizo. It sells real well."

Although aubergine is French for eggplant, the restaurant was not named because of any special love for the vegetable. Goodell and his wife Liza chose it on a whim while thumbing through "Larousse Gastronomique."

To Michel Ohayon, chef-owner of Koutoubia in West Los Angeles, the Globe is his favorite eggplant; its familiar shape and rich purple color remind him of dishes prepared by his Moroccan grandmother.

At his restaurant, Ohayon skins and slices the Globes, then quickly dips them in oil before baking them--a method he says keeps the eggplant from soaking up too much oil. The slices are diced and tossed with chunks of roasted bell peppers, Anaheim chiles and tomatoes for a colorful salad. Like the eggplant itself, the dish--Choutchouka--can be used many ways, enjoyed hot or cold, spread across pasta or served as an accompaniment to chicken, fish or eggs.

A note of encouragement for the eggplant-leery put off by its appearance: Beyond losing its shape when prepared and cooked, an eggplant's dark color fades drastically to mottled hues of purple and gray. Ohayon, though, doesn't mourn the loss of color; he sees the eggplant for what it is: beautiful.

"They are just vibrant," he says.

Seared Ahi Tuna With Eggplant Marmalade and Horseradish Cream

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

Tim Goodell, chef-owner of Orange County's Aubergine and Troquet restaurants, likes the play of sweet and sour in this marmalade. The marmalade also goes well with meat or lamb and can be used as a spread, he says.

EGGPLANT MARMALADE

1 Japanese eggplant

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon minced ginger

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Seasoned rice vinegar

* Rub eggplant with 1 teaspoon oil then sprinkle with salt. Set in small pan and roast at 350 degrees until soft, about 20 to 25 minutes. When eggplant is cool enough to handle, peel and chop into small pieces.

* Combine ginger, shallot, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and splash of vinegar. Saute in remaining 2 teaspoons oil over medium-low heat until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add eggplant and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Makes 1/2 cup.

HORSERADISH CREAM

1 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon minced shallot

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

Red wine vinegar

Salt

* Combine whipping cream, shallot, pepper and horseradish and cook over medium heat until thick and reduced by 1/4. Add a splash of vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

ASSEMBLY

2 (5-ounce) pieces ahi tuna

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon peanut oil

* Coat ahi pieces with pepper. Warm oil in skillet over high heat. Place fish in pan and sear both sides so that fish is browned outside but rare inside, 1 minute per side.

* Divide Marmalade between 2 plates. Set fish on top, then drizzle Horseradish Cream around tuna.

2 servings. Each serving: 855 calories; 1,008 mg sodium; 220 mg cholesterol; 74 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams protein; 0.50 gram fiber.

Choutchouka Salad

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

The bright colors of peppers give this Moroccan salad zip. Michel Ohayon, chef-owner of Koutoubia in West Los Angeles, also suggests serving it as a topping for pasta or as a side dish.

2 red bell peppers

5 Anaheim chiles or green bell peppers

1 yellow bell pepper

2 Globe eggplants

4 to 5 pounds Roma tomatoes

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 cup oil

Salt, pepper

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon paprika, optional

* Broil bell peppers and chiles about 4 inches from heat source, turning, until skins are charred. Place in large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit 15 minutes. When peppers and chiles are cool enough to handle, remove skin and seeds and cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

* Peel eggplants and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Dip slices in oil, then lay on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 20 minutes each side. When cool enough to handle, cut into 1-inch chunks. Reserve oil from pan.

* Cut small "x" in base of each tomato. Drop in rapidly boiling water until skin starts to shrivel, about 30 seconds. Remove with slotted spoon and peel off skin. Cut into quarters and seed.

* Place tomatoes in large pot with garlic. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until slightly thick and chunky, about 15 minutes.

* Add roasted peppers and cook, stirring, 10 minutes. Stir in eggplant and season to taste with salt and pepper. When salad has thickened, about 5 minutes, add lemon juice. If desired, stir in reserved oil from pan and paprika. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings: 146 calories; 63 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.21 grams fiber.

Eggplant With Yogurt and Saffron (Kashmiri Baingan)

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour * Vegetarian

Neela Paniz, owner of the Bombay Cafe, prefers Indian eggplants--not too small--for this spicy dish. You can substitute fat Japanese eggplants, she says. Look for Indian eggplants and black cardamom pods at Indian markets. Make sure the eggplants are covered tightly as they cook.

12 Indian eggplants (about 2 pounds)

Water

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or less to taste

10 to 12 threads saffron

1 tablespoon warm milk

1/4 cup corn oil

2 to 3 whole black cardamom pods

2 (1-inch) sticks cinnamon

5 to 6 cloves

2 small bay leaves

5 to 6 whole black peppercorns

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, minced

1 onion, sliced thin

1/2 cup plain yogurt

Cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish

* Trim tough end of eggplant stems, leaving caps intact. Slice each eggplant from blossom end halfway to cap. Soak eggplants in water to cover at least 30 minutes to open slits.

* In small bowl, mix coriander, cayenne and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

* In separate small bowl, soak saffron threads in warm milk.

* Drain eggplants in colander. Working over plate, pry slits open with your fingers and spoon 1/4 teaspoon spice mixture into each eggplant, letting any excess spices fall onto plate. Push slit closed to distribute spices evenly.

* In a 10-inch, 3- to 3 1/2-quart skillet with lid, heat oil over high heat. Add cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns and fry until they sizzle, about 1 minute. Add ginger and onion and continue to cook until onion turns translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.

* Add eggplants and any spices remaining on plate. Fry on high heat, stirring frequently to evenly cook eggplants until their purple color takes on a brownish hue, about 3 to 4 minutes.

* Reduce heat to low, wait 5 minutes, then stir in yogurt. (If the heat is too high, the yogurt will separate.) Add milk with saffron, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and mix well, being careful not to break eggplants. Cover; cook 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once or twice to allow for even cooking. Remember to allow drops of water collected on inside of lid to fall back into pan.

* Garnish with cilantro leaves before serving.

6 servings. Each serving: 146 calories; 616 mg sodium; 3 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.68 grams fiber.

Melanzane in Porchetta

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes * Vegetarian

Gino Angelini, chef at Vincenti in Brentwood, adapted this recipe from his mother's, who got hers from her mother.

2 pounds Japanese eggplant

Salt

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fennel fronds

1/2 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

* Make cut along length of each eggplant but do not cut clear through, so eggplants look like open books. Score each "page" with sharp knife, making diagonal cuts 1/4-inch deep in one direction, then repeating crosswise to make diamonds. Lightly salt and place eggplants, open, in colander to drain 30 minutes.

* Grill skin side and flesh side of each eggplant over hot coals or on grill pan set over medium heat, 2 1/2 minutes each side. Turn them gently; you want them to retain their shape for stuffing. Cool.

* In bowl, mix bread crumbs, parsley, fennel, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir in 1/2 cup olive oil.

* Stuff eggplants with bread-crumb mixture, about 3 tablespoons each. (If you notice many seeds in eggplants, remove them.) Close eggplants and place in baking dish with remaining oil. Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees until tender, about 1 hour, turning once after 30 minutes.

4 servings. Each serving: 611 calories; 875 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 55 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 2.56 grams fiber.

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