Alan Tangren: Eggplant’s late summer bounty
Ask the Forager
Dear Alan: I’m seeing a lot of eggplant in the market right now, but I don’t like the bitterness it sometimes has. Any tips?
Alan: Choosing and cooking eggplant can sometimes be a challenge, but there are a couple of things you can do to make sure your eggplant dish comes out sweet and tender.
At the market, choose eggplants that are very shiny and firm. These will be freshly harvested and not overripe. The best quality eggplant have dense, uniformly firm, sweet flesh, with small tender seeds.
Eggplant that are soft, dull and puffy are over the hill and will be more bitter. These also tend to have large, unpleasantly hard seeds.
If you grow eggplant in a home garden, pick them when they are no more than two-thirds full size.
Eggplants are native to tropical Asia, so the best time to shop for locally grown eggplant is during the hot months of late summer. And if you buy from the grower, you will get the freshest eggplant, and have a choice of varieties.
Anyone who has seen the White Egg variety doesn’t need to be told why they are called eggplant. The fruit is a perfectly white, perfectly shaped goose egg with a green cap and stem at the broad end.
But eggplant come in many shapes, sizes and colors. We are most familiar with the dark purple, oblong-shaped Globe varieties, but eggplant can be green, white, lavender, purple or even striped with white and purple.
The fruits of many of the Asian varieties are often slim and elongated. Two of the most common are the dark purple, medium length Japanese type, and the very long, pale lavender Chinese varieties.
The plants themselves are beautiful and well-behaved, ideal in an edible landscape where there is warmth and full sun. The tidy plants have beautiful grey-green leaves and purple flowers.
Like most tropical fruits, eggplant don’t do well stored in cold temperatures. You should try to use them soon after purchase or harvest. They will be fine overnight or for a day in the coolest part of the kitchen.
If you must keep them longer, refrigerate with plenty of air circulation and use them soon.
To prepare eggplant for cooking, rinse under a stream of cold water and dry with a towel. Trim off the end with the green cap and stem. Be aware of any small thorns.
The skin of most eggplant is tender and attractive. They don’t need peeling for many uses. But if you will be cooking them in a soup or purée, use a peeler or thin bladed paring knife to lift off the skin.
In some Middle Eastern recipes, you will be roasting eggplant whole and scooping out the flesh or pulling off the skin. Grilling whole eggplant outdoors gives the best flavor and texture, but you can also place them under a hot broiler or roast in a very hot oven, turning several times.
For large eggplant you can save time by cutting lengthwise and broiling or roasting with the skin side up. If you have a small amount to roast whole, you can place them in a gas flame on the stovetop and roast on all sides, as you might roast peppers.
If you find yourself with an overripe eggplant (through no fault of your own) you can draw out excess water and bitterness by salting. You shouldn’t have to do this for most recipes if you have fresh, sound eggplant.
Cut the eggplant into cubes or slices and salt liberally on all surfaces. Put the pieces in a non-corroding colander or strainer, set over a bowl or sink and let drain for an hour or two. Then rinse the pieces and press out excess liquid between kitchen towels before proceeding with the recipe.
The easiest way to cook, and my favorite, is to grill eggplant. Cut into 1/3-inch slices, brush with puréed garlic and olive oil, season with salt and pepper and place over a medium-hot grill.
When well marked on one side turn and finish cooking. Serve warm with some fresh chopped herbs, especially basil. Or serve cold as a salad, dressed with oil and vinegar.
Eggplant can also be baked, stuffed or braised; sautéed in olive oil or breaded and fried, the classic treatment for eggplant Parmesan.
You have to be careful when frying, because eggplant is such a sponge for soaking up oil. One way to counter this characteristic is to roast, bake or grill the eggplant first.
Asian eggplant are especially good sliced, grilled and served at room temperature as a salad, served with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil.
Globe eggplant are the ones to use for roasting whole and scooping out for soup or eggplant caviar.
All eggplant are ideal partners for Mediterranean flavors and ingredients. Combine with garlic, anchovies, olives, roasted peppers, basil and tomatoes.
With those companions, use eggplant in hors d’oeuvres, vegetable salads and antipasto. Eggplant pizza is a favorite at my house.
No, I did not forget ratatouille, the iconic Provençale vegetable creation. Like any recipe with many followers, there are many variations. Julia Child was uncomfortable with cooking the eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes together in the same pot. She wanted each vegetable to have its own precise cooking time and method.
I like to grill the vegetables (including tomatoes) until each is tender, then cut up and combine in a final mélange with garlic and basil. However you make it, just remember that any ratatouille tastes better the next day.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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