Food & Drink

In Season: Eggplant ‘bacon’? That’s a versatile veggie

There are many creative ways to serve the seasonal bounty of eggplant.
There are many creative ways to serve the seasonal bounty of eggplant. Los Angeles Times

Call it the mealtime chameleon.

Eggplant may rank as the most flexible food from the summer garden. It’s perfectly at home in cuisines from around the globe, from Asia to Italy.

As an ingredient, eggplant is a team player. It helps everything else in a dish work together and be better than without it. And most of the time, it tastes nothing like eggplant but morphs into something else extraordinarily different.

Part of it is mouthfeel. Eggplant fools our tongue, making us think we’re savoring some meaty morsel instead of vegetable fiber. Due to its porous structure, eggplant absorbs its surrounding flavors and melds them into a satisfying blend. That also makes it ideal as a meat substitute even carnivores will devour.

How clever is eggplant? It can make mock “bacon.” Try that on an all-veggie BLT. Or it can mold into “meatballs,” perfectly at home atop pasta with sauce.

Here are more tips and ideas to make the most of summer eggplant:

Fry tip: 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. Because eggplant takes on the taste of the oil as well as developing a crisp crust, use high-quality olive or cooking oil.

Purge with salt: 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 2 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.

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

Stuff it: Eggplants are the ideal size and shape for stuffing and baked. Just wash and split lengthwise. Scoop out pulp, leaving about a 1/2-inch thick “shell” or “boat.” The pulp can be chopped and added to stuffing or reserved for other uses (such as “meatballs”). Mix your choice of cooked meat, chopped onion, peppers, mushrooms, cheese, rice, bulgur, couscous, bread crumbs or other stuffing ingredients. Loosely stuff the eggplant boats and place in an oiled baking dish. Bake in a a 350-degree pre-heated oven until the eggplant shell is tender, about 45 to 50 minutes for a large eggplant; 30 minutes for smaller eggplants.

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/or balsamic vinegar 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.

Grill whole: 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 or soy sauce mixed with 2 tablespoons honey just before serving.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Eggplant bacon

This recipe comes from Patty Couse-Baker, our colleague at The Bee and a longtime vegetarian. She eats eggplant at least once a week during summer and swears by this “bacon” recipe. The veggie strips don’t get as crisp as pork bacon, but the taste is as close as eggplant can get.

1 medium eggplant

For marinade:

3 tablespoon soy sauce

1/2 tablespoon liquid smoke

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 cloves crushed garlic

Oil for frying

Combine all ingredients for marinade in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Set aside.

Wash and peel eggplant. Slice eggplant lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slabs. Cut those in half lengthwise so they look like strips of bacon.

Add eggplant strips to baking dish and marinate at room temperature for about an hour. Drain.

Pan fry eggplant with a little oil until browned. Drain and serve hot.

Makes at least 12 strips

Vegan eggplant meatballs

This recipe is adapted from Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” series.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound unpeeled eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic or more

1 cup cooked white beans (or drained, rinsed canned beans)

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs or panko

Pinch red chili flakes, or to taste

2 cups any red marinara sauce

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.

Place 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add the eggplant and 1/4 cup water. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of a food processor.

Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of oil to the skillet with the onion and garlic and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add to the food processor along with the drained beans and parsley and pulse until well combined and chopped, but not puréed.

Combine the mixture with the breadcrumbs and red chili flakes if using. Taste for salt, then roll into 12 meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and bake until firm and browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm the marinara sauce and serve with the meatballs over pasta, zucchini noodles or on a whole-wheat roll.

Serves 4

Fried eggplant with chickpeas and mint chutney

Recipe from The New York Times.

For the eggplant:

2 pounds baby or small Italian eggplant, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds

Fine sea salt, as needed

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed

1 large white onion, halved and thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 pound ripe tomatoes, chopped (about 2 cups)

1 3/4 cups (one 15-ounce can) cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed if canned

For the mint chutney:

1 cup mint leaves

1 cup cilantro leaves and tender stems

1 serrano or jalapeño pepper, seeded and roughly chopped

1 scallion, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 garlic clove, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons lemon juice, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, more to taste

Plain yogurt, for serving (optional)

Season eggplant slices all over with salt. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add 1 tablespoon olive oil and heat until it thins out in the pan. Add enough eggplant slices to fit in one layer without overlapping. Cook until the bottoms are browned, then flip and continue to cook until well-browned and soft, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Add more oil if needed. Transfer cooked eggplant to a plate lined with paper towels, and repeat with more oil and eggplant until all the eggplant is cooked. Taste eggplant and add more salt if necessary.

Heat another tablespoon of oil in pan, then add the onions. Cook until softened and golden, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add spices and cook for 1 minute, then add tomatoes, chickpeas and 2 tablespoons water.

Partly cover the pan and let the mixture simmer until tomatoes start to break down, 10 to 15 minutes. Add eggplant to the pan and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, until sauce thickens.

While the eggplant cooks, combine all the ingredients for the chutney in a blender with 2 tablespoons water. Blend until puréed, about 1 minute. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt, or both, if needed.

Serve the eggplant topped with the chutney and yogurt if you like.

Per serving, based on 2: 777 calories; 31 g fat (4 g sat.); 108 g carb.; 37 g fiber; 36 g sugars; 28 g protein; 2,051 mg sodium.

Serves 2 to 3 as a main course, 4 to 6 as a side dish

Pasta alla Norma

Recipe from Mark Bittman of The New York Times. Note: Ricotta salata is the saltier, aged version of fresh ricotta. It can be grated or sliced, or crumbled like feta.

1 1/2 pounds eggplant

Olive oil as needed (at least 1/2 cup)

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

3 or 4 dried chilies

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, chopped (canned OK)

1 teaspoon good dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh

1 pound long pasta

1/2 cup chopped parsley or basil

1/2 cup grated ricotta salata (or, in a pinch, pecorino Romano)

Slice the eggplant about 1/2 inch thick. Cook in abundant olive oil, without crowding, sprinkling with salt and adding more oil as needed. You will undoubtedly have to cook in batches; take your time and cook until the eggplant is nicely browned and soft. Remove to a plate; do not drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, put a large pot of water to boil and salt it.

At the end of the cooking the eggplant, the pan will ideally have a couple of tablespoons of oil left. If there’s more or less, drain some off or add a bit. Turn the heat to medium, add the garlic and chilies, and cook until the garlic colors a little bit. Add the tomatoes and oregano, along with some salt and pepper; cook until saucy but not too dry, stirring occasionally.

Cook the pasta until tender but not mushy. While it’s cooking, cut the eggplant into strips and reheat for a minute in the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and toss it with the tomato sauce and the eggplant. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then top with the parsley or basil and grated cheese and serve.

Serves 4 to 6

Ratatouille

Recipe from food writer Emily Horton.

Note: To peel the tomatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil. Score the base of each tomato lightly with an “X.” Dunk the tomatoes in the boiling water until the skin begins to peel back. Once cooled, peel the skin off. (Cut in half and remove the seeds, if desired.)

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed

12 ounces zucchini or summer squash, cut lengthwise into 3/4-inch-thick slices

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

1 pound young eggplant, cut lengthwise into 3/4-inch-thick slices

1 medium (8 ounces) yellow onion, coarsely chopped

3 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 pound small, sweet red peppers, seeded and cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1 1/2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped (seeded, if desired; see note above)

2 or 3 sprigs basil

Leaves from 4 to 6 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup green olives, pitted and chopped (optional)

1 tablespoon salted capers, soaked in water for 10 minutes, drained and coarsely chopped (optional)

1 teaspoon mild ground red pepper, such as Aleppo (optional)

Set a large heatproof colander over a large bowl. (You’ll transfer cooked vegetables to the colander later.) Heat a wide, nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add 2 teaspoons of the oil and swirl to coat. A few seconds later, add enough zucchini slices to fit in a single layer. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon of salt, then cook for 7 to 8 minutes total, turning the slices as needed, until golden and just tender.

Transfer the slices to a cutting board; cut into 3/4-inch chunks, placing them plus any accumulated juices in the colander as you work; repeat with another 2 teaspoons of oil, 1/8 teaspoon of salt and the remaining zucchini. Set a separate, wide nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, then add enough eggplant slices to fit in a single layer. Sprinkle with 1/8 teaspoon salt. (If you need to do this in three batches rather than two, use 2 teaspoons of oil per batch.)

Cook for 10 to 14 minutes total, turning the slices over as needed, until tender and golden. Transfer the slices to a cutting board; cut into 3/4-inch chunks, placing them plus any accumulated juices in the colander with the zucchini as you work; repeat with 1 tablespoon of oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt and the remaining eggplant. Return one of the sauté pans to the stove top over medium heat; add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl to coat. Stir in the onion and garlic; cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Add the peppers and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook for 4 to 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Once the mixture is barely bubbling at the edges, reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for about 5 minutes or just until the peppers are tender. Pour the onion-pepper-tomato mixture into the colander over the zucchini and eggplant. (You’ll be using that pan again, in the next step.)

Allow their juices to drain into the bowl for 15 minutes, using a spatula to turn over the mixture a few times. Pour the accumulated juices from the bowl into the now-empty pan; add the basil sprigs (to taste). Increase the heat to medium; once the liquid bubbles at the edges, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is lightly syrupy and reduces enough to coat the back of a spoon. (The amount of liquid you begin with will vary depending on the water content of your vegetables, but once reduced, it should yield about about 1/3 cup.)

Transfer the vegetables in the colander to the bowl. Discard the basil sprigs (pressing them against the side of the pan to release as much liquid as possible), and pour the reduced liquid back over the vegetables, folding gently to incorporate completely. Season lightly with salt; cool to room temperature. Stir in the parsley and, if using, the olives, capers and ground red pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4

Spicy basil eggplant

Recipe from ThaiTable.com. Note: Fish sauce, also called nam pla, is available in the Asian section of any well-stocked grocery, usually near the soy sauce.

1 large purple eggplant or 2 Thai or Japanese eggplants

1 tablespoon oil

2 cloves chopped garlic

2 chile peppers or to taste, sliced

1 cup water

2 tablespoons fish sauce, see note

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Leaves from 1 bunch Thai basil or sweet basil

Cut the eggplant into bite-sized pieces.

Heat the oil over high or medium-high heat in a wok or large pan. Add the garlic and sliced peppers, and stir until the garlic turns golden brown. Stir in the eggplant and add the water. Cover, and cook until the eggplant is done, about 5 to 7 minutes — you can tell it is cooked if it has turned from white to translucent. If the eggplant is not yet cooked and all the water has been absorbed, add more water and cover until it is done.

Add fish sauce and sugar, and stir. Add basil and cook, stirring, just until it wilts. Serve hot with rice.

Per serving: 86 calories; 4g fat; 1g sat. fat; no cholesterol; 2g protein; 13g carbohydrate; 8g sugar; 4g fiber; 713mg sodium; 25mg calcium.

Serves 4

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