Whether luxuriously purple or pearly white like its namesake, eggplant is a staple of the summer garden and dinner menu.
With growing interest in vegetarian entrees, eggplant probably has never been more popular in America. With firm texture and satisfying taste, its the ultimate meat substitute.
Eggplant can be incorporated into many recipes as a low-calorie meat replacement or eaten on its own, according to Take Pounds Off Sensibly, the nationwide weight-loss support organization that recommends eggplant as part of a healthful diet. Baked or grilled, eggplant is a great choice at just 30 calories per cup. Its low sugar content and muscle-strengthening high potassium level make it a powerhouse of taste and nutrition.
Sacramento-area restaurant chefs arent worried so much about calories as they are flavor. Absorbing and melding the tastes around it, eggplant serves as a wonderful base for many cuisines. From familiar eggplant Parmigiana and ratatouille to moussaka and baba ghanouj, eggplant travels the food world with ease.
Eggplant stands alone a food like no other, recently wrote Mark Bittman, the New York Times longtime food expert and cookbook author (How to Cook Everything.). (Its) beloved and appreciated worldwide and deserving of respect, not as a meat substitute but as a treasure in itself.
It isnt a competition, but if you asked me the old desert-island question, Id take eggplant before any meat I could think of and, yes, that includes bacon, Bittman added. It would be ridiculous to claim that eggplant can outperform meat, but its not a stretch to see it as useful as any one cut of meat.
Bittman particularly loves eggplant as a condiment, roasted over coals and mashed with olive oil, garlic and other seasonings; similar to the classic baba ghanouj of the Middle East. But eggplant also deserves to be center plate, grilled or broiled like a steak until tender.
From August to October, California eggplant season is at its peak, although its available in supermarkets from overseas producers year round. Most of the nations summer eggplant supply comes from Florida and California.
Like other summer vegetables or fruit that need heat to ripen, eggplant has been slow to hit its stride this summer in Sacramento. The same goes for tomatoes, eggplants close cousin. (And yes, eggplant also is considered a fruit.)
The weather has been very, very cool, said Suzanne Ashworth, who grows 15 varieties of eggplant in West Sacramento at Del Rio Botanical. I just took my sweater off. This cool summer is causing tomatoes and eggplant not to ripen. They need warm nights to really get going.
Del Rio supplies eggplant to many local restaurants.
Were growing a lot of baby white eggplant for Kru, plus a lot of different varieties for Ellas, Ashworth said.
Many of these varieties trace back to Japan or Italy, where theyve been cultivated for hundreds of years. Despite its reputation for bitterness, eggplant generally is mild, absorbing flavors with which it is cooked.
Cooks traditionally salt and purge eggplant to remove excess moisture and make its flesh meatier. Ashworth prefers not to salt it first.
Eggplant needs a little bit of moisture to steam, she said. Otherwise, it can get very rubbery. So, I dont recommend salting it.
Her favorite method of cooking eggplant: Make slippers or boats. This works best with a smaller eggplant or elongated Japanese varieties.
Definitely, make little slippers, she said. Half the eggplant lengthwise and scoop out some of the flesh. Cut up some tomatoes and onions, add some strong herbs such as oregano, rosemary or basil, and a little salt and pepper. Pack that into the eggplant halves. Cover and cook in the oven (at 350 degrees) or on top of the stove. Let it steam; it makes cooking eggplant much quicker, about 15 minutes. You can top the slippers with cheese or bechamel sauce before or after cooking.
The slippers are ready when fork-tender. Add rice, peppers, bread crumbs or other filling as desired. They make an easy summer side dish or meatless main course.
Or put some eggplant slices on the grill. Seasoned and topped with favorite condiments between two buns, they can make a flavorful, guilt-free burger straight from the garden.
Call The Bees Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.