The mighty eggplant

Mark Bittman / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 2, 2013 at 05:00AM

Eggplant is often called “meaty,” by which we mean what, exactly? Substantial? Versatile? Flavorful?

All of the above, for sure (as well as tough and chewy on occasion; not necessarily a bad thing). But the comparison is no more fair to the aubergine than it would be to call a piece of beef “eggplanty.”

Eggplant stands alone, a vegetable like no other. Actually, because eggplant is a fruit, like the tomato, to which it's closely related, it's safer to label it a food like no other, beloved and appreciated worldwide and deserving of respect, not as a meat substitute but as a treasure in itself.

It isn't a competition, but if you asked me the old desert-island question, I'd take eggplant before any meat I could think of (and, yes, that includes bacon). It would be ridiculous to claim that eggplant can outperform meat, but it's not a stretch to see it as useful as any one cut of meat.

It can take myriad forms, as appetizer, side dish or sauce. It can fill the center of the plate as nicely as anything.

This isn't the place to discuss health effects, but ever since people stopped believing that the nightshade family, of which it is a member, was poisonous, it's been considered nothing but beneficial.

You can eat eggplant every day, in season at least, and all it's going to do is make you happy.

This was reinforced for me three times this spring when I spent a little time in Sicily, where a warmer climate produces an earlier eggplant season.

On the first occasion, I had the key ingredients for a mashed eggplant dish akin to baba ghanoush (eggplant, garlic and a wood fire) but no others.

I propped those eggplants against the coals and allowed them to blister, blacken and soften; I did pretty much the same with the garlic. As I was once taught in India, where eggplant is indigenous, I held the shriveled fruits up by their stems with one hand and peeled them with the other. The flesh I mashed with that of the softened garlic, lemon and salt for a dish nothing short of glorious.

You cannot achieve the same flavor without a wood fire (even real charcoal is only second best), but roasting in a hot oven results in perfectly tender eggplant, which you can use for an ad hoc dish like the one I just described, or for classic baba ghanoush.

This treatment addresses the most common question about eggplant, which is, “Should I salt it?” There is more than one answer: If you're slicing eggplant and you're looking for an ultra-firm (OK, meaty) texture, salt the slices and after 30 to 60 minutes, press them between paper towels before cooking. This technique works with many vegetables, because the salt draws out moisture.

But if you imagine that you're salting to draw out what used to be called “the bitter principle,” don't bother. Eggplant isn't bitter. That mashed wood-grilled eggplant was quite sweet, needing a lot of lemon. And if you're salting because you think the eggplant will absorb less oil when it cooks, that's a mistaken notion also. Eggplant is a sponge, and as long as you're using good-tasting oil, it isn't a problem. (As for the question “Should I peel it?” I think that with the exception of that blistered black skin in Sicily, I can unequivocally answer: never.)

A couple of nights later, a friend made pasta alla Norma, a dish that is Sicilian. It's really no more than lovingly sauteed eggplant finished in tomato sauce, tossed with pasta and topped with ricotta salata. Dry feta isn't a bad substitute, and pecorino Romano and Parmesan are fine as well.

While frying the eggplant, one of those leisurely kitchen tasks that takes a while but is nevertheless a pleasure, I was reminded of a variety of eggplant dishes I've eaten and made and savored over the years.

One was a version of Parmesan made at the sadly-now-closed Shiek's in Torrington, Conn., in which the eggplant was salted and pressed into thin, tough slices before layering with way too much mozzarella, in true Italian-American style. Also memorable were the various versions of boiled eggplant you see in Japan, one of which I've replicated here. (If you have never boiled eggplant, you must try this one.)

There was the incomparable dish of mostly eggplant skin, it seemed to me, along with cherry tomatoes and loads of basil and oil, highly unusual and incredibly enjoyable, at La Tavernetta, in Naples.

And there were the various “why is this so good?” Sichuan eggplant recipes (answer: they're fried) as well as the perhaps overrated Turkish classic imam biyaldi, which translated means “the priest fainted,” and my first baingan bharta, which I made myself at home, from a Julie Sahni recipe, and in which the eggplant is roasted in precisely the same way as it is for baba ghanoush.

My final Sicilian eggplant dish was at Ardigna, a restaurant in the remote, nearly deserted hills east of Marsala, where the antipasti was varied and sensational. A friend had told me this was “the only restaurant that matters,” which was perhaps a bit extreme. But among the dishes was a caponata so inspiring that, back home, I searched for and found in Chinatown, naturally, a few of those long, slender, lavender eggplants, and made a caponata of my own.

Over fairly high heat, I softened sliced onions and green bell pepper in plenty of olive oil. As they cooked, I chopped and added the eggplant, along with crushed dried red peppers, capers, pine nuts, chopped green olives, raisins and a bit of sugar. After that had all cooked down, I stirred in tomato paste and vinegar.

I then ate a bit, packed up the rest, hit the road and proceeded to virtually live on it for two days. Show me a meat dish you can say that about.

Pasta Alla Norma

Makes 4 to 6 servings. Time: About 45 minutes.

11⁄2 lbs eggplant

Olive oil as needed (at least 1⁄2 C)

Salt and pepper

1 TBS chopped garlic

3 or 4 dried chilies

11⁄2 lbs tomatoes, chopped (canned are fine; about 1 can)

1 tsp good dried oregano, or 1 TBS fresh

1 lb long pasta

1⁄2 C chopped parsley or basil

1⁄2 C grated ricotta salata (or in a pinch, pecorino Romano)

Cut the eggplant into slices about 1⁄2-inch thick. Cook in abundant olive oil, without crowding, sprinkling with salt and adding more oil as needed. You will undoubtedly have to cook in batches; take your time and cook until the eggplant is nicely browned and soft. Remove to a plate; do not drain on paper towels. Meanwhile, put a large pot of water to boil and salt it.

At the end of the cooking the eggplant, the pan will ideally have a couple of tablespoons of oil left. If there's more or less, drain some off or add a bit. Turn the heat to medium, add the garlic and chilies, and cook until the garlic colors a little bit. Add the tomatoes and oregano, along with some salt and pepper; cook until saucy but not too dry, stirring occasionally.

Cook the pasta until tender but not mushy. While it's cooking, cut the eggplant into strips and reheat for a minute in the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and toss it with the tomato sauce and the eggplant. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then top with the parsley or basil and grated cheese and serve.

This monthly feature explores healthy and delicious food ideas from the New York Times' food columnist.

Eggplant Salad with Mustard-Miso Dressing

Makes 4 servings. Time: About 30 minutes.

1 lb eggplant

Salt and cayenne pepper to taste

1⁄3 C white or other miso, or to taste

1 TBS soy sauce, or to taste

1 TBS Dijon mustard, or to taste

Lemon wedges

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Trim the eggplant and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Boil the eggplant until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and cool in a colander. (You can refrigerate the eggplant, covered, for several hours, but bring it back to room temperature before proceeding.)

Whisk together the miso, soy sauce and mustard in a serving bowl. Add the eggplant along with salt and cayenne to taste, then toss. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve with the lemon wedges.

Baingan Bharta

Makes 4 servings. Time: About 45 minutes.

2 lbs eggplant

2 TBS lime juice

2 to 3 TBS vegetable oil

1 med onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 fresh hot green chili like a jalapeno, or more to taste, thinly sliced (discard seeds for less heat)

1 lb fresh tomatoes, chopped

1⁄2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp kosher salt or to taste

1⁄2 C chopped cilantro, thin stems included

2 TBS garam masala

Prick the eggplant with a thin-blade knife. Grill over or next to very high heat, turning as necessary until the skin is blackened and the eggplant collapses. Or broil, or roast on a heated cast-iron pan in the hottest possible oven. It will take about 20 minutes.

When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, peel (this will be easy) and trim away the hard stem. Chop or mash in a bowl, with lime juice.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chilies and cook for another minute. Add the tomato, turmeric and salt. Cook until the tomato is soft, 5 minutes or so.

Stir in the eggplant puree and cook, stirring, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and garam masala and turn off the heat. Serve hot with warm chapati bread or pita, or over rice.

— Adapted from Julie Sahni