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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.