Veggie of the Week - Eggplant
sponsored by Coleman Farms
I don't remember where I first noticed eggplant. I was probably about ten years old, and while far from a picky eater when among familiar foods, I was taken aback by these glossy dark violet stretched spheroids, melon-sized, huge for a vegetable, and looking more like the mounted coco de mer on a friend's drawing room table, or something anatomical, than like something to eat. Cutting one open was even less promising, the blotchy cream-colored flesh irregularly speckled with washed-out-brown seeds and having a texture combining properties of foam rubber and damp cardboard. It was alien, rather than exotic.
I don't think there are many vegetables that insist on being cooked: even rutabega and pumpkin are edible, even nice, raw, in small quantities, but eggplant isn't - it's bland with a hint of bitterness, and the foamy texture gives a rather nasty mouth feel. Cooking changes everything: the texture changes from soft and chewy to a smooth slightly fibery jamminess, depending on mode and length of cooking, while the trace of bitter fills and rounds out to a mild minerally flavor, along the lines of artichoke, though the flavor of eggplant also has strong chameleon properties, borrowing from other ingredients, particularly oils and other Solanums such as peppers and tomatoes as well as some herbs and spices.
There are lots of ways to cook eggplant - this site claims to have 171 recipes. One you'll see a lot is batter fried. I could never see the point of this: the delicate flavor of the eggplant is overwhelmed by the fry/batter flavor and it uses lots of oil, much of which ends up in paper towels (which also transfer their flavor to the eggplant). If you have a dish that benefits from oily eggplant, I think you're better off dicing, parboiling, then frying, unbattered, as in this recipe, for a mixed salad or this one, eggplant and yoghurt, served as a salad or appetizer. The initial cooking can also be done in the oven.
Here's another Persian recipe, a stew which calls for a large number of nice things you can find at the Farmers' Market. You'll be lucky to find fresh Fenugreek, but it's definitely worth looking for. What does this recipe have to do with eggplant, you ask? Well, suppose that, for whatever reason, you didn't have stew meat in the house. You can take instead cubes or strips of eggplant, fairly sizeable ones since they'll be stewed. You could parboil and fry these, as described above, or just put them in with the other vegetables to cook in the stew. The eggplant will reflect various parts of the flavor spectra of the different vegetables, herbs and spices in the stew, as well as adding it's own texture and flavor. The caloric value of the missing meat could be supplied by the addition of potatoes.
As a look at the linked recipe sites shows, there are lots of ways to incorporate eggplant into main dishes. Prior to the main meal, or completely separate from it, you can have Baba Ganoosh, a sort of dip or spread based on eggplant. We typically associate this with Iran*, but it seems to be a sort of Greater Persia dish, found throughout the former Mughal Empire. The mashed cooked eggplant forms the jammy basis of the dish, which can also include tahini or walnuts chopped fine, mint, parsley, garlic, olive oil, and black pepper. One of our Baba recipes is from jewish cuisine. Here's why.
Eggplant is seen more now than it was, but it tends still to play a minor role in American cooking, as part of a mixed vegetable grill appetizer, for example. But eggplant has particular qualites - a special texture and the ability to retain its own distinctive flavor while absorbing and amplifying elements of the flavors surrounding it - which make it very useful as a main ingredient in major dishes. One of the most memorable things I've eaten in a restaurant was a Chinese stew containing, as best as I can tell - tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, sweet and hot peppers and garlic. These had been put together rough cut and slowly cooked, so that the tomato reduced to a sauce and the textures melded. The result was a thick very dark reddish brown goo surrounding lumps of mushroom and pepper, the eggplant having largely dissolved or gone gelatinous, and the flavors tantalizingly mixed yet still distinguishable.
You'll find a number of varieties of eggplant at the Farmers' Market. The large melon like ones are likely to be outnumbered by the long blackjack-shaped purple ones, whose form factor suits them admirably for grilling, and you'll also find the white egg-shaped ones, and several other small varieties. They differ more or less in texture and flavor as well as shape, and have special uses as a result; ask the grower.
*see it made here