Fear nothing when it comes to eggplant

09/07/2013 2:10 PM

09/07/2013 2:10 PM

Looking around this week, everything just feels different.

Football is beginning and Labor Day has pulled shut the curtains of summer.

There are plenty of signs of autumn, but there still seems to be an inescapable “in between” mood to right now. Leaves aren’t falling yet, school has only just begun, and the vegetables and fruits still resemble something of the summer season.

Watermelon, eggplants, squashes and cucumbers are all present and bountiful at market tables.

And Alex Gordon couldn’t swing a baseball bat without hitting a pile of myriad heirloom tomatoes — seriously, the heirloom tomato must be the Genghis Khan of vegetable genealogy.

Perhaps more than any other of the season straddling vegetables, the eggplant stands out from the crowd.

Historically, the eggplant has been like a Goth kid at a high school party, maligned and passed over for the prettier, more normal seeming vegetables of the field. Europeans thought it poisonous for years as it was a member of the dreaded nightshade plants.

It would later come into the cooking of many countries, but always remain on the outskirts of acceptance and understanding, where it has existed into present day.

Some of this may be due to the variety of colors and sizes of eggplants to be found right now. There are so many variants of the eggplant, from small golf ball sized to long, thin ones and the more bulbous, large rounded types most people would associate with the vegetable.

Colors range from white to green to every shade of purple an illustrator could hope to have on his palette.

But the eggplant mystifies many for other reasons. Namely, what in the world do you do with one, let alone two large containers put into a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box as some kind of cruel joke by a wryly grinning farmer?

As I have said before, understanding the basic properties of the ingredient are essential in unlocking the ingredient’s potential.

It is this fork in the road where I think cooks and eaters alike can go skidding off path. Many people fear or protest their dislike for eggplant because they’ve never had it prepared well.

There are classic eggplant dishes that may come to mind, like eggplant Parmesan or Baba Ganoush, which are generally made into mush or cooked to death in a sad and brutal way, like Sonny in “The Godfather.”

Even the best ingredients will disappoint when treated poorly. Let us stop the vicious cycle of eggplant abuse, take a moment to ponder what makes the eggplant unique and we can work on expanding people’s appreciation for this abundant and delicious.

One of the first things to understand about eggplant is that it is a vegetable made up chiefly of water. A good way to think of it is like a mushroom, by cooking it in different ways, you change the water content and thereby the texture, creating a meaty, caramelized exterior and soft, giving flesh.

Similar to the mushroom, eggplant has a strong umami taste that makes a great vegan or vegetarian substitute for meat.

The skin of eggplant can be a bit tough, but this also will help hold the softer flesh of the interior together. The larger varieties have a ratio of more flesh to skin, which works for some dishes but can be less desirable for some cooking applications.

A happy medium is the long, thin varieties like Ichiban or Japanese eggplant, where the vegetable can be cut into bite size pieces that feature a ring of skin helping with form, and a lovely bit of meaty flesh in the middle.

Eggplant soaks up liquid like a Sham Wow, which can be used to great effect but also must be monitored to avoid a texture that tends to breakdown.

This recipe is just an ultra simple way to cook eggplant so that it can be used in a laundry list of dishes. I like to prepare it this way so that it is already cooked and ready to employ in salads, sandwiches, stir fries or vegetable dish.

Consider this a first step towards conquering an eggplant method, before moving onwards the recipe madness.

Basic Roasted Eggplant

This isn’t so much a recipe as it is a step in ingredient preparation. It helps remove some water, while adding a caramelized texture and concentration of flavor.

After these eggplants are done, they don’t require anymore cooking so you can add them at the end of a recipe or to any other preparation. They make a great vegan meat substitute in a sandwich or taco, or throw them on a pizza to finish.

4 medium sized, long slender Japanese eggplant, cut in 1/2 inch rings 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 2 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Put cut eggplant pieces into a large mixing bowl with the garlic and drizzle on olive oil. Toss the eggplant to thoroughly mix with the oil. Add the salt, mixing again, and put onto a baking sheet in an even layer. Place in oven and cook 25 to 30 minutes, turning once halfway through, though you don’t have to. The eggplant is done when you have a slightly dry, caramelized texture.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.

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