Following the Meatiest Vegetable Around the World
“I’m struck by the variety of eggplants at my local farmers market. Since I’m trying to eat more vegetables, they seem like a fun place to start, but what’s the best way to cook them?”
Eggplant, one of the glories of late summer, holds a valued place in cuisines all over the world, including those of India (where it originated), Italy, France, Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Because it is so at home with a cosmopolitan array of seasonings—and because it’s delicious hot, cold, or room temperature—its versatility is nothing short of dazzling.
But what I really like about eggplant is its rich, suave, savory quality—it is, after all, regularly used as a meat substitute. We spend much of the season gorging on fruits and vegetables high in natural sweetness—berries, peaches, melons, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, peppers, and more—and by mid-August, I, for one, begin to crave a deeper bass note of flavor.
I am not alone in this desire. “Peppers are full of sugars that caramelize and are delicious partly for that reason. Tomatoes have a certain sweetness, too. But I appreciate a more sober, meatier vegetable-fruit to work with,” wrote Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy. “Eggplant can play a supporting role in a dish, as in ratatouille, or it can stand alone as a dip, a spread, or a side dish. You can slice large, round eggplants, grill or broil the slices, then crown them with any number of toppings: a parsley–pine nut salad, or an herb salad, a tomato salsa, saffron-scented ricotta with salt-roasted tomatoes, tarator sauce with pomegranate seeds, a spicy peanut sauce. The same slices can be rolled around a filling, used to make eggplant gratins, or layered in a pasta-free lasagna with ricotta and tomatoes.”
I sure am, but before I take a stab at organizing the types of eggplant you may come across, I should address the misgivings people have about bitterness (an undesirable characteristic to Western palates) and the related fact that eggplant is a nightshade.
It’s an Old World member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), to be precise, and so contains bitter alkaloid compounds thought to contribute to numerous illnesses and conditions such as arthritis and chronic joint pain. It also has more nicotinethan any other commonly eaten vegetable. The earliest eggplants contained high amounts of alkaloids, but over the centuries, plantsmen have bred out excessive bitterness.
The myth that bitterness has to do with the maleness or femaleness of eggplants, by the way, is just that: a myth. All eggplants come from the female organs of the flower, but eggplant flowers have both male and female organs. The seeds they contain will grow into plants that make flowers with both male and female parts.
Very mature (i.e., seedy) eggplants, especially those that have been held in cold storage or languished in the fridge, can still be unpleasantly astringent, which is why most recipes call for salting eggplant before cooking. Interestingly, though, “the usual explanation for why salt would eliminate bitterness doesn’t entirely make sense,” wrote Kenneth Chang in The New York Times after a consult with food scientist Harold McGee. “The usual explanation is that salt draws out water from the eggplant through osmosis (true), and that with the water come the bitter alkaloid compounds. But the water almost certainly wouldn’t wash away all of the alkaloids or even a majority of them. (Extracting water also makes the eggplant a bit firmer.) But salt can remove bitterness without removing the bitter compounds,” yet it is unclear if that’s a result of chemistry, taste, of how our brain processes the flavor.
I don’t bother to salt the ultrafresh eggplants I pick up this time of year at a farmers market or roadside stand, but I often take the precaution with one I buy at a grocery store; who knows how long it’s been there in that refrigerated case, or how it’s been handled? Even though the eggplant has become a year-round supermarket staple, “its true garden season is brief,” noted Madison. “It doesn’t like to travel, and it doesn’t like cold storage, so it is best to buy what is grown locally and enjoy it soon after you bring it home.” That said, don’t leave it out on the kitchen counter for any length of time; it will lose its moisture quickly. Swaddle it in a clean kitchen towel, tuck it in the warmest part of the fridge, and use it within a day or two.
This time of year—for me, at least—the path of least resistance is to fire up the Weber. Grilling eggplant instead of frying it gives it lightness and a complex smokiness that is wonderful in all sorts of dishes. Thick, meaty slices of the cultivar Black Beauty, for instance, make a wonderful vegetarian grilling alternative to portobello mushroom caps; repurpose any leftovers (if you should be so lucky) into baba ganoush.
Even though eggplants can be a little tricky to grow, they are not a pesticide-heavy crop; you’ll find them on the “Clean Fifteen” list published by the Environmental Working Group. I was relieved to discover this, as I hate trimming off the skin, which is where much of the eggplant’s nutrition is contained in the form of fiber, potassium, magnesium, and polyphenols such as anthocyanins. According toMedical News Today, “its phenolic content makes it such a potent free radical scavenger that the eggplant is ranked among the top 10 vegetables in terms of oxygen radical absorbance capacity.”
A fresh, ripe eggplant will have smooth, bright, glossy skin, and there should be still a bit of stem attached. The eggplant should be firm, should feel heavy for its size, and when you press very gently on the skin, it should spring back immediately. In general, smaller is better. I’ve heard some people say they can tell a good ’un by thumping it like a melon. If you do that, avoid eggplants that sound hollow; they’ll be dry and fibrous inside.
There is such a dizzying array of eggplant shapes, sizes, and colors, it’s hard to organize them in any definitive way. Many thanks to Elizabeth Schneider’sVegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference for the groupings below.
Italian American Eggplants
This type of eggplant—dark purple to almost black, large, and bell- or pear-shaped—is what most of us think of as the classic eggplant for parmigiana and rollatini as well as those two perennial summer favorites, caponata and ratatouille. If you see a cultivar named Black Beauty, pounce. It’s an open-pollinated heirloom (from 1902) that is deep and rich in flavor. Simply cut thick rounds, toss them in olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill until golden. Inside, they’ll be lush and custardy—a real scene stealer, no matter what else you’re serving. Feel free to gild the lily with a sprinkling of grated Parm or chopped fresh basil or mint.
Striped or Violet-Blushed European-Type Eggplants
Italian heirloom Rosa Bianca and Spanish heirloom Listada de Gandia make great gateway eggplants—their flesh is mild, creamy, and consistently lacking in bitterness. Sliced into steaks, they’re great for grilling, roasting, or broiling.
The diminutive violet-and-white-striped or marbled cultivar called Fairy Tale is especially appealing to children or the eggplant-adverse. Grill it whole until it’s on the brink of collapse, or halve lengthwise, lightly caramelize in a skillet, and drizzle with your best balsamic vinegar.
Long, slender cultivars such as Pingtung Long, Ichiban, and Orient Express are nearly seedless, silky in texture when cooked, and extremely approachable, particularly if you are cooking for one or two. Cut them into slices (they stay as neat as cucumber rounds) or even-sized pieces and use them in a stir-fry, or do as Madison does and slit them in five or six places, insert a slice of garlic into each cut, and then grill or braise them until they start to collapse. They’re also ideal for Japanese nasu dengaku—miso-glazed eggplant.
Small, Deep-Purple Round or Pear-Shaped Eggplants
These are often Asian but may be variously called Japanese, Indian, Italian, or “baby.” They vary in flavor and texture, so don’t be shy. Experiment and see what speaks to you.
These come in as many shapes and sizes as other eggplants, and even though we usually associate a green color with unripeness, they are as ripe and ready to eat as Green Zebra tomatoes are. This type of eggplant is often considered to be Southeast Asian, but delicious American cultivars include the Louisiana Long Green and the egg-shaped Applegreen, developed in New Hampshire.
The small, round, green-skinned eggplants usually labeled as Asian or Thai are mild and full of crunchy, mild seeds. The green-and-white American cultivar Kermit has a great meaty texture. You can steam, braise, or slice and sauté any of these cuties, and they also stand up well tomicrowaving.
Tiny green pea eggplants, which grow in clusters like cherry tomatoes, are common in Thai curries as well as in Somali stews.
White eggplants, which also come in all shapes and sizes, are common to Southeast Asian cuisines. When cooked, their flesh becomes mellow to mild in flavor and very tender. The skin tends to be on the thick side unless the eggplant is very young, so you may want to peel it. Alternatively, steaming softens the skin somewhat and also helps prevent darkening.
Small, Round Red or Orange Eggplants
Cultivars such as Turkish Orange (aka scarlet or Ethiopian eggplant) tend to be on the seedy side when ripe—that is, bright orange—so choose those that are green to light orange. A few years ago, a friend was inspired by New York magazine to slice and fry them like green tomatoes, and they were absolutely delicious.