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Seasonal pantry: Eggplant for the end of summer


Eggplant is easy to overlook. It is as much a seasonal creature as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and basil, but enjoying it is not exactly simple. You can’t munch on it raw as you drive home from the market and it needs a bit of tender loving care before it takes its place on the table.

I don’t think anyone has ever called eggplant sexy, though it does have its passionate fans, my younger daughter among them. She loves the nightshade so much that I’m always inspired to experiment on her behalf.

Late summer and early fall are perfect for enjoying eggplant, as we don’t mind the cooking it requires when evenings are cool. There’s an abundance of local eggplant at our farmers markets these days and it pairs beautifully with the season’s other vegetables, as we see in the classic Provençal dish, ratatouille, with typically includes tomatoes, zucchini and garlic as well as eggplant.

If you find yourself with too much eggplant on hand, you can cook it quickly and then freeze it to use in soups during the winter. All you need to do is bake it until it is tender or cut it into cubes and saute it in olive oil and then pack it in freezer bags. Eggplant soup - with or without lamb meatballs - is a joy on a stormy night.

For eggplant recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, including my favorite, eggplant with salsa verde, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

Baba ghanoush is a classic dish with deep roots throughout the Middle East, and whenever I write about it, I hear from several readers who tell me what I am doing wrong. Some versions include tomatoes, others call for mint and some are topped with a drizzle of olive oil and pomegranate molasses. From what I have been able to learn, mine is closest to the Egyptian version, a style that includes lemon, cumin and ground chiles, a combination of flavors that I enjoy a great deal.

Baba Ghanoush

Makes about 2 cups

1 large or 2 medium eggplant

— Olive oil

6 to 8 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

¼ cup sesame tahini (not toasted)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon chipotle powder or other ground dried chile

2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

— Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

— Kosher Salt

— Black Pepper in a mill

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees or heat a stove-top grill. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and brush the cut surfaces lightly with olive oil. Bake or grill the eggplant until it is completely tender all the way through, about 45 minutes, depending on its size.

Let the eggplant cool thoroughly, peel it and chop it coarsely. Using a food processor or a large mortar and pestle, grind the eggplant and garlic together to make a fairly smooth paste. Fold in and mix until smooth. Transfer the paste to a bowl, add the cumin, chipotle powder, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil and mix thoroughly.

Taste, season with salt and pepper and correct for acid balance, adding more lemon juice as needed.

Serve at room temperature or chilled, with pita bread, sesame crackers, sliced sesame baguettes, vegetables for dipping or as a sandwich spread with roasted lamb.

There are about as many versions of ratatouille as there are cooks to who make it. This version can be assembled in advance and cooked hours or even a day later. It is excellent as a main course and also great with grilled sausages or topped with poached eggs.

Always have a light green salad alongside.

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Oven Ratatouille

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium (about 1 pound) eggplant, peeled and cut into 3/8-inch lengthwise slices

2 medium Romanesco zucchini, trimmed and cut into 3/8-inch lengthwise slices

— Kosher salt

— Olive oil

1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch rounds

3 to 4 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded

— Black pepper in a mill

4 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

6 to 8 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

3 cups tomato concasse (see Note below)

¼ to ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 6-ounce can California black olives, pitted and halved lengthwise

Cut the eggplant and the zucchini slices in half, put them in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain off the liquid and pat dry with a clean tea towel. Set the vegetables on a clean work surface and brush both sides of each slice lightly with olive oil.

Heat a stove-top grill and when it is hot, grill the zucchini and eggplant on one side for 90 seconds, rotate 45 degrees, grill 90 seconds more, turn over and repeat. Transfer the zucchini to a plate. Test the eggplant for doneness and if it is not yet tender, grill another minute or two and then transfer to a plate.

Brush the onion slices with olive oil and grill until they begin to soften, about 4 minutes per side.

Cut the roasted pepper into wide, lengthwise strips.

Brush a medium oven-proof baking dish with olive oil. Layer the vegetables in the dish, alternating them to create a random mix. Season each layer with salt, pepper and some of the parsley.

Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a medium saute pan set over medium heat, add the garlic and saute about 60 seconds; do not let it brown. Season with salt, add the tomato concasse, the red pepper flakes and the black olives and simmer very gently for 5 minutes. Taste, correct for salt and pepper and spoon over the vegetables.

Set in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until it is hot and bubbly.

Remove from the oven and let rest 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately or cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before serving and bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes.

Note: To make 3 cups of tomato cancasse, peel about 2 pounds of ripe red tomatoes by spearing each one with a fork and turning it over a flame or hot burner until its skin blisters, about 30 seconds. Remove the skin, cut the tomatoes in half crosswise, squeeze out the seeds and gel, cut out the stem core and mince the flesh.

Variations

For individual servings, divide among individual ramekins or small clay pots, bake for about 15 minutes, break an egg on top of each one and return to the oven until the egg white is just set and the yolk is hot but still liquid.

For a mildly spicy version, replace the red bell peppers with poblanos, prepared in the same way. Use half Italian parsley and half fresh cilantro.

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.