I ate eggplant as a child.

Once.

It made me gag.

At age 20, my college friend Sally shoved a piece down my throat.

“You’ll like this,” she said. “You can’t even taste it.”

We were sitting in our usual spot at Henry J’s, an Italian restaurant across the street from the University of Missouri’s journalism school. I was nursing a gin and tonic; she was eating eggplant Parmesan.

She was right. I tasted buttery breadcrumbs, Italian seasonings, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses … and the merest hint of something soft and vegetal.

I did like eggplant! I couldn’t taste it.

Parmesan-ed was the only way eggplant found its way into my mouth for next 12 years. Then a work colleague and I met for dinner one night.

“Oh, aubergines!” she purred (with perfect French pronunciation). “I just love aubergines, don’t you?”

“Eggplant?” I asked. “Only as a Parmesan.”

“You’ll like this,” she said, forking over an alarmingly naked-looking slice. “You can really taste it.”

She was right. I tasted olive oil, assorted herbs … and a meaty, earthy, vegetal richness.

I did like eggplant! I could really taste it.

Brinjal, guinea squash, aubergine … whatever it’s called, eggplant is an oft-ignored and oft-maligned piece of produce, which is a shame: It’s loaded with vitamins (A, B and C), with folate and with fiber. It’s also high in chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant that can lower bad cholesterol and help prevent cell mutations.

But eggplant has its issues. The classic variety is often seed-filled (a sign of age) and bitter, particularly if purchased at the grocery store. It absolutely must be cooked (else you’ll be gaacking in your napkin). Its flesh is a veritable sponge, meaning it’s easy to drown in oil and butter, negating all those wonderful health benefits.

But with a little love and attention, you can overcome all of eggplant’s diva-like tendencies and even make some work in your favor.

eggplantTo guard against bitterness, I tend to buy Sicilian, or grafitti, eggplants. They’re smaller than the more common thick, spherical variety and have far fewer seeds. I usually salt the flesh before cooking, which pulls bitterness away.

To ensure adequate cooking, I always roast my eggplant. Whether whole, halved or sliced into thin strips, the fruit becomes silky and pliable after hanging out in a 400-degree oven. Better yet, the slices don’t get oil-logged like they tend to do when fried.

And that sponginess? It makes eggplant a perfect delivery system for all kinds of flavors.

This summer, we’re looking forward to eating eggplant in a variety of ways:

  • Cut into rounds, marinated in lemon juice and stacked with roasted portabella mushrooms;
  • Roasted in strips; marinated in lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and hot pepper flakes; then paired with feta cheese and assorted olives;
  • Broiled, placed on lasagna noodles and rolled into fetching noodle spirals; and
  • Simply roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper. (The very definition of naked eggplant!)

We’re also looking for new flavor combinations. The flesh of a whole, roasted eggplant is delicious pureed with garlic, ginger, cilantro and sesame oil. And this recipe, adapted from the Jerusalem cookbook, was a huge hit last weekend: Small globe eggplants are doused with cumin, garlic, preserved lemons and olive oil; roasted until meltingly tender; then topped with herbed yogurt and almonds. It was delicious straight from the oven, but it was even better cold the next day. A night in the fridge gave the eggplant time to firm up and reassert itself.

I loved it! I could really taste the eggplant.

Eggplant With Yogurt & Preserved Lemons (adapted from Jerusalem)

eggplant served2

  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 2 minced cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemon rind
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 3 sliced green onions
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro
  • 1/3 cup almonds, toasted
Scored and ready for its topping.
Scored and ready for its topping.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut eggplants in half, then score flesh in a diagonal pattern, being careful not to cut through the bottom skin. Place on a greased, foil-lined baking sheet.

In a small bowl, mix the garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, pepper flakes and salt. Mix in the preserved lemon, then the olive oil, stirring with a fork to dissolve as much of the spice as possible. Spoon over the eggplant halves, being sure to get all of the lemon and garlic onto the pieces.

Burnished and bronzed.
Burnished and bronzed.

Roast for 40 minutes, or until the eggplants are bronze and completely soft.

As the eggplant roasts, mix the yogurt with the green onions, cilantro and salt and pepper to taste.

When the eggplant halves are done, remove them from the oven. Spoon the yogurt on top and sprinkle on the almonds.

Serve with meat or with a salad only for a lovely vegetarian meal.

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