The French call it Aubergine, we refer to it as “eggplant.” Why do I mention this? Because we have the French to thank for introducing Europe to this culinary delight. I find eggplant is a lot like cilantro, in the sense that people either like it or hate it. The botanical name for eggplant is Solanum melongena, and it’s really a fruit, but is usually counted as a vegetable. The eggplant comes from the same family as tomatoes, the solanaceous family of flowering plants. Also, like the tomato it was first considered to be poisonous. Originally, eggplants were used mainly as ornamentals, but as I had mentioned we can thank the French in the 18th century for discovering its true culinary potential. The Indian name for eggplant is Brinjal. The Australians refer to it as eggfruit. In West Africa they call it Garden Egg. In Greece, they call it Mousaka and Baba Ghanoush. Eggplant is believed to be of Indian origin, but the first written mention of it comes in the 5th Century A.D. by the Chinese. The Arabs brought it to Europe, which it has now become firmly established in many regional cuisines there.
I am a lover of the eggplant. My main course of a meal could be eggplant and I do not consider myself remotely vegetarian. I couldn’t even consider being a vegetarian, not with my carnivorous love for a good medium rare rib eye steak, but that is another story. You can typically find eggplant most of the year, but the height of the eggplant season is also during the peak of the grilling season, which is an excellent way to enjoy it. There are many variations on how to prepare eggplant. You can, of course, grill it, purée it, put it into a custard, bake it, fry it, stuff it and/or stir fry it. I don’t suggest sautéing it because it will absorb too much of the liquid.
One of my favorites is spicy eggplant, which is very simple to make. It is a simple stir-fry, typically with garlic, chili, soy sauce, oil and other spices, and also perhaps some onions, vegetables or meat of your preference. An even simpler preparation is on the grill with just some garlic, lemon juice and parsley, which creates a wonderful flavor; it’s considered the poor man’s caviar. I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the favorites from the Italians: eggplant Parmesan. And, of course, we cannot forget the famous French preparation made more famous by a little animated mouse and Bay Area animators Pixar: Ratatouille.
When you buy an eggplant, make sure it is fresh, not overripe. Small, firm, chubby eggplants are better than the big ones. They will have sweeter flesh and fewer grains. The skin should be taut, smooth, glossy and without blemishes. When you press firmly on the skin, it should bounce back, but if it leaves a dent it’s old. Storing an eggplant is a bit of trick, since it is best stored at 50° F. Refrigerators are set at 41° to 38°, which is too cold for the tropical vegetable, and room temps are typically higher than 50° F this time of year. So it’s best to buy the eggplant the day you plan to cook it, and if that is not possible, store it in a cool place. The next question, an age old one, is, “To salt or not to salt?” I salt, but when in season there probably is no need. The salt is really only needed to remove any bitterness. There are dozens of varieties of eggplant, some less bitter than others. The least bitter eggplant is the long, thin pale purple variety, which is known as the Chinese eggplant. The Japanese eggplant is shorter and generally smaller than the Chinese variety and it has dark purple skin. It looks almost like the American eggplant except it’s about a fourth the size. A third variety is the Italian eggplant. It’s purple, again like the American version, but is more streamlined being only 2 to 3 inches in diameter and about 10 inches long.
Also, remember that eggplants will absorb the flavors you are cooking with, which also means it will absorb oils and fats as well. That is why when I make eggplant Parmesan I bake it, rather than fry it, so it does not get too soft and slimy (which I hate!). You also have to remember that eggplant is mostly made up of water and it will shrink when it is grilled, baked or fried. That is why it is important to slice it to about 1/2 inch thick – cut it too thin it will turn into mush, but if you cut it too thick it will not fully cook. Some cooks peel their eggplant, making it tough and bitter. I normally go halfway, peeling it in strips and leaving only half the peel. Plus, I feel that the purple color improves the plate appearance.
Something I have never tried, but now intrigues me, is pickled eggplant. It is actually a medieval preparation method, which has survived almost 10 centuries. The idea, like the more modern canning, is to be able have it when it was not in season. I found a recipe for pickled eggplant that I will share on the website. It comes from a Lebanese cookbook printed in French back in the 1930’s.
So, enjoy the rest of the summer and be sure to make room on your grill for an eggplant—lightly brushed with a good olive oil and some salt & pepper. Simple, but very tasty!
Chef K. Marie Paulk