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Downright voluptuous

Times Staff Writer

The eggplant is a thing of rare beauty. Its form ranges from blocky and solid as a Botero sculpture to sinuous and flowing as a Modigliani. Its color can be the violet of a particularly magnificent sunrise or the black of a starless night. It can be alabaster white or even red-orange. And the eggplant’s beauty is more than skin-deep. The flesh is at once luxurious in texture and accommodating in flavor.

So why does it scare people?

You can’t believe what some cooks say about it (and I mean that literally). Most of the mythology has to do, in one way or another, with the vegetable’s supposed bitterness.

You’ll hear that eggplants with large green caps are more bitter. Eggplants with more seeds are more bitter. Eggplants that are heavier are more bitter. At least that’s what some say. Others claim the opposite: It’s the lighter eggplants that are more bitter.

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Eggplants that are old are bitter. Eggplants with darker skins are bitter. Eggplants that are male are bitter. (For the record: botanically speaking, eggplants are fruits -- and therefore neither male nor female).

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: Eggplants are not bitter (even though they have every right to be after everything that has been said about them).

At least, they are no more bitter than a green bell pepper or a green apple, or the tannic skin of a fresh walnut. It’s a whisper of bitterness that adds to the flavor, rather than ruining it.

In fact, it’s that subtle edge that makes eggplant such a great companion to so many other ingredients. Without it, eggplant would be bland, nothing more than tofu in a fancy wrapper. But that earthy undertone serves to focus our attention on other flavors, the way a bass line complements a melody.

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Combine that natural accommodation with a sponge-like absorbency and eggplant is one of nature’s great sidemen. It soaks up whatever it is cooked with and somehow the flavors are amplified and smoothed out in the process. Good olive oil has no greater friend than the eggplant, and vice versa.

Fry an eggplant in olive oil and what once was a hard, dry, almost pithy vegetable becomes downright voluptuous. The surface crisps slightly, and the inside turns creamy and smooth.

Actually, it’s one of those supposed cures for bitterness that is the secret to great fried eggplant. Salting the vegetable does nothing to remove bitterness. But it does pull the water out of the eggplant, collapsing the cells, which then absorb oil more easily during cooking.

Try it and you’ll see. I cooked eggplant salted and unsalted with oil in a skillet and dry on the grill. Salting made absolutely no difference in the grilled eggplant, but did with the fried. Unsalted fried eggplant was meaty; salted was creamy. It depends on what you like.

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(And be sure to brush eggplant with oil before grilling -- it keeps the surface from drying out. Once it’s done enough that you can poke it with a skewer, take it off the fire and while it’s still quite hot bathe it in a vinaigrette and swaddle it in fresh herbs.)

And if you do prefer salted, just don’t shortcut the process. It takes about an hour of purging to really make a difference. An hour-and-a-half is better. Some cooks recommend pressing the eggplant under a weight during this period. Although this makes sense in theory, I found that pressing resulted in eggplant disks that cooked up like wafers rather than pillows.

It also has been claimed that salting reduces the amount of oil the eggplant absorbs during frying. This, unfortunately, is not true. Salted and unsalted slices both soaked up equally prodigious amounts of oil -- as much as two tablespoons per half-inch slice!

Supposedly, cooking eggplant longer will take care of this -- the vegetable will absorb oil, then release it as the cell structure completely collapses. This is not true either. I fried an eggplant slice in hot oil, then wiped the pan clean and cooked it some more. It didn’t give up more than a drop.

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What do you do with fried eggplant? If it’s cut into disks, one approach is to think of it as a really luxurious fresh pasta. Roll it around ricotta or goat cheese. Or you can layer it with fresh cheese, cover it with tomato sauce and bake it. Or you can go another direction: Dice it before frying and then use it as a creamy counterpart to braised meat in stews.

Hard to tell they’re related

There are so many eggplants in the world that it’s impossible to keep up with them. In fact, scientists aren’t even sure of the exact number. From its ancestral home in Burma (Myanmar today), it migrated to become a staple in India, China, Southeast Asia, much of Africa and the Mediterranean. And as is so often the case after centuries of small-scale subsistence cultivation, there is a rainbow of poorly defined varieties, one shading into the other.

This being the peak of eggplant season, I went on a hunting expedition last week. Shopping only at the Friday Long Beach and Saturday Torrance farmers markets, I found 12 kinds of eggplant, not including the familiar big blocky one from the grocery store.

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Some of these looked so different you wouldn’t even know they were eggplants. There was an elaborately tufted, lavender-skinned Rosa Bianca (the eggplant du jour among chefs) and a beautifully marbled green Thai eggplant smaller than a golf ball. There was a creamy, oval eggplant about 3 inches tall that looked just like an egg.

There were long thin eggplants in hues ranging from green to black-purple to violet to white. And there were the tiny Thai “pea” eggplants, that look for all the world like tiny, hard, green peas that grow in clusters like grapes (there is some discussion among botanists whether this is a true eggplant or a close cousin).

As impressive as this bounty was, it represented but a small sample of what is out there. In his “Cornucopia II,” an authoritative guide to edible plant life, Stephen Facciola lists 56 major eggplant varieties.

It would be nice to say that the visual variety of eggplants was matched by an equally wide range of flavors. But that would be another lie. For the most part, eggplant tastes like eggplant.

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I steamed one sample of each eggplant I bought (steaming doesn’t impart extra flavor the way frying or grilling does, nor does it subtract flavor as does boiling). I found that eggplants vary in how thick their skins are. They vary in how seedy they are. And they vary in the exact texture of their flesh. But they don’t vary much in flavor. What variation I did find was so slight that it could be attributed to growing techniques and handling.

So the little green Thai eggplant, while it is very seedy and crunchy, basically tastes pretty much like the small, thin Chinese “finger” eggplant, which has very few seeds, creamy flesh and a skin so thin it’s almost not there. And that, in turn, tastes like the familiar blocky black eggplant that has a thick skin, coarse flesh and a moderate amount of seeds.

On the basis of these experiments, I came to some general conclusions on the nature of eggplant cookery. I like the round ones for stuffing (where their thick skins make practically unbreakable containers). I also like them for frying, but only after the peel has been removed. I like thin eggplants for grilling and for steaming -- they tend to have a creamier texture naturally and their skin is more delicate.

(I also learned that steaming is a very nice way to cook eggplant, something I might never have guessed. Steaming emphasizes the sweet, slightly earthy aspect of its character. Used the same way I normally do grilled eggplant, the steamed version was surprisingly suave and elegant.)

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Furthermore, except for the blackest of the eggplants, the skin colors fade during cooking. The rich colors of the raw vegetable turn to a muted palette of shades of greenish beige.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Think ‘80s Armani. In fact, somewhere in my closet I have an old jacket of his that I think incorporates just about the entire range of cooked eggplant colors. Now that’s scary.

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How to keep them happy

For a vegetable that can look like such a brute, eggplant is surprisingly fragile. It bruises easily and those flaws quickly turn very bad (cut open a dented eggplant and you’ll see the flesh is brown and corky in the affected area).

It also loses moisture quickly, leading to dry and pithy flesh. When choosing eggplant, pick ones that are heavy for their size. They’ll be the freshest.

Also feel the skin. If it is a round eggplant, it should be taut and almost bulging. In Asian markets, the long, thin eggplants often are slightly softer. But they definitely should not be so soft that the skin is wrinkling.

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Eggplant is a tropical plant that hates the cold. When you see eggplants that have bronze patches on the skin, that is chill damage, and it can happen after the fruit is picked as well as before.

In an ideal world, you’d buy only enough eggplant to use that day, and you’d store it in a cool spot on the counter (eggplants hate to get colder than 45 degrees and most home refrigerators are 35 to 40 degrees).

The thin skins also are susceptible to water damage, so keep eggplants as dry as possible. The best solution I’ve found is to store eggplants in the refrigerator crisper drawer in a plastic bag with a crumpled up sheet of paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Kept this way, they’ll be of acceptable quality for as long as a week.

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Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: This is the best way to get to the elusive pure, sweet but earthy flavor of the eggplant. Surprisingly, when this was served to a crowd of non-eggplant enthusiasts recently, it disappeared before the tomato salad.

2 pounds long thin eggplants

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1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2cup olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons salt

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1/2teaspoon minced rosemary

1/4teaspoon red pepper flakes

Generous grinding black pepper

1. Remove the tough green calyxes and cut the eggplants into thirds or halves to fit in your steamer basket. Steam them over rapidly boiling water until tender, about 5 minutes. The perfect point of doneness is when a knife will slip easily into the eggplant, but it is not so cooked that the skin wrinkles (this is when the flesh begins to pull away from the skin).

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2. Remove the eggplant from the heat and set aside until it’s just cool enough to handle (the hotter the eggplant is at this point, the better it will absorb the dressing).

3. While the eggplant is cooling, whisk together the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, rosemary and red pepper flakes in a mixing bowl.

4. Cut the eggplant pieces in half lengthwise. If the bottom ends are very thick, cut these in quarters. Cut again to make 2-inch pieces and add them to the dressing. Toss well to combine and refrigerate until ready to serve.

5. To serve, add the black pepper, then taste the eggplant and adjust the seasoning.

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Each serving: 200 calories; 1 gram protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 780 mg. sodium.

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Roast eggplant with walnuts

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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Servings: 6

Note: This Turkish recipe is from Paula Wolfert’s upcoming book, “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen,” which will be published in October by Wiley. Wolfert notes that the slower the grilling, the smokier the flavor of the eggplant. She thanks Dr. Ayse Baysal for sharing the recipe.

2 3/4pounds eggplants

1 green bell pepper

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2 cloves garlic

1 cup (3 ounces) chopped walnuts, divided

1/2teaspoon salt

1 scant cup ricotta cheese

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2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2tablespoons vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

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2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Pierce the eggplants with a sharp fork in two or three places (to keep them from exploding) and place them as high as you can on a V-rack roaster. Set over a medium-low gas flame or over hot coals and grill, turning about three times, 15 minutes to a side, or until completely soft and the skin is black and blistery, about 45 minutes total. The longer and slower the grilling, the creamier the eggplant will be. When the eggplants collapse, remove from the grill and let cool slightly. Remove the black parched skin, then squeeze gently to remove any juices. Discard the juices, and crush the pulp to a puree with a fork.

2. Meanwhile, grill the pepper. Remove the pepper when soft, cover with a sheet of plastic and allow to cool. Core, seed and slip off the skin. Chop fine and mix with the eggplant.

3. Mash the garlic to a paste with half the walnuts and the salt in a mortar and pestle or food processor. Add the cheese, oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper, and pulse to combine.

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4. In a serving bowl, combine the garlic-walnut mixture with the eggplant-pepper pulp and mix well. Correct the seasoning. Mix the parsley and remaining walnuts and sprinkle on top. Serve with pita toasted until crisp. May be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for several days.

Note: When large eggplants are roasted whole, you may notice black juices seeping out of the skin. If this happens, immediately slit the eggplant on one side and drain on a slanted board in the sink..

Each serving: 303 calories; 10 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 21 mg. cholesterol; 333 mg. sodium.

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Eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Silky stuffed eggplant is a wonderfully satisfying dish for casual late summer and early fall entertaining. It can be made in advance and reheated just before serving.

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3 (about 1 pound each) round

dark purple eggplants

2 medium onions

1/4cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil

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2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 ( 1/2-pound) lamb shoulder chops, or 3/4 pound lamb stew meat

3 1/3cups crushed tomatoes

1/4cup toasted pine nuts

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1/2cup chopped parsley

1 ounce Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the green calyxes off the eggplants. Cut each eggplant in half lengthwise. Using a sharp paring knife, cut a box in the center of each eggplant half, coming about half an inch from the sides and cutting down to within half an inch of the bottom. Using a large spoon, pry the center free. It should come out fairly cleanly, but use the spoon to scrape any excess eggplant from the inside of the box. Place the halves cut side down on a baking sheet lined with paper towel. Cover the excess eggplant flesh with plastic wrap and set aside. Repeat, cleaning all the eggplants.

2. Chop one of the onions and combine it with one-fourth cup of the olive oil in a large skillet. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and cook until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking an additional 3 minutes.

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3. While the onions and garlic are cooking, bone the shoulder chops, then trim the fat and cut the meat into pieces about the size of the tip of your little finger. You’ll have about three-fourths of a pound. When the garlic is fragrant, add the meat to the skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the lamb has lost its raw color, about 5 minutes. The lamb will not brown.

4. Chop the reserved eggplant flesh into pieces about the same size as the meat. Add it to the skillet and cook until the eggplant has softened completely, about 5 to 7 minutes.

5. Add 1 cup of the crushed tomatoes and cook until the color dulls a little, about 5 minutes. Stir in the pine nuts and parsley and remove from the heat. Taste and correct the seasoning.

6. With the remaining tablespoon of oil, grease a large baking dish (about a 14-inch oval). Cut the remaining onion in quarters and then slice thinly. Put the slices in the bottom of the baking dish and pour the remaining crushed tomato over it. Arrange the eggplant halves in the baking dish. They should fit tightly. Spoon the lamb mixture into the eggplant boxes, dividing evenly.

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7. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake 15 minutes, then remove the foil and spoon some of the tomatoes from the bottom of the baking dish over the eggplants, paying particular attention to the exposed cut sides. Re-cover with aluminum foil and bake, spooning the tomato mixture over the eggplants twice more at 15-minute intervals.

8. After 45 minutes total cooking time, bake just 10 more minutes, then spoon tomatoes for the last time and scatter the grated cheese generously over the top of the eggplants. Bake uncovered until the cheese is lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

Each serving: 398 calories; 19 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 56 mg. cholesterol; 113 mg. sodium.

Russ Parsons can be reached at

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russ.parsons@latimes.com.


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