The goods on eggplant

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 - 5:35 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 - 3:14 pm

Nutrition: Eggplant is naturally very low in fat and carbohydrates. One cup of raw cubes contains about 33 calories. It’s considered a good source of vitamin K, thiamine, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber. One drawback: It’s high in sodium, with 237 mg per cup.

Eggplant, a member of the nightshade family along with tomatoes, contains oxalates that may cause issues for people with kidney or gallbladder problems.

Selection: Choose firm eggplants that feel heavy in relation to their size. Eggplants come in many varieties and three major colors: Purple, white or pale green. Whatever the color, look for glossy, taut skin free of blemishes, breaks or bruises. Wrinkled skin or lack of luster are signs of old age. Allow 11/2 pounds of eggplant for four servings. Four “baby” eggplants usually make one pound.

Storage: Because of their high moisture content, eggplants don’t keep well. They’re most comfortable stored in a cool, dry place for a day or two. In the refrigerator crisper drawer, they keep for about three days before losing quality. Eggplants do not freeze well.

Preparation: Eggplant can be fried, sauteéd, broiled, grilled, steamed, roasted or baked. Although bland by itself, its flesh takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, which makes it a good combination for intensely flavored ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, garlic and strong herbs.

Eggplant tends to soak up oil like a sponge. When frying, use very hot oil – only 1/4-inch deep in the pan – to reduce that absorption.

Some cooks recommend “purging” eggplant before cooking. That removes some of its moisture and sometimes bitter juices. (It’s not necessary for smaller eggplants or Japanese varieties.) Purged eggplant also absorbs less oil.

To purge, cube or slice raw eggplant, liberally salt the cubes or slices (about 1 tablespoon per two pounds). Put cubes in a colander set in a bowl; put a plate or something heavy on top to weigh down the cubes. Let sit an hour. Then, drain, rinse and dry the cubes; scoop them into a kitchen towel and twist gently. For slices, salt them, then arrange the slices on a layer of paper towels on a rimmed cookie sheet. Cover with another layer of paper towels. Place another cookie sheet on top of the slices and weigh it down. After an hour, remove and rinse the slices and pat dry.

Always use glass, enamel-coated or stainless steel cookware when working with eggplant. Aluminum cookware will cause the flesh to darken. Also, use a stainless steel knife when cutting; carbon steel will blacken the flesh. Because the flesh darkens so easily, don’t cut it until just before cooking.

To broil: Slice unpeeled eggplant into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Brush with olive oil and put in a preheated broiler about 6 inches from heat. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn, brush other side with a little more olive oil and broil for about 5 minutes more, until the flesh is flecked with brown. Serve with salt, pepper, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

To grill: Split the unpeeled eggplant lengthwise (if Japanese varieties) or slice into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Brush pieces with olive oil and grill over medium coals, turning once, until the flesh is golden brown and tender; about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the slices.

Small, unpeeled eggplants can be cooked directly on medium coals. Oil the eggplants’ skin lightly and cook until the skin is charred and the flesh is fork-tender (it will remain white). Split and serve with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Or serve grilled slices spread with 2 tablespoons miso mixed with 2 tablespoons honey just before serving.

Global diversity: Eggplants are believed to be native to India, but they’ve been in cultivation for more than 2,500 years. The Chinese grew eggplants in 500 B.C. By the Middle Ages, Africa and Europe had discovered eggplant, too. Eggplant’s popularity gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean region. The Italians particularly took to eggplant (they developed many of the varieties we know) and early explorers brought it to the New World. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the world’s leading eggplant producers.

Purple vs. white: Originally, all eggplants were white; that’s how they got their name. They looked like eggs hanging from low bushes. The familiar dark-purple varieties developed through breeding over the centuries. But white eggplant is regaining popularity. The skin tends to be a little tougher in white varieties; if desired, remove it before cooking. But the flesh of white eggplant also can be more tender and sweeter.

– Debbie Arrington

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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