The Misunderstood Eggplant
My favorite line about eggplant is from “How to Pick a Peach,” an appreciation of seasonal produce by Russ Parsons. “Let’s get one thing straight: most eggplants are not bitter (even though they have every right to be after everything that has been said about them).”
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People do have strong feelings about eggplant. If they don’t like it, they usually cite its bitterness or heaviness. Salting does improve eggplant’s texture if it’s to be fried, Parsons notes, but that’s the only reason to purge it.
The problem with frying is that eggplant will soak up every ounce of fat in the skillet, which is why so many eggplant dishes are heavy. But there’s an alternative. I get around frying eggplant, even in dishes where eggplant is sautéed, by roasting it first. Then I cut it into pieces and cook it again with the other ingredients in the dish. Roasted eggplant has a deep, complex flavor. As long as you don’t need firm slices, roasting is a great way to avoid making it heavy.
Eggplant is also terrific grilled, and you’ll be amazed by how silky and delicious it can be when steamed and tossed with a dressing.
Some people object to eggplant’s skin. That’s too bad, because the skin of purple eggplants contains its most valuable nutrient, a powerful antioxidant called nasunin, one of a type of flavonoid called anthocyanins present in many fruits and vegetables with red, blue and purple hues (berries, beets and red cabbage, to name a few). Choose the purple varieties when you shop, and leave the skin on.
A roasted eggplant is fragrant and delicate, so no surprise that roasting is the first step in most of this week’s eggplant recipes. Large globe eggplants require from 20 to 25 minutes to cook, depending on how plump they are. Small narrow eggplants, such as Japanese eggplants, take about 15 minutes.
If you need for the eggplant to hold its shape, roast it for a shorter time, until you see the skin beginning to wrinkle.
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the stem and calyx off the eggplant, and cut the body lengthwise in half. Score large eggplants down the middle with the tip of a knife, being careful not to cut through the skin. Japanese eggplants and other small eggplants need not be scored.
Cover a baking sheet with foil, and brush the foil with extra virgin olive oil. Place the eggplant on the foil, cut side down. Place in the oven and roast large, fat eggplants for 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the size; small, narrow Japanese eggplants (and other varieties) should be roasted for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven when skin has begun to shrivel, the edges and cut surface are browned, and the eggplant has softened but not collapsed. Remove from the oven, and use a spatula to detach from the foil if the eggplant is sticking. (If a thin surface of browned eggplant stays behind, don’t worry.) Place the eggplant halves cut side down on a rack set over a baking sheet, or in a colander. Allow to cool and drain for 15 to 30 minutes.
Advance preparation: You can roast eggplant several hours before you use it in a recipe.