Falling for Eggplant Dishes

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Marketing associate Lisa Furlong digs into chicken sukiyaki with eggplant, one of our four favorite eggplant dishes.

When I spot a beautiful purple eggplant in the garden,
glistening with dew and ready for picking, I occasionally
recall a memorable eggplant moment. I remember sitting in
an outdoor Greek cafe on the Mediterranean, dining on
Greek-style eggplant and lamb. Or the time my husband and I
munched on grilled eggplant sandwiches as we toured Rome on
foot. Eggplant seemed to taste even more delicious on
foreign soil. But for now I’m standing in the midst of our
Chicago garden next to numerous eggplants that must be
picked and prepared.

It’s the preparation part that scares some people away from
eggplant (not to mention a somewhat challenging name).
After all, it isn’t the type of vegetable that one could
pick and eat raw or pop into the freezer. It’s best eaten
freshly prepared, preferably in season but also
occasionally during the winter months. Although eggplant
isn’t high in any single nutrient, it contains lots of
fiber that makes it very filling and gives a “meaty”
texture to vegetarian dishes. By itself eggplant is low in
fat and contains few calories. The reason it has such a
greasy reputation is because frying it results in the
porous eggplant soaking up the oil like a sponge.
Lower-in-fat options would be grilling or broiling, baking,
steaming, or simmering in sauces. But eggplant hasn’t
always been so edible. Centuries ago it was shunned because
it was believed that consuming eggplant would cause
temporary insanity. When my husband discovered this fun
fact, he decided to attribute my bizarre personality traits
to my frequent eggplant feasts.

Selecting Eggplant

There are numerous summer varieties to choose from. The
dark purple globular is the most common variety sold. The
Japanese eggplant is purple or white with its shape similar
to a small zucchini. The Chinese eggplant is the same shape
but is a light violet color. There is also the round or
oval Italian (Rosa Biancos) eggplant that is white or
purple in color. Rumor has it that the small oval white
eggplant (which resembled eggs) were how the eggplant got
its name.

Choose shiny firm eggplants that are free of bruises or tan
patches that indicate decay. If you press the skin with
your thumb, the indentation will spring back if it’s fresh.
A good eggplant should feel fairly heavy; a light one may
be tough. Small eggplants have thinner skins, fewer seeds,
and tend to be sweeter and more tender. Larger ones work
well for dishes that require peeled or sliced eggplant. You
can store eggplant at room temperature for a few days or it
can be refrigerated for a week or so.

There’s been some talk lately of how to determine the sex
of an eggplant by the quantity of seeds. (Do we care?) This
is a fallacy because the eggplant is self-pollinating,
meaning it has both male and female characteristics and can
reproduce on its own.

Preparing Eggplant

If the eggplant is large, you may want to peel off the
skin, which might be tough. Otherwise peeling is a matter
of personal preference. Many recipes call for salting the
eggplant and letting it sit for about half an hour before
cooking. This step draws out some of the water,
consequently producing a denser texture so it will absorb
less fat. The salt also draws out some of the toxic
solanine that’s present in some nightshade vegetables. If
you do salt the eggplant, make sure you rinse it under cold
water and pat dry before cooking. Unlike many vegetables,
eggplant is not really harmed by overcooking, whereas under
cooking results in a chewy, bitter flavor.

Broiling or grilling can be used instead of frying when
preparing dishes such as eggplant parmigiana. Charcoal
grilled eggplant can also accompany your barbecue meal. Cut
the eggplant into 1/2-inch slices and brush with olive oil,
garlic, and herbs. Broil about 5 inches from the heat for
about 5 minutes per side.

Roasting: Like roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant has a
smoky flavor that tastes great in dips or salads. Cut the
eggplant in half lengthwise and place cut side down on a
foil-lined baking sheet. Broil about 5 minutes until
blistered and blackened. Place in a paper bag for 5 minutes
to loosen the skin for easier peeling.

Baking: Cut the eggplant lengthwise and brush with olive
oil. Place the halves cut side up on a cookie sheet. Bake a
standard eggplant for 20-30 minutes at 400°F. The flesh
can be scooped out to puree or to make a stuffing to put
back in the shells. Eggplant can also be cut into cubes and
placed on a foil-lined cookie sheet to bake for about 20
minutes.

Steaming: Eggplant can be cubed and cooked in a vegetable
steamer until tender. I prefer this method to microwaving,
which makes it too mushy.

Eggplant Sandwiches
 

Eggplant sandwiches make excellent party appetizers or
picnic food. They can be eaten hot or cold.

4 slices plain whole wheat bread
1 large
eggplant
2 large cloves garlic–peeled
1/2 cup fresh
parsley leaves
5-6 fresh basil leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried
basil)
a sprig of fresh oregano (or 1/2 -1 teaspoon dried
oregano)
freshly ground pepper
a pinch of cayenne pepper
2
eggs
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound provolone
(or any strong white cheese)–sliced thin

Line a cookie sheet with foil. Lay out the bread so it can
dry out for an hour or so. Slice the eggplant into 1/4 inch
circles, making sure the slices aren’t any thicker or the
eggplant won’t bake thoroughly. Salt the slices on both
sides and lay them in a colander to drain for at least 30
minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a food processor, mince the
garlic, parsley, peppers, and fresh herbs. Pour into a
shallow bowl. Then pulse the bread into bread crumbs (about
2 cups). Stir into the herb mixture. In the processor,
blend the egg and olive oil. Pour into a separate shallow
bowl.

Dry off the eggplant slices. Cut cheese to fit, and place 1
slice between 2 eggplant slices. Dip the sandwich into the
egg mixture, then the bread crumb mixture. You may have to
pat the bread crumbs down on the eggplant so they’ll stick.
Place the sandwiches on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for
about 30-40 minutes until the eggplant is done.

Roasted Ratatouille
 

Authentic ratatouille (a vegetable stew) has always seemed
too mushy to be appealing to me, so I roast the ratatouille
vegetables and herbs.

4 medium Chinese or Japanese (small and thin)
eggplants–cut into 1/2-inch circles
1/2 teaspoon
salt

2 medium summer squash or yellow
zucchini–cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium sweet red
pepper and
1 medium sweet yellow pepper–both seeded
and cut into 1/2-inch strips

2 small yellow onions
peeled and quartered
6-8 large cloves garlic–peeled
and finely chopped
1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, dried
basil, thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 Italian plum tomatoes–tops cut off and halved
optional: fresh herbs and balsamic vinegar

Thirty minutes prior to cooking: Put the sliced eggplant in
a colander in the sink. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and
toss with your hands. Let sit at least 30 minutes, then pat
the eggplant dry with a paper towel. Preheat oven to
475°F.

Line a cookie sheet, jelly roll pan, or similar baking tray
with foil. In a large mixing bowl, toss all the ingredients
(except the tomatoes) together like a salad. Arrange on the
cookie sheet in a single, even layer. Place the tomato
halves on top.

Bake for 30-35 minutes until the vegetables are tender but
not mushy. After 20 minutes flip the vegetables over. Serve
hot or at room temperature, topped with chopped fresh
garden herbs or parsley and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Spicy Eggplant Salad

1 pound eggplant–cut in 1/2 crosswise
1 tablespoon sesame or peanut oil
3 large cloves garlic–minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger root–peeled and grated
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons sugar
2 green onions–minced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds–toasted
2 green onions–minced
2 tablespoons cilantro–chopped
chili oil
optional: mixed lettuce leaves 

Put a vegetable steamer in a large covered pot with 1 inch
of water. Simmer the eggplant for 20-25 minutes until
slightly shriveled. Let cool at least 10 minutes. In a
small pan sauté the garlic and ginger in the oil for
about 30 seconds. Add the vinegar, sherry, and sugar and
heat until it starts to boil. Set aside. Peel the eggplant
but take care not to pull the pulp off with it. Cut the
skin off the tough ends of the eggplant and start peeling
it lengthwise into long strips about 1/2 inch wide. Put the
eggplant in a bowl, add the green onions and the sesame
seeds. Pour the sauce over it and toss. Top with cilantro
and add chili oil to taste. Serve on top of a handful of
mixed greens.

Chicken Sukiyaki with Eggplant

3-4 small Japanese eggplants (about2
cups)–cut into thin circles (other eggplants can be
substituted)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound skinless, boned
chicken breast, partially frozen–sliced into thin
strips
1 teaspoon peanut or sesame oil
2 large cloves
garlic–minced
6 green onions green tops cut off and
cut diagonally into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 – 1/3 cup
unsalted chicken broth
1 1/2 cups mushrooms–sliced
thin
1/3 cup apple cider
1 8-ounce can bamboo
shoots–rinsed and drained
1/4 cup tamari soy
sauce–whisked together with 1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups
fresh spinach leaves (packed)–cut into 1/2 inch
strips
thin noodles or brown rice

In a medium saucepan, boil about 3 cups water with the
salt. Turn off the heat and drop the sliced eggplant into
the water. Let sit 5 minutes and then drain well in a
colander. On medium-high heat, heat up the oil in a wok or
large skillet. (I use a nonstick pan.) Sauté the
chicken pieces until browned. Stir in the garlic and onions
until slightly browned. Remove chicken from pan, pour into
a bowl, and set aside. Sauté the eggplant on
medium-high heat 2-3 minutes until tender but not mushy,
stirring occasionally. If the eggplant begins to stick, add
some chicken broth, a little at a time. Add the mushrooms
and sauté for about 2 minutes until they begin to
wilt. Stir in the bamboo shoots and the rest of the
ingredients except the spinach. Reduce heat to medium and
simmer a few minutes while preparing the noodles. Stir in
the spinach and simmer for about a minute just before
serving.