When summer returns to hibernation for another year, I find myself buying more and more at local farmers markets, trying to make the lazy days of summer last. The evenings now cry for comfort and rich flavors, yet the weather is still warm. What am I to do? Turn to eggplant.
Long ago and not so far away, I only knew eggplant as something big, purple, and great when breaded. I gave the “vegetable” little thought, attention or love. I have now come to find that this fruit-a berry, actually-is delicious and offers dietary fiber, vitamins, and plenty of antioxidants thanks to their dark purple skin.
In season from June to September, the time to enjoy eggplant is now. Smaller varieties taste the same as the larger ones, yet the skin and flesh are more tender. Though there are more varieties of eggplants than even scientists know (there are at least 56 major varieties), in stores you will probably find three general kinds of eggplants. The largest and most common type is purple eggplant, which are distinguished by glossy, deep purple skins in a large bulb or pear shape. Smaller is the Italian eggplant, with soft skin and delicate flesh, and thinner yet is the Japaneseeggplant, with a tad sweeter flavor. These can be varied in color with stripes or shades of purples. White eggplants, which are seedy, less bitter, and deliciously creamy and dense, are sometimes available as well.
Eggplant has been given a bad rap as a bitter food. Historically, people felt this plant was too bitter and it was shunned as rumors circulated that it caused insanity. But eggplants are rarely more bitter than most vegetables, and that ting of flavor actually helps the eggplant distinguish its own flavor profile. If you notice the bitterness, look for a fresher and younger eggplant. (Don’t try to draw out the bitterness by salting; it won’t work.)
When selecting eggplant, appearance matters. Look for taut, wrinkle-free skin that appears as if it’s pulled over the dense flesh. The fruit should feel soft and springy, but spongy is not a good sign. If you’ve cut or eaten raw eggplant, you will hear an almost squeaking sound as you cut the flesh, signaling a springy dry-moist texture. I know that sounds off the wall, but listen next time you cut and prepare your own eggplants, and you’ll hear what I mean. Eggplant only looks tough-it really does have to be babied in terms of care. They really hate the cold temperatures and dents are a sign of age, so pick youngsters and store in a cool place for two to three days.
Nutritionally, all varieties offer the same value, and there could not be a better alternative for people looking to cut calorie-rich, fat-laden meat from their diets. Meatless meals are not only more cost efficient, but given most people are eating inferior factory feed lot animals, minimizing meat consumption could be in everyone’s best interests. A cup of eggplant cubes has a meager 20 calories and is hearty with a good chew. Fiber, potassium and folate are in the mix as well, though the big selling point here is the antioxidant-rich skin: Research has linked the antioxidant found in eggplant skin to the protection of brain cells from free radicals, while other studies show its cholesterol-lowering benefits.
The end of summer is the perfect time to enjoy a seared eggplant and white bean salad, full of fresh greens (I like arugula or butterhead lettuce) and topped with a quality olive oil. When you’re dressing any eggplant dish with an oil, the flavor of the oil is key, as eggplant is a happy little sponge ready to soak up liquids. Though fruity olive oils are usually best with other sweet flavors, I like the contrast with the pronounced eggplant flavor. When browning eggplant, make sure to achieve a good browning quickly, so as to prevent the eggplant from becoming soggy.
Slices of eggplant can be layered into lasagnas and casseroles, added to pizzas or flatbreads, or the entire vegetable roasted and the soft flesh mashed or blended into dips, spreads or side dishes. Grill long slices and roll with mozzarella and prosciutto. Eggplant can also be stuffed with feta cheese, pine nuts and/or marinated artichokes, or topped with a light marinara sauce and baked.
May you find eggplant to be a quick and delicious option for a light dinner, allowing these summer flavors to linger just a little longer.