Written by Chef Alan Zox, firstname.lastname@example.org Thursday, 19 September 2013 00:00
India is the birthplace of eggplant. But seldom do we see Indian varieties. In fact, many people assume that eggplant, which is actually a fruit not a vegetable, comes from the English who originally thought of eggplant as having an ornamental virtue rather than a culinary one. Its beauty is not to be under estimated but the numbers of ways eggplant can be prepared to eat are virtually endless. And the more I explore this lovely fruit the more I appreciate the multicultural possibilities.
This attraction to eating eggplant is a relatively recent phenomenon due to old fears surrounding the fruit. As a member of the Nightshade family, eggplant was thought to be a poisonous vegetable that caused leprosy, insanity, cancer and an unpleasant personality. Further, the discovery that the fruit contained an alkaloid was thought to aggravate gout and arthritis. People with these conditions were even told not to eat eggplants. Perhaps the bitterness of eggplant may have compounded these biases further, but by the 18th century, eggplant had been developed that was less bitter. Yet people still are wary of the fruit. Old notions die hard and eggplant biases are no different.The experience of Deborah Madison, the author of Vegetable Literacy, is informative. She has found that the astringency of eggplant is found most often among very mature seedy fruits. This is why recipes call for salting eggplant before cooking—a process that draws out the bitterness. Yet she discovered that salting was unnecessary when the fruit comes directly from her garden, or the farmer’s market, in contrast to eggplant bought at the grocery store.
Today we enjoy eggplant in many varieties. The large purple Black Beauties of America are perfect for filling or grilling or frying in a skillet. The Fairy Tale is another which is very small and delicious when halved or eaten whole in a stew. Still other Asian varieties include Little Fingers picked when about 4 inches long. And other types are even white and pale green Thai varieties; and there are some that are long purple, thin eggplants like the Ichiban, and the dark lavender Panting Long fruits.
Exotic and beautiful eggplants come to us from the farming acumen of Hmong farmers in Minnesota and California. They grow hard, round tennis ball size orange and purple eggplants and similarly sized purple and green striped fruits. The latter look like green current tomatoes called pea eggplants. Interestingly, Madison tells us about learning from the Hmong that these pea shaped fruits are used in the stews of Somalis. And apparently the fruit grows in other parts of Africa as well.
We prepare these eggplant varieties in many different ways—fried, braised, baked and grilled. Although keep in mind that while the eggplant is very low in calories to begin with, the caloric intake is minimized further without dairy products or fats, since eggplant absorbs liquids so readily. Recently I enjoyed an alternative Japanese way of preparing the fruit with red miso and soy. But sometimes a little fat and dairy are too good to ignore. Italian eggplant dishes reflect these traditions —such as eggplant parmagian, eggplant stuffed with mozzarella, eggplant terrine, and eggplant caviar among many others. See the Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon where, I discovered more than 15 eggplant recipes.
Chermoula is another way of preparing eggplant described in Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s new cookbook Jerusalem. This method of preparation involves using a North African paste that is brushed over fish and vegetables, especially eggplant. Then you roast the fruit followed by drizzling with cold yogurt and a salty bulgur salad for an ideal vegetarian feast—a dish I will feature in a future column.
For now let’s turn our attention to another plate of grilled eggplant with tahini—yogurt sauce and pomegranate molasses created by Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy. Drawing from Middle Eastern cuisine like Ottolenghi and Tamimi have done, Madison offers us another delicious way to gorge on the fruit of the season.
(Inspired by Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s Jerusalem)
12 small eggplants, about 6 inches long
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Tahini – Yogurt Sauce
Cilantro sprigs, sprouts, or crushed green coriander berries to finish
Tahini –Yogurt Sauce
Makes A Scant ¾ Cup
1 clove garlic
½ cup yogurt
3 tablespoons tahini
Pound the garlic in a mortar with ¼ tsp. salt until smooth. Stir the garlic mixture into the yogurt, and then stir in the tahini, mixing well. Taste for salt.
Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. When the coals are covered with ash, place the eggplants on the grill rack and grill, turning as needed, until soft when pierced. The timing will depend on the intensity of the fire. Or cook the eggplants indoors on an asador to keep them from sitting directly in the fire. That way the skins will char and the eggplant will hold its shape, but not disintegrate. When the eggplants are tender, remove them to a bowl and cover with a plate. Let them sit for at least 10 minutes, and then peel off the skin.
Stir the eggplants in half lengthwise and arrange them on a plate. Season them with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the surface, then the pomegranate molasses. Finish with the cilantro. Serve at room temperature. This is a keeper! Enjoy.