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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

— Hummus (recipe follows), preferably homemade

1 large eggplant, cut into ?-inch lengthwise slices

— Olive oil

12 slices rustic sourdough hearth bread or other hearth bread of choice

? pound thinly sliced sopressatta salami

2 generous handfuls of small-leafed arugula

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

3 tablespoons black olive tapenade or puree

Make the hummus and set it aside.

Set a ridged pan over medium high heat.

Brush the eggplant all over with a little olive oil and add as many slices to the pan as will fit in a single layer. Grill the eggplant until fully browned but not burned, turn and grill until completely tender. Transfer to a plate and continue until all the eggplant is cooked. Set aside to cool.

Toast the bread very lightly and arrange it on a clean work surface. Slather hummus over each slice.

Fold each slice of sopressatta in half and in half again, leaving it light and loose, and arrange, overlapping each slice with the next, over six pieces of bread. Top with arugula and season with salt and pepper.

Spread the olive tapenade or puree over the hummus on the remaining slices of bread, set on top of the arugula, cut in half and either serve immediately or wrap tightly in waxed paper to enjoy later. The sandwiches will keep well for a few hours.

Variations

Omit the tapenade or puree and spread about 2 tablespoons of Italian-style salsa verde on top of the hummus before closing the sandwiches.

Roast, peel, seed and julienne 2 sweet red (gypsy or bell) peppers and toss with a little red wine vinegar. Top the sopressatta with them before adding the arugula.

For a vegetarian sandwich, omit the sopressata, use 2 slices of eggplant per sandwich and top with roasted sweet peppers before adding the arugula.

Hummus

Makes about 1? cups

1 14-ounce can chick peas, drained

8 garlic cloves

1/3 cup raw sesame tahini, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon chipotle powder or ground dried serranos

2 teaspoons ground cumin

— Kosher salt

— Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Put the chick peas, garlic cloves, tahini, chipotle powder and cumin into the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add ? cup water and pulse several times, until the chick peas are reduced nearly to a puree. Season generously with salt, add the lemon juice and pulse several more times. Stop pulsing, scrape the sides of the bowl, taste, correct for salt and pulse again, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Transfer to a bowl or glass jar, cover and let rest at least 15 minutes before using.

Hummus will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about a week.

Eggplant makes this soup luscious and rich, with a very engaging depth of flavor. If you'd like a bit of heat, either add a minced jalape? or serrano with the onions or sprinkle in some red pepper flakes when you add the stock.

Roasted Eggplant & Tomato Soup with Feta Cream

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 large or 3 medium eggplant, peeled and cut in chunks

5 to 6 medium tomatoes, peeled and cored

2 oregano sprigs

6 tablespoons olive oil

— Kosher salt

1 large onion, cut into small dice

6 to 8 garlic cloves, minced

— Black pepper in a mill

6 cups homemade chicken or duck stock

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus more to taste

4 ounces feta cheese

4 ounces creme fraiche or heavy cream

1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley

? cup quartered cherry tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the eggplant and tomatoes into a heavy pan, add the oregano sprigs and half the olive oil and season with salt. Set on the middle rack of the oven and cook, stirring now and then, until the eggplant is very tender, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile, pour the remaining olive oil into a medium soup pot set over medium-low heat, add the onion and saute gently until very soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes; do not let the onion brown. Add the garlic, saute 2 minutes more and season with salt.

Add the eggplant and tomato to the pot, stir and season generously with black pepper. Pour in the stock, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the vinegar, cover and let rest 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the feta cheese into a small bowl, crumble with a fork and stir in the creme fraiche or heavy cream. Continue to mix until smooth and creamy. Add the parsley and several turns of black pepper, taste and correct for salt, if needed.

To finish the soup, taste and correct for salt, pepper and acid, adding a bit more vinegar if needed.

Pass through a food mill or puree with an immersion blender and then pass through a strainer; for a more rustic soup, don't strain after blending.

Ladle into warm soup plates, scatter some cherry tomatoes on top, add a dollop of feta cream and serve immediately.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.