I was never partial to eating eggplant until Jean began cooking it. It wasn’t part of my family’s German-American menu in my childhood, and I basically knew it somewhat later as part of eggplant parmesan, a dish I came to like at Italian restaurants when the eggplant was mild, but which all too often was bitter, even biting. So when I started our garden, eggplant was not on my must-grow list.
But Jean has brought her versatility to eggplant (see below), which can grow prolifically. Moreover, the Japanese variant I planted this year looks gorgeous in its shiny lavender-to-magenta-to deep-purple coat as it hangs slenderly amid the muted green leaves.
I planted the one plant in mid April, along with the tomatoes, herbs, peppers, strawberries, and zucchini. But of all these the eggplant came along latest. The plant didn’t leaf out significantly until the end of May, and lavender buds appeared in late June. The first fruits began appearing in late July, and I didn’t harvest until early August. In the last month, however, it’s been a steady producer, until now in mid September, when some of the leaves are starting to brown out. Overall, fruiting happened a good six weeks after the tomatoes and zucchini, but while almost all of the tomato plants are now exhausted, the eggplant is still producing. (The zook still goes on relentlessly; that’s chronicled in “Z Is for Zucchini.”)
So, if your garden is like mine, just be patient with the eggplant, and you will be rewarded.
Now to the good part, the cuisine.
First let me say I love eggplant parmigiana, but have also had some bitter ones at restaurants, even ones that boasted about this dish and charged a good deal for it. I made it once for a Valentine’s Day dinner, and the eggplant turned out so buttery soft and sweet in its light breading with a fresh marinara sauce and cheese topping, we both thought it was perhaps the most delicious and romantic Valentine’s Day dinner we had ever had. I had sworn I would make Chris learn to enjoy eggplant, and I accomplished it that day!
(By the way, since his major objection was to its bitterness, I’m not sure I believe in the methods I’ve seen and tried for trying to draw the bitterness out of eggplant before cooking it. I think you need to find fresh young ones that do not have many seeds, which is where most of the bitterness comes from.)
Another good way to use eggplant is in caponata. Like the French ratatouille, it is a great way to use summer vegetables and herbs you may have in excess–tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, fresh herbs, and zucchini, in addition to the eggplant. The picture below shows my dish–sort of a mash-up of caponata (which generally does not include squash and has more sour elements) and ratatouille (which doesn’t include olives).
The finished vegetable mixture may yummily be served on some toasted French or Italian bread, or on polenta. Below are a couple of links to recipes, but of course you can play with these a little, including what garden produce you have the most of. The procedures are simple–cooking the veggies, chopping and dressing them. (I prefer roasting or pan-frying eggplant in a moderate amount of oil, rather than throwing them directly into any kind of sauce, soup. or stew, which I don’t find develops the flavor or texture of the eggplant as successfully.)
But I’m not finished. My favorite way to eat eggplant is with Asian flavors, Japanese specifically. (The word for eggplant in Japanese is “nasu,” much easier to say than the Italian “melanzana,” the Spanish “berenjana,” or the French “aubergine.” (Apparently German doesn’t have its own word for it.)
Our eggplant was actually a long, narrow Japanese variety, so this turned out to be the most successful recipe of all. First, slice four to six eggplants lengthwise or else in about 1 inch slices on the diagonal. Turn them over to coat in oil on some parchment paper or aluminum foil spread on a baking sheet. Dust lightly with garlic salt. Bake at 400-425 degrees for 15-20 minutes. I’m being vague about the temperature and times because you want to keep an eye on these. Make sure the oil doesn’t start to smoke, and don’t let the eggplant get completely mushy. If you want to roast other vegetables like zucchini and carrots alongside, as I did, they will require more time. Use a long-handled fork to poke them until you feel the degree of doneness but firmness you like. You’ll be cooking them a little more, so don’t let them go too far at this stage.
Take them out of the oven and brush them with the glaze you have prepared while the veggies were roasting. It’s very simple to make:
1/4 c. miso paste, red or white (fermented soybean paste–this stuff is good for you and totally worth looking for; you can make Asian soups and salad dressings from it as well)
2 T. grated fresh ginger (you can also use a paste sold in a squeeze tube alongside the similarly prepared herbs in the produce section of your supermarket)
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 T. reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 T. rice wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1/4 tsp. black or white pepper
Stir these together with a tablespoon or so of water if you need to loosen it up enough to brush over the top side of the vegetables. Put them back in the oven to bake for another ten minutes. When you pull them out, sprinkle with the following:
2 T. sesame seeds
2 T. chopped scallions or chives
If the eggplant skins are too tough, don’t worry about it. Just scrape out the lovely soft insides and enjoy alongside some rice perhaps. This picture shows a Mexican rice mixture as a side.
I also plan to roast the rest of our eggplant with my easy Mexican mole sauce, but that’s another story.