“I wish you’d stop yakking about zucchini and give me some help with eggplant. I’m tired of eggplant Parmesan.” That’s one of the more blunt requests I’ve had in the past couple of weeks for eggplant recipes.
Fact is, eggplant is one of those garden vegetables — it’s actually a fruit, but never mind — that just ‘don’t get no respect,’ as Rodney Dangerfield would say. I have many friends who say they just don’t bother to grow or buy it because it’s dull, boring and bland unless you turn it into Eggplant Parmesan, which then makes it fattening and a dish you don’t feel like eating often.
Eggplant did have a very bad reputation for a very long time because it’s a member of the nightshade family, which includes its poisonous relatives Belladonna — deadly nightshade — and Jimson weed. Tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers are also members of that family, but nobody shuns them for that relationship. However, if you were to attempt to eat a very young, unripe eggplant or its leaves, you could end up very sick, so keep that in mind as we talk eggplant.
As far as is known, eggplant probably originated in China sometime about five or six centuries B.C., and is found in most cultures throughout the world. Ratatouille in France, Melanzana Parmigiano in Italy, Szechuan dishes in China, moussaka in Greece, in many curry dishes in India, Baba Ghanoush throughout the Middle East, escabeche in Spain, often combined with lamb on skewers in Turkey, and frequently in soups, stews and casseroles in Britain — where it is called aubergine, by the way.
What are its redeeming virtues? At first glance, not many. It’s not high in any particular vitamin content, but it does offer a healthy amount of calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous. It’s also high in soluble fiber (especially if you leave the skin on), and has virtually zero cholesterol. Also in its favor, eggplant lends itself to almost every cooking method — roasted, baked, broiled, grilled, braised, sautéed — and it also plays well with many other vegetables in soups and casseroles.
There are several varieties of eggplant, from wee little white globes to our familiar large, dark-skinned Western globe. In most of our supermarkets, long slender Asian varieties and the Western globe are the types most frequently found in the produce section. The Asian eggplants are a bit sweeter and more tender-skinned, better for stir-frying or grilling, while the globe lends itself to roasting, baking and braising.
Oh, and should you happen to be stung by a scorpion, apply raw eggplant to the area immediately to reduce swelling and draw out venom.
You see? Eggplant deserves some respect, folks.
First, if you’re still grilling, here’s a very flavorful, easy way to enjoy the slender Japanese eggplant. This recipe will serve 12 for your autumn picnic, but is easily cut in half for your family meal.
GRILLED JAPANESE EGGPLANT WITH FETA
12 Japanese eggplants, stemmed and halved lengthwise
1 T. salt
1/3 cup chopped, drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 T. olive oil, plus more for grilling
2-4 garlic cloves, minced (to taste, obviously)
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus extra sprigs for garnish
1 T. chopped fresh mint, plus extra sprigs for garnish
1 cup (packed) crumbled Feta cheese
Place eggplant halves in a large colander and toss with the salt. Let stand ½ hr. then transfer to paper towels and pat dry.
Stir tomatoes, lemon juice, 2 T. of the oil, garlic, chopped parsley and chopped mint in a med. bowl. Mix in the cheese and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. (You can do this ahead and chill until ready to finish, if desired.)
Prepare the barbecue on med.-high heat. Brush eggplant liberally with oil and grill until tender, probably about 3 min. (watch, because it can burn quickly). Place on a platter, cut side up, and spoon on the feta/tomato topping. Garnish with parsley and mint; serve. Serves 12.
As long as we’re talking about grilling and eggplant in the same sentence, how about an eggplant pizza you can do on the grill? Before you say, “no thanks” and sign out, let me just say this is not only an easy way to have a vegetarian pizza, it’s delicious and different. I’ve also done this on my smaller indoor grill.
GRILLED EGGPLANT/PEPPER PIZZAS
4 oz. soft goat cheese (chevre)
¼ cup dried tomato pesto or basil pesto (purchased; whichever you prefer)
2 med. green, red and/or yellow sweet peppers
8 slices, ½-inch thick, eggplant
2 T. olive oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 six-inch purchased pizza shells, 6-inch (I use Boboli)
In a small bowl, stir together the goat cheese and pesto; set aside.
Cut peppers lengthwise into quarters. Remove and discard stems, seeds and membranes. Brush peppers and eggplant slices lightly with some of the olive oil; sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper. Brush the tops of the pizza shells with remaining olive oil.
Place peppers, eggplant slices and pizza shells on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over med. coals (or on med. heat). Grill the shells for 2-3 min., or until toasted, turning once halfway through grilling. Grill the eggplant slices for 6-8 min., or until tender, turning once halfway through. Grill the pepper quarters for 8-10 min., or until softened and slightly charred, turning once halfway through grilling. Remove shells and vegetables from the grill as they are done. Coarsely chop the vegetables and set aside.
Spread the goat cheese mixture evenly onto the pizza shells; top with the grilled vegetables. To serve, cut pizzas into quarters. If desired, you can serve with additional grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top. Serves 4.