Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Incredible Eddible Egg..plant

Common Eggplant

I used to think that I was not a big fan of eggplant.  I used to think that I did not like the taste and that eggplant was one of those vegetables that only vegetarians and hippies ate.  Like most things I did not like to eat it was only I had never experienced them prepared well.  It was not until I shared a meal at a Chinese restaurant that I experienced eggplant in a way that I not only liked, but loved.  The dish was simply Japanese eggplant stir-fried with the "chef's special sauce".  I tried the dish if only for curiosity sake and my life has not been the same since.  While the sauce of the dish was a large portion, I fell in love with eggplant itself.  It was soft and almost creamy with an earthy flavor to it and non of the bitterness that I usually thought accompanied eggplant.

So what exactly is an eggplant?  The eggplant, also known as an aubergine, is a fruit (technically a berry) that is consumed like a vegetable that comes from a plant originating in India.  The eggplant has been known to Asia for over two millennia and been cultivated in China since 500 B.C.  Arabs and Persians introduced it to Africa before the middle ages and it was from there that the eggplant was brought to Italy around the 14th century.  The first varieties of eggplant were so bitter that Europeans initially thought it caused insanity and kept it mainly for its ornamental purposes.  Only after years of cultivation and selective breeding has the eggplant improved in flavor.

Japanese, white and common Western Eggplants
There are multiple varieties of eggplants.

There are many different varieties of eggplant with Asian and western being the most commonly available.  Asian varieties are either long and thin or round with skin colors ranging from creamy white to deep purple.  Western eggplants, the more common one in the US, are shaped like a like a big pear with shiny lavender to purple-black skin.  The eggplant grows on a three foot high plant that bears purple-blue flowers.  The yellowish flesh of the eggplant is dense and spongy with a bland flavor that absorbs other flavors well.  Eggplants contain small brown seeds that are edible. The skin is also edible, but can be quite bitter in certain varieties.  Younger and smaller eggplants have less seeds and tend to have skin that is more tender and less bitter.

Eggplant flower

In order to choose a good eggplant look for one that is plump, firm, and heavy. It should be free of blemishes with smooth shiny skin.  Fruits with wrinkled or spotted skin are likely to be old and bitter tasting.  Press the skin lightly to check for ripeness.  If the imprint remains, then the fruit is ready.  Asian eggplants tend to softer than western ones.  Eggplants are available all year long, but their peak season is during the late summer. 

Now that you know what an eggplant is and how to pick one, what do you do with it?  Eggplants are wonderfully versatile and lend themselves to all manner of dishes and cooking methods.  Eggplant can be grilled, baked,stuffed, au gratin, purred, steamed, fried, or sauteed.  It is delicious hot or cold and makes a wonderful addition to any dish or serve as the main ingredient.  Eggplant plays a pivotal role in Asian and Mediterranean cuisines where it is often paired with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.  Some of the more commonly known eggplant dishes are moussaka, ratatouille, baba ganoush and eggplant Parmesan.

Eggplant Hors D'oeuvres

Stuffed Eggplant

Whole Eggplant Being Grilled


Roasted Eggplant

When preparing your eggplant is is important to keep in mind that the flesh of the fruit quickly discolors when cut.  Cooking it soon after it is cut or sprinkling it with lemon juice will help avoid that.  If the eggplant is large sprinkling the pieces  with salt and letting it sit for at least thirty minutes will help draw out some of the moisture from it as well as some of the bitterness.  This process also helps to keep the eggplant from absorbing too much oil during the cooking process.  Soaking the fruit in water will also draw out some of the bitterness as well as peeling it since most of the bitterness is concentrated just under the skin. 

Sliced Eggplant Being "Salted"

Eggplant bruises easily so it should be handled carefully.  It is also sensitive to temperature fluctuations.  Fresh eggplants should be stored in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator where they will keep for about a week.

Hopefully this post inspires someone who has not had or has not prepared eggplant to get adventurous with this versatile fruit/vegetable.  Not only is it delicious, it is good for you.  So get out there and try the incredible, edible, eggplant!

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