Eggplant dishes are featured on tables and menus from Istanbul to San Francisco. Every Turkish cook worth his or her salt has a special eggplant recipe or two hidden in an apron pocket somewhere. The most adaptable of all vegetables, eggplants work well as meze or salad, but can also be simmered into soups, main dishes, and even desert. Some interesting facts on the versatile vegetable follow; watch next TAAC newsletter for some recipes that just may come as a surprise.
Our own patl}can is called aubergine in England and France, melanzane in Italy, and badimjan in Persia. Its nicknames have included ‘guinea squash,’ ‘Jew’s apple,’ and ‘apple of love.’ In the Caribbean, a small, pale green version with darker green streaks bears the curious name of susumber.
But an eggplant by any name still rates as the world’s most versatile vegetable. In California, we can find a number of varieties on local supermarket shelves, right next to the tomatoes and potatoes, with which the eggplant shares the dubious family tree of nightshade.
It is interesting that, though eggplants have no protein of their own, they are often used as a meat substitute. This could be because they are so filling and economical, especially when combined with cheese and eggs to up their nutritional capacity. With a good fiber content, the vegetable’s taste is almost potato-like in its plain state, taking on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with. Firm and almost crispy when poached, soft and pliant when fried, and creamy when baked or grilled, eggplant finds its way into everything from casseroles to purees. The vegetable is naturally low in calories and has no cholesterol or fat content before cooking.
Native to Southeast Asia, where it was first grown as an ornamental plant, the eggplant’s first recorded use as a food was in India. In the fourth century, the eggplant conquered the Arabian Peninsula, where it was called ‘egg fruit’ because early varieties resembled hens’ eggs in color and shape.
China wasn’t far behind in discovering the vast possibilities of the useful vegetable. During the fifth century, Chinese took the skins of blackish-purple eggplants to make a cosmetic dye that was used to give their teeth the gleam of burnished metal. In the thirteenth century, the Italian city-states of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice imported the eggplant from the East along with the Indian spices that served to extend the vegetable’s mysteriously exotic reputation.
Meanwhile, in Medieval Europe, eggplants were being used in love potions and were said to be an aphrodisiac. Called ‘melainsana,’ or mad apple, eating them was thought to produce that most divine madness — love.
The Turkish love affair with eggplant is a long one. Sixteenth century Ottoman Turkish cookbooks featured upwards of 140 recipes using the popular vegetable. Eggplant continued its westward migration in 1806, when Spain and Portugal exported it to their respective New World colonies.
Today, eggplant is especially well-known in the gardens and markets of the Mediterranean, where it has attained the status of ‘poor man’s meat’ in Italy. In the Middle East, it is one of the staples of kitchens from Marrakech to Mecca. An Arabian bride’s dowry can be determined by the number of eggplant dishes she knows how to cook. One hundred qualifies her as a Sultan’s wife; 50 could net her a wealthy businessman; and with only 25, she might have to settle for a common vegetable vendor.
In the Middle East and in Europe, as in Turkey, eggplants are typically small and elongated, coming in various shades from lilac to deep midnight. Here in the United States, large purple ovoids have long been available, though today the smaller varieties are also easily found. Other varieties include the white oriental kind and baby green eggplant. Eggplants are available all year round and can be grown anywhere the winters are mild. The plants take four months from seed to germination to mature fruit.
CHOOSING AND PREPARATION TIPS
When choosing an eggplant, look for taut skin and a sleek, shiny surface free from blemishes or wrinkles. Those with smooth, not shriveled or broken skin, are the best and the freshest. When buying eggplants, allow one medium globe eggplant (about 1-1/2 pounds) for four-to-six servings. Eggplants store best at cool room temperature, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Store in a dry place where the vegetables do not touch. Best when purchased close to cooking time, eggplants can be rinsed and dried, then wrapped individually in paper towels before resting for a few days in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator.
Eggplants can be prepared with or without their skins. lf the vegetable is baked for a little over an hour, the skin becomes edible and may be retained. When cooking eggplants for a shorter time, it is better to peel them first. Different varieties taste imperceptibly the same and are interchangeable in recipes. A general rule of thumb is to use the smaller, longer versions for stuffing or pickling, and the larger kind for slicing or cubing in recipes calling for deep frying, sauteeing, or stewing.
Eggplants contain a slightly bitter liquid. This can be removed in several ways. The most common is to salt and drain the peeled, cut-up eggplant for at least 30 minutes, then rinse well under cool water and pat dry. To retain the vegetable’s shape for stuffing, parboil it whole. Or broil the entire eggplant until its skin is almost charcoal for a unique smoky taste. Soaking salted and drained eggplant pieces in milk keeps them from absorbing too much oil during frying.
The eggplant can be souffled, stuffed, sauteed, fried, boiled, baked, broiled — and is excellent both hot and cold. Its flavor changes to accommodate the other ingredients with which it is cooked. Watch the next TAAC newsletter for some recipes sure to surprise and delight eggplant lovers everywhere.
by Judy Erkanat