In season: Eggplant soaks up spices from India to Spain

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The warm June sun has called forth the first of the summer’s eggplants. They have a tang and just a hint of desirable bitterness to their mild and earthy flavor. That edgy tang adds snap to the stronger Provencal flavors of onion, tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, basil, olives and roasted sweet peppers with which they are often combined.

Eggplant adds texture and bulk to dishes along with its sappy flavors. But “eggplant” isn’t a single vegetable. Besides the raven-dark, purple-black common eggplants seen in supermarkets, eggplants vary in size from pingpong balls to 2-foot ropes, and in color from orange-red to pinkish lavender to celadon green to ivory white. These you’ll most likely find at Oliver’s, Whole Foods or our farmers markets.

They’re also relatively easy to grow — even in a large pot filled with rich compost — and having your own varieties fresh from the garden will give you a benchmark for quality that you can use when buying them from a producer. Besides, eggplant is a very ornamental plant, with pretty purplish and yellow flowers and showy fruits that dangle under the wide leaves.

Look for eggplants about two-thirds of their full, mature size. At full size, they have a tendency to turn overly bitter and their seeds become ripe, hard and bothersome. They soften and turn watery and puffy. The bright gloss of their skin dulls to a matte finish. When pressed with a thumb, the indentation remains.

When they’re perfect, their skins will have a high gloss, and when pressed with a thumb, they have a little “give” that rebounds when pressure is lifted. Their green cap and stem are bright and fresh-looking. And the best eggplants will feel heavy in the hand — like citrus fruit.

They’re among the edible members of the solanaceae family, related to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, ground cherries and tomatillos. Other members of that family are poisonous and addictive: tobacco, jimsonweed and deadly nightshade. Of the edibles, eggplant is the only one native to the Old World.

Scientists believe it originated in either India or Burma, was carried east to China and west to Arabia. The Moors introduced it into Spain and Europe in the 8th century. Before the introduction of its New World relatives after Columbus, eggplant was as much a staple crop in southern Europe as the potato later became.

In Italy, it was originally thought to be poisonous and was called mala insana in Latin, or apples of insanity. Today the Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, is a worn-down version of the Latin. In the rest of Europe, it’s known as aubergine, a term that has come down a convoluted path from its original Sanskrit. With good old American bluntness, we know it as eggplant, and if you have ever seen the variety called ‘Osterei,’ which means Easter Egg, you’d think you were looking at a white egg.

‘Black Beauty’ is probably the most common variety of large black eggplant, with ‘Dusky’a close second, and the 2-inch-long by 1-inch-and-a-half wide ‘Baby Bell’ gaining in popularity.

You’ll find the choicest eggplants at farmers markets in August and September in most of the country, because this plant is tropical in nature, where it’s perennial — although it’s grown as an annual in the temperate United States. Because of its tropical nature and its short shelf life, don’t store it in the fridge. Just set it on a cool counter space and use it within a day or two after you buy it.

Eggplant is used around the world in a variety of regional and ethnic dishes. In the Middle East, baba ghanoush joins hummus as a preferred dip for pita bread. In Sicily, caponata relish is made by cooking eggplant, onions, tomatoes, anchovies, olives, pine nuts, capers and vinegar in olive oil.

In Spain, tiny white eggplants are pickled. In Greece, moussaka is a national dish. In France, ratatouille and aubergine au gratin are standard fare. In Russia, they make “eggplant caviar,” a kind of salsa, from a cooked, peeled and finely chopped eggplant mixed with grated onion, garlic, minced peeled and seeded tomato, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper.

Across the Muslim world there’s a dish known as imam bayildi, which translates to “the priest fainted.” The question of why he fainted is unresolved. One school of thought has it that he fainted from the sheer pleasure of the dish, the other that he fainted when he found out how much expensive olive oil his wife used to make it.

It’s made by slitting an eggplant along its side, frying it in two cups of olive oil, scooping out as much of the cooked contents as practical and mixing it with chopped garlic, sautéed chopped onions, peeled and seeded and chopped tomatoes, chopped parsley and salt and pepper, and sautéeing it for 20 minutes until almost all the moisture is absorbed, then stuffing the eggplant with the sautéed mixture, topping it with breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, drizzling it with more oil and baking it at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

No matter what color eggplant you start with, cooking is going to turn the skin an unappealing shade of gray-brown. You can see that almost all these dishes combine eggplant with other Mediterranean ingredients in various ways, along with lots of heart-healthy olive oil. Eggplant is heart healthy in other ways, too — it’s one of the top 10 vegetables in antioxidant content.

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The spicy flavors of India transform eggplant and potatoes into an exotic stew with a bright yellow color. It’s a fabulous side dish with curried lamb, grilled chicken or beef vindaloo.

Eggplant and Potato Salna

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 pounds Japanese or Italian eggplants, quartered

1 pound peeled and quartered red-skinned potatoes

2 serrano chiles, halved lengthwise and seeded

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

½ teaspoon turmeric

¼ cup olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped scallions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the first nine ingredients in a large bowl and toss them thoroughly to coat the vegetables with the oil and spices.

Place the contents of the bowl in a 9x13 baking pan so that it forms a single layer. Bake for 45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes.

The stew is done when the potatoes are cooked through and golden brown on the outside, and the eggplant is soft. Remove the serrano chiles. Serve in a bowl garnished with the cilantro and scallions.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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