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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.