Friday, September 3, 2010

Focus: EGGPLANT (Solanum Melongena)

I hope this doesn't get me in trouble
I just don't know any other way to say this.  Eggplant is sexy.  Just look at this beautiful specimen, which I picked up at Featherstone Farm's Thursday farmers market yesterday.  It is everything an eggplant should be.  Note the firm, shiny, and taut skin.  The lovely light purple hue.  The flesh is weighty yet yielding --  ready to soak up a little olive oil and partner with garlic or tomatoes or lamb or even curry spices.   There are no signs of shriveling or brown patches.  The cap and stem look fresh and unblemished.  All in all this vegetable is just glowing with health and possibilities.  With just a little attention and effort,  this violet voluptuous vamp can be transformed into transcendant meals.

Eggplant diversity
The eggplant most familiar to the average American is the large, dark purple, oval shaped globe.  And it is a wonderful thing.  But as those of us who frequent Asian or other ethnic markets know --  eggplants come in a wide variety of colors,  shapes and sizes.  Green, white, dark or light purple, striped or flecked - even red or orange.  They can be large or very small.  They can be long or short, round or oval and fat or thin. Most recipes can be made with any variety of eggplant.  Eggplant is a staple in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines.  It is also popular in Italy and Greece.  In Europe it is called aubergine. 

Most sources advise keeping eggplants cool and dry and using them within a few days.  If refrigerated, use a ventilated plastic bag.  I have found that I can keep fresh eggplant around at least a week without much loss of quality - even at cool room temperature.   Remember that your CSA eggplant is much fresher to begin with than the typical store vegetable.  I think a lot of the storage time advice out there assumes that food you are taking home has already been in storage a good amount of time. This is not the case with your CSA eggplant.
If you are worried about your eggplant going south - just thickly slice or chop and bake or roast it at about 375 degrees with a little olive oil until it is tender.  Refrigerate in a covered dish for a few days until you get around to making your mousakka or Parmesan or ratatouille or whatever you have planned.

To peel or not to peel 
I almost never peel eggplant.  It is extra work and it removes the fiber and nutrition in the skin.   If you have an eggplant with a particularly tough skin or your goal is a more refined and less rustic dish - then by all means peel.  And if you are grilling and roasting a whole or half eggplant with the intent of scooping out the flesh for something like baba ghanoush, then I expect the peel will end up in the compost.

To salt or not to salt
I have been thinking and reading about this for awhile now and I am ready to have an opinion.  In general, I think it is not necessary to take the extra time to salt, weight, drain, rinse and dry eggplant.  Why make cooking any more complicated than it needs to be?  This is especially true if you are working with smaller, sweeter or thinner varieties.  Japanese eggplant for sure does not need salting.
However, if you are working with a very large and mature eggplant - or if it tends to have larger and tougher seeds - then salting is probably a good idea.  It will remove any residual bitterness.  And it doesn't take much time.  Most of the time is waiting, not work.
Another reason you might decide to salt the eggplant is if you are going to use it in a recipe where it will be fried or sauteed.   The salting and draining process seems to have the effect of inhibiting the "oil sponge" effect of eggplant.

To salt - add about 1 T. per two pounds of eggplant to cubed or sliced eggplant.  You can spread the slices on a sheet or put the cubes in a colander.  Weighting down the eggplant is optional.  After about an hour, the salt will draw out the juices.  Then rinse the eggplant and dry it.  I use clean kitchen towels.  Press the slices down firmly on the towels or put cubes in a towel and twist and squeeze them dry.

Eggplant as oil sponge
Eggplant is notorious for its ability to soak up oil.  Avoid this as it will make a dish greasy.  If a pan is hot and well seasoned (i.e. non stick), it is possible to fry eggplant in a small amount of oil.  I also often roast or bake eggplant slices on a lightly oiled baking sheet - at about 350-375 degrees until tender.  This works fine in recipes that call for sliced eggplant to be fried in oil.  You also can dredge slices in flour or a little beaten egg and then breadcrumbs prior to frying - this seems to help resist the tendency to soak up oil.  Salting also can help - see discussion above.

Eggplant is versatile.  It can be baked, roasted, stuffed, steamed, fried, mashed, broiled, sauteed, stewed, grilled or braised.  It DOES NOT LIKE to be undercooked.  Unlike most other vegetables -  where overcooking can be a problem - with eggplant undercooking is to be avoided.  Thorough cooking of eggplant is required to bring out its richness and almost meaty texture.  Eggplant has an affinity for tomatoes, potatoes and peppers - fellow members of the Solanacae family.  Because the flavor of eggplant is fairly bland, it lends itself to stews, curries or other highly seasoned dishes.  It loves to soak up flavors of other vegetables and seasonings.

Don't cut eggplant until soon before you prepare it, because the flesh has a tendency to discolor.   If you must do advance preparation, give the eggplant a little bath in some acidulated water (i.e. water with a little lemon juice or vinegar to counteract the browning.

Classic eggplant dishes
Moussaka, eggplant parmiagana, ratatouille, caponata, baba ghanoush - these are just some of the classic ways to serve eggplant.  See my most recent Inspiration blog post for a Moussaka recipe.
My post tomorrow will be about ratatouille.   See the farm Journal for Jack's take on baba ghanoush.

And for today -- one of my eggplant favorites - caponata.
If you can manage to stash a half dozen pints of this in the freezer you will be happy you did.  This is a great antipasto for special winter meals.

About 4 cups unpeeled eggplant, diced into 1/2 inch cubes, lightly coated with oil and roasted on a baking sheet in a 375 degree oven until lightly browned and tender
1/4 cup olive oil for sauteeing (plus 1 T. for roasting eggplant)
3/4 cup thinly sliced or diced celery (I like to use fennel bulb if I have it)
1 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup raw)
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (best if seasoned with garlic)
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
2 salt packed anchovies, rinsed, filleted and chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 T. sugar

Saute onions and celery in olive oil in a heavy pan until soft and translucent - about 7 minutes.  Add tomato sauce and simmer another 7 minutes.  Stir in eggplant and all the other ingredients and cook for about 10 minutes.  Taste and add salt, vinegar or sugar as desired.  Tastes even better after one day.
Optional embellishments:  Add a few tablespoons fresh chopped basil or parsley or both.  Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

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