Though its part of the vast botanical nightshade family, Solanum melongena or the eggplant is
far from being a deadly or poisonous food. This purple, green or white berry – yes, once again
since the eggplant is a vessel for seeds or an “ovary” it botanically is a berry. Anyway this berry
has found its way into Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine. And for good reason.
Its spongy flesh allows it to absorb flavors but unlike that other culinary flavor Velcro, tofu,
eggplant also contributes its own flavors and textures.
More Than a Pretty Shade of Purple
Other than its attractive murasaki sheen, eggplants are very good sources of dietary fiber,
thiamin, copper, manganese and potassium. They are also good sources of folic acid, pyridoxine,
niacin and magnesium. Eggplant is also a low caloric density food source with a cup of diced
eggplant costing only about 30 or so calories. That same cup has about 3gm of fiber, 1gm of
protein, 8gm of carbohydrate and negligible fat. And being a veggie, no cholesterol.
How to Prepare Eggplant
Peruse most cookbooks and one of the first steps they describe in preparing eggplant is to salt
the flesh. This removes some of the inherent moisture in eggplant causing the flesh to absorb
less oil than it normally would in the unprocessed state. This moisture leaching also causes some
of the bitter compounds to exit including nicotine. Yes, eggplant does contain one of the
highest amounts of nicotine in any plant matter. However the actual amount of nicotine is still
very small and you would have to consume about 20 pounds to get the same amount of
nicotine you get in one cigarette.
In any case, along with adding an extra salt burden to your food, salting the eggplant does add
an extra 15 minutes or so, not to mention another colander that you have to wash. And in most
cases, I do like that slight bitterness in my food preparations to balance the other four taste
sensations (sweet, salty, sour & umami).
Therefore I simply slice or cube my eggplant to the desired size right before cooking. Why right
before cooking? If you’ve left sliced eggplant sitting around for an extended period, you’ll
notice that the flesh oxidizes rapidly to an unpleasant light brown sheen. And unlike artichoke
hearts, you can’t simply toss them into a bowl of acidulated water since they start out with
about 90% water content. So cut then cook right away.
Now What to Cook?
One of my favorite appetizer preparations is that luscious Middle Eastern spread, baba ghanoush.
Take 2 round eggplant and prick the skin evenly with a fork. Place on a sheet pan and roast at
375 degrees for 45 minutes or just until the eggplant collapses. When the eggplant is cool
enough to touch, split lengthwise and scrape the flesh into a food processor. Add 1 or 2 cloves
of garlic, the juice from 1 large lemon, several tablespoons of olive oil and a heaping tablespoon
of tahini (sesame paste). Add salt and black pepper to taste and puree until smooth. This is your
basic baba ghanoush but for a festive touch quickly pulse a roasted red pepper and fresh parsley
(for that red and green color) or fresh mint and powdered cumin for a spicier flavor.
A friend from Turkey once served me Karniyarik (“slit bellies”) which are long eggplant split
lengthwise and stuffed with a spiced ground meat mixture, baked and served with Cacik (garlic
yogurt sauce) and rice. The flavor sensations of the dish were indescribable! There are many
stuffed eggplant recipes on the world wide web – simply do a google search of “stuffed eggplant
recipe” and you’ll literally come across hundreds of recipes. One of the more colorful is Imam
Bayildi (“the priest fainted”) which is eggplant stuffed with garlic, onions, tomatoes and olive
oil. Supposedly the priest fainted after learning how much precious olive oil was used in the dish.
Another story has the priest fainting simply from the savory flavors of this delicious dish.
Another eggplant dish was revitalized due to the cartoon movie of the same name; ratatouille.
Surprisingly, the original version from Nice, France contains zucchini instead or eggplant.
Several “original” recipes call for sautéing each vegetable individually then combining at the very
end which I find… mendokusai. One pot, one time is my motto. That’s why I enjoy preparing
and eating the Italian version or caponata. Serve as a side dish to fish, chicken or pork or on it’s
own as satisfying “salad”.
5 long eggplant, quartered lengthwise then cut into bite size pieces
4 celery stalks, halved lengthwise then cut into bite size pieces
1 large onion, chopped
8 Roma tomatoes, quartered lengthwise then cut into bite size pieces
2 tbsp olive oil
¼ c red wine vinegar
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp capers, rinsed drained and coarsely chopped
¼ c olive salad
3 tbsp minced fresh flat leaf parsley
2 tbsp minced fresh basil or 2 tsp dried basil
Fresh ground black pepper (and salt) to taste
In a large pan, heat oil then add first 3 ingredients. Cook until celery and onions soften and
eggplant skin goes from purple to dark green – about 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook
another minute. Add vinegar, sugar, capers and olive salad and cook another 3 minutes
frequently tossing ingredients. Remove from heat and add parsley, basil and black pepper.
The Deadly Nightshade