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All About Eggplants
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by: Lutongbahay.com
 

Many people would agree that eggplant, with its elegant pear shape and glossy purple skin, is one of the most attractive vegetables. In fact, until this century, Americans valued it more as an ornament or table decoration than as a food. Eggplant is not high in any single vitamin or mineral. However, it is very filling, while supplying few calories and virtually no fat, and its "meaty" texture makes eggplant a perfect vegetarian main-dish choice.

Little known in Europe until the 12th century, the first eggplants that English-speaking people came into contact with bore egg-shaped fruits, probably white ones, hence the vegetable's name. In various parts of Europe, eating eggplant was suspected of causing madness, not to mention leprosy, cancer and bad breath, which prompted its use as a decorative plant. But by the 18th century it was established as a food in Italy and France (where it is known as aubergine).

Varieties: In the United States, the familiar dark purple eggplants are the most common types sold commercially. They come in two basic shapes, oval and elongated; the latter is sometimes referred to as Japanese or oriental eggplant. Increasingly, you will find white eggplant sold at greengrocers and specialty markets; these are usually 6" to 8" long and tend to have firmer, moister flesh than purple varieties.

Other specialty varieties include miniature eggplants that come in a range of shapes and colors: deep purple ones that are either round or oval (sometimes called Italian or baby eggplants); pale violet ones, usually slim and light (known as Chinese eggplants); violet-white Italian Rosa Biancos; and small Japanese eggplants, which are younger versions of the larger commercial types. All of these smaller eggplants are generally sweeter and more tender than the larger varieties; they also have thinner skins and contain fewer seeds.

Availability: Eggplants are available all year, with their peak growing season extending from July to October. Florida provides the bulk of the domestic harvest; New Jersey is a major supplier during the summer months; California and Mexico are relied on to supplement the winter's supply.

Shopping: Look for a well-rounded, symmetrical eggplant with a satin-smooth, uniformly colored skin; tan patches, scars, or bruises on the skin indicate decay, which will appear as discolorations in the flesh beneath. An eggplant with wrinkled or flabby-looking skin will probably be bitter. If you press the vegetable gently with your thumb, the indentation should refill rapidly if the eggplant is fresh. A good eggplant will feel fairly heavy; a light one may be woody. The stem and calyx (cap) should be bright green. A medium-size eggplant, 3" to 6" in diameter, is likely to be young, sweet, and tender; oversized specimens may be tough, seedy, and bitter.

Storage: Ideally, eggplant should be stored at about 50°F. Cold temperatures will eventually damage it, as will warm conditions. You can store an uncut, unwashed eggplant in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper for three to four days. If the eggplant won't fit easily in the crisper, don't try to squeeze it in; the vegetable is so delicate that any undue pressure will bruise it. The skin is also easily punctured, leading to decay.

Preparation: Wash the eggplant just before using, and cut off the cap and stem. (Use a stainless steel knife for cutting eggplant; a carbon steel blade will blacken it.)

Eggplant may be cooked with or without its skin. If the eggplant is large, the skin may be tough, so you may want to peel it with a vegetable peeler. White varieties tend to have thick, tough skins, and should always be peeled. (If you're baking the eggplant, the flesh can be scooped from the skin after cooking.)

Many recipes call for salting eggplant before cooking it. This step draws out some of the moisture and produces a denser-textured flesh, which means the eggplant will exude less water and absorb less fat in cooking. Salting also seems to eliminate the vegetable's natural bitter taste. Rinsing the eggplant thoroughly after salting will remove most of the salt; however, if you are following a sodium-restricted diet you should not use this method.

To salt eggplant: Cut it in half lengthwise (or slice or dice it, depending on the recipe) and sprinkle the cut surfaces with salt; 1/2 teaspoon is sufficient for a pound of eggplant. Place the salted eggplant in a colander and let stand for about 30 minutes. You can then rinse the eggplant, squeeze out the excess moisture, and pat dry with paper towels.

Unlike many vegetables, eggplant is not really harmed by long cooking. Its vitamin content is minimal, so you don't have to worry about destroying it. And undercooked eggplant has a chewy texture that can be quite unpleasant, whereas overcooked eggplant simply becomes softer. Just don't cook eggplant in an aluminum pot; otherwise, the vegetable will discolor.

Baking: A whole eggplant that is baked yields soft flesh that's easy to mash or puree, and it requires no attention while cooking. Pierce the eggplant with a fork several times (otherwise it may explode as the interior heats up), place on a baking sheet, and bake until soft to the touch. Cooking time: 30 to 40 minutes in a 400°F oven.

For baked eggplant halves, cut off the stem, then halve the eggplant lengthwise. Score the surface of the cut sides. Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up, on a baking sheet and brush the cut sides lightly with oil. For baked, stuff eggplant halves: After baking, scoop out some of the flesh (leave enough flesh on the skin to keep some shape), add it to a stuffing, and refill the eggplant halves. Put the eggplants back in the oven to heat the stuffing. Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes in a 425°F oven.

Sliced eggplant can also be layered and baked with other vegetables, such as onions and tomatoes, or with tomato sauce.

Broiling/grilling: Broiling or grilling sliced eggplant is a good alternative to frying, as it tenderizes the vegetable without using lots of fat. You can prepare eggplant slices this way when serving it on its own, or before using it in casseroles, such as eggplant Parmesan or moussaka. Cut the eggplant into thick lengthwise slices and score them lightly with a sharp knife. Place the slices on a broiler pan or barbecue grill and brush them lightly with oil; sprinkle with chopped garlic and herbs. Broil about 5" from the heat; turn the slices when they begin to brown. Cubes of eggplant can also be broiled in the oven. Cooking time: about five minutes per side.

You can also broil/grill whole eggplant. This method yields eggplant with a rich, meaty flavor, which can then be used in dips or spreads, or pureed and served as a side dish. Whole small eggplants can be grilled until charred, then eaten from their skins like baked potatoes. Prick the skin with a fork, then halve the unpeeled eggplant lengthwise. Place the halves, cut-side down, on a broiler pan (or, skin-side down, on a barbecue grill). Broil or grill until the skin is blistered and blackened, then enclose the halves in a paper bag for a few minutes; the steam will loosen the charred skin, making it easy to peel and scrape off with a knife. The flesh is then ready to be chopped and combined with other ingredients.

Microwaving: Pierce a whole eggplant with a fork and cook, rotating every two minutes. Or, place a pound of cubed eggplant in a microwavable dish, cover, and cook. Cooking times: for whole, six to eight minutes; for cubed, three to four minutes.

Sautéing: Eggplant cooked this way acts as a veritable sponge for the fat, so sautéing (or any other form of frying) is not recommended. If you do sauté, use olive oil or another highly unsaturated vegetable oil; 2 tablespoons should be enough for about 2 cups of salted eggplant. Cooking times: for slices, three to four minutes per side; for cubes, six to eight minutes.

Stewing: Eggplant can be stewed alone, or with other vegetables (as in the colorful Provencal stew called ratatouille). Sauté eggplant chunks in a little oil, then add broth, tomato juice, or other liquid. Simmer, covered, until the eggplant is tender. Cooking time: 20 to 25 minutes.

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April 26, 2017

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