Know your eggplant
There was a time not that long ago when eggplant were not often found in mainstream shops and were always expensive. This seems to have changed with even supermarkets selling them in season relatively cheaply. It is obviously a reaction to demand, as these days we see many more recipes using them. Kiwis seem to have embraced the eggplant.
I have always found them beautiful with their lacquer-like purple coats, but I used to think them remarkably disappointing in flavour — far too bland. This was because I didn’t know how to cook them. I knew people loved them, so there had to be something good about eating them. It wasn’t until I began using traditional eggplant recipes that I understood what the fuss was about.
I once received a great eggplant lesson from a friend in Naples. She showed me how to make the classic Italian eggplant dish, melanzane parmigiana. It was eggplant 101. Trying eggplant recipes from India, Turkey, Greece and China soon had me appreciating the juicy meaty texture and creamy flavour of this excellent vegetable (though eggplant is technically a fruit).
Eggplant also carries other flavours well. It gives depth to dishes, and any ingredient that is used all over the world has to be versatile.
For large purple or baton-shaped eggplant, frying, battering, stewing, steaming, layered in gratins and roasting are the cooking methods most often used.
Eggplant originally came from India and was brought to Europe, along with a lot of other vegetables, by those amazing gardeners, the Arabs, who grew eggplant in Spain which they ruled for 700 years. The first varieties grown as ornamentals in England had small, hard, white, egg-shaped fruit, hence the English name.
The Italian name, “melanzane”, comes from the latin, “mala insana” which means the apple of madness and could have something to do with the fact that eggplant is a member of the often-poisonous nightshade family (and the only edible one that didn’t come from the Americas: Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking).
Eggplant’s other name is the French “aubergine” which comes from the Catalan “albergina” which in turn comes from the Arabic “al-badingan”. Eggplant come in many colours and sizes. They range from the pea-sized specimens used in Thailand, through egg-sized and truncheon-shaped to the purple ones, sometimes as large as a melon, that we are most familiar with. They range in colour from ivory through every shade of purple, some with flecks of darker colour, from pale mauve to deep puce.
The question I am most often asked about eggplant is whether or not it is necessary to salt them before using. Salting by sprinkling the cut eggplant with plenty of salt, adding a weight and leaving it to expel water for 30 minutes or so was necessary in the past to remove their bitterness, but these days the varieties grown aren’t bitter so don’t need to be salted for that reason.
However, have you ever noticed how fresh-cut eggplant suck up all the oil in the pan when they are fried and refuse to brown? This is because of their spongy texture. Salting the eggplant collapses this sponginess and, after rinsing and drying, it does not suck up as much oil when fried. This is the reason I often salt sliced eggplant that is going to be fried, roasted, barbecued or otherwise cooked by itself. (If I am following a recipe, I do what it says.)
Buy eggplant that have tight, shiny skins, no blemishes and feel heavy.
Some of my favourite eggplant dishes include traditional dishes like baba ghanoush, an eggplant dip where the eggplant is roasted, peeled and pureed with tahini, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and parsley, Imam Bayeldi, a dish of truncheon shaped eggplant stuffed with fried onions, tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and lemon, slow cooked and served cold, and Melanzane Parmigiana, slices of fried eggplant layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella and parmesan and then baked.
I also like sliced eggplant simply brushed with extra virgin olive oil and roasted in the oven and served with sliced chilli, lemon juice, more oil, and mint leaves.
For more, head to Bite's eggplant collection.