Eggplant Come Summer
Eggplant is a most beautiful plant with almost furry, soft grey-green leaves and plum-purple veins. The flowers, from which the fruit emerges, form deep violet stars and the fruit itself is often concealed by the shadows of the leaves. The English enjoyed eggplants as ornamentals long before they were appreciated for their culinary possibilities.
As for varieties, the classic American eggplant is the big purple-black one called Black Beauty, an open pollinated heirloom. Black Beauty is the kind of eggplant to use when you want large slabs (cut lengthwise into "planks") to roll around a filling and rounds to griddle or grill, which can form the basis for a variety of succulent and substantial dishes. Anew popular eggplant, at least in farmers markets, is Fairy Tale, tiny, oblong purple and white striped variety, which because of its diminutive size, is attractive included whole or halved in a vegetable stew with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and summer squash, or prepared in other ways that emphasize its dainty appearance.
Rosa Bianca, a medium sized plump, round eggplant that’s creamy white with splotches of lavender is appreciated for its delicacy. Little Fingers is an Asian purple variety, picked when about four inches long, oblong in shape and very mild. Like zucchini, if you're growing this in your garden, it can get away from you, growing quickly from little fingers into big feet. There are white eggplants. Some are indeed the shape of an egg, others are oblong, such as Caspar. The white and pale green Thai eggplants tend to have tougher skins, but are mild tasting and more tender once peeled (younger ones need not be peeled). There is a slew of very long, narrow eggplants, such as the dark purple Ichiban and dark lavender Pingtung. Long, bright purple eggplants are usually thought of as Chinese eggplants partly because you see them in Chinese markets. They are a pleasure to cook with—thin-skinned and delicate. I like to slit them in five or six places, insert a slice of garlic into each cut, then grill or braise them in a skillet to the point of collapse.
As a cook, one of the qualities I appreciate in eggplant is that it’s a down to earth vegetable. Peppers are full of sugars that caramelize in the pan and tomatoes have certain sweetness, too. But I appreciate a more sober vegetable-fruit to work with; one that is “meatier,” and eggplant fills the bill.
It’s a good practice to salt eggplant before cooking it, a step that pulls out any bitterness. You don’t need a lot—a light sprinkle or a toss of salt on diced or sliced eggplant will do it. Let the eggplant stand in a colander for about 30 minutes (longer won’t hurt) and you’ll see a dark liquid puddle on the surface. Blot it off with a paper towel. Most of the salt ends up in the liquid, so the eggplant shouldn’t remain salty, but be sure to taste your dish as you season it to make any salt adjustments, if necessary.
There are hundreds of things you can do with eggplant. Eggplant can be part of another dish, as in a ratatouille, or it can take a starring role in a dip or a spread, such as baba ghanoush, it can be a vegetable side dish, and even a supper for a single eater. One simple approach which I do most often is to grill or griddle a 3/4-inch thick slice of eggplant—preferably from a round variety—about 10 minutes per side, put it on a plate and add any number of toppings, such as pesto, sliced cherry tomatoes tossed with slivered scallions, a nut-based tarator sauce or a spicy peanut sauce. Cut lengthwise the griddled slices can be rolled around a filling, used to make eggplant Parmesan, or layered in a modified pasta-less lasagna with ricotta and tomatoes.
Some of the new varieties appearing in markets might become kitchen staples towards end of the summer. And summer is the best time for eggplant. A tropical plant, eggplant doesn’t like cold storage so plan to use it soon after you bring it home without refrigerating it, if possible, or for no more than a few days at most.
Want to get started with eggplant? Check out the recipes in our eggplant collection or look for Deborah's cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which includes plenty of tasty eggplant recipes.