Although it has a long and rich history, eggplant did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines.
As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties — eggplant held the undeserved and inauspicious reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer.
The ancient ancestors of eggplant grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the fifth century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated.
It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere. Not until new varieties were developed in the 18th century, did eggplant lose its bitter taste and bitter reputation.
Eggplants belong to the nightshade family of vegetables, which also includes tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes. They grow in a manner much like tomatoes. While the different varieties do range slightly in taste and texture, one can generally describe the eggplant as having a pleasantly bitter taste and spongy texture. Eggplants are at their best from August through October.
Eggplant is an excellent source of digestion-supportive dietary fiber and bone-building manganese. It is very good source of enzyme-catalyzing molybdenum and heart-healthy potassium as well as heart-healthy copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, niacin and only contains 19 calories for 1 cup of raw.
Choose eggplants that are firm and heavy for their size. Their skin should be smooth and shiny, and their color, whether it is purple, white, orange or green, should be vivid. They should be free of discoloration, scars, and bruises, which usually indicate that the flesh beneath has become damaged and possibly decayed.
To test for the ripeness of an eggplant, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe, while if an indentation remains, it is not.
Eggplants are actually very perishable. Eggplants are sensitive to both heat and cold and should ideally be stored at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not cut eggplant before you store it as it perishes quickly once its skin has been punctured or its inner flesh exposed.
When cutting an eggplant, use a stainless steel knife as carbon steel will react with its phytonutrients and cause it to turn black. (This is why my eggplant turns black — I use my grandma’s paring knife.) Wash the eggplant first and then cut off the ends.
Most eggplants can be eaten either with or without their skin. However, the larger ones and those that are white in color generally have tough skins. To tenderize the flesh’s texture and reduce some of its naturally occurring bitter taste, you can sweat the eggplant by salting it. After cutting the eggplant into the desired size and shape, sprinkle it with salt and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. This process will pull out some of its water content and make it less permeable to absorbing any oil used in cooking. Rinsing the eggplant after “sweating” will remove most of the salt.
Eggplant can be baked, roasted in the oven or steamed. If baking it whole, pierce the eggplant several times with a fork to make small holes for the steam to escape. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 25 minutes, depending upon size.
Don’t just stick to the tried and true purple, try all the great colors and varieties of eggplant. I bought a couple at a farmers market that looked like orange baby pumpkins. The taste and texture were wonderful. So enjoy this time of year when eggplants are in their prime.
Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.