Eggplant crop arriving early

It's shaping up to be a good year for eggplant. Like many other summer crops, it's early, much earlier than it has been in recent years.

Eggplant is one of those foods that most people seem to either love or hate; I don't see a lot of middle-ground reaction to this nightshade. The aversion comes, I think, from late harvesting or poor preparation. Left in the field too long, an eggplant can become bitter, a quality that imbues undercooked eggplant as well. But when it is cooked until tender and creamy, it is luscious and earthy, with very few calories, a bit of protein and a fair amount of folic acid, a B vitamin.

Properly cooked eggplant is excellent on pizza, in sandwiches, in pasta dishes and even pureed and folded into a creamy risotto. It shines when paired with black olives, roasted sweet peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, mozzarella and burrata and is essential in many traditional Mediterranean dishes, including ratatouille, caponata and baba ganoush.

When I talk about eggplant, I'm referring to the large globular eggplants, most familiar as deep purple but also found in pale lavender and creamy white. But eggplants come in a multitude of sizes and colors. Some are smaller than cherry tomatoes and are typically orange or green; others are long and thin or long, thin and curved and some are perfectly round or nearly so. I've seen white eggplant the size of ping-pong balls and green eggplant the size of tennis balls. These less-familiar eggplants should be handled differently and will be the topic of another column. In today's recipes, use the familiar, large, elongated, probably purple eggplant.

For more eggplant recipes from this column's archives, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

I knew my daughter Nicolle and her husband, Tom, would be ravenous when I picked them up at the San Francisco airport the other night, and so I made these sandwiches and some tabbouleh to take with me. By the time we were back in Sebastopol, they were happily well-fed. The sandwiches are great for picnics, too, as they hold up quite well for several hours.

Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Hummus, Sopressata & Arugula

Makes 6 sandwiches

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