Simply Fresh—by Julie Wern
While many varieties and colors of eggplant exist, two general types are most familiar in the US. They are globe (or bell) and Asian eggplants. Globe/bell, or Italian-style eggplants, are large, oval or round shaped, and typically a dark shade of purple; whereas Asian eggplants tend to be long and thin, and of a lighter color (with some variations).
While the size and shape of the two types of eggplant lend themselves to slightly different preparation methods, their ultimate taste is barely indistinguishable. Some argue that Asian eggplants are less bitter; however, bitterness tends to be a function of age and skin. In general, eggplants that are harvested later or kept too long in storage tend to be more bitter. Some say that the thicker skins of globe eggplants contribute to their increased bitterness over Asian varieties. However, if they aren’t too big or over-ripe, globe eggplants can be as sweet and succulent as the Asian types. Many people opt to peel globe eggplants before cooking to avoid bitterness and a tough exterior, although it is simply a matter of preference.
While we have enjoyed Asian eggplants from the farm in the past few weeks, this week we will be sampling two kinds of globe eggplant–a typical Italian Bell and the Beatrice variety. Italian bells are oval and medium-to-large, with dark purple skin. Beatrice are rounder and lighter colored. They are known for being denser and milder than other, more typical Italian bells.
When prepared correctly, eggplant is a divine food, with a silky soft flesh and rich taste. It is prized in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, where it stars in dishes like Greek Moussaka, Middle Eastern Baba Ganouj, Italian Caponata, and French Ratatouille. It pairs great with many meats and other seasonal vegetables, especially tomatoes and zucchini.
Eggplant needs to be cooked fully in order to achieve its signature creamy texture and rich flavor. Undercooked eggplant is rubbery and unappetizing. Eggplant can be steamed, roasted, baked, sautéed, and grilled. However, I have found that on the grill or in a sauté pan it can tend to dry out before it gets sufficiently soft. This is often avoided by a) adding water or another liquid to the pan, b) by lowering the temperature, c) by covering it during and after cooking to allow steam to re-moisturize it, and/or d) by “sweating it”.
Eggplant’s spongy texture causes it to soak up most of the oil or fat in a dish, which often leads to too much calorie-laden oil being added and absorbed. This is why recipes often direct you to “sweat” the eggplant first by salting it. The salting apparently makes the eggplant less absorbent and spongy. Some say it also removes bitter flavors. Sweating is generally not necessary for smaller, Asian eggplants, but is often recommended for globe eggplant.
To “sweat” eggplant, slice or cut it into desired shapes. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Toss to distribute evenly. Allow to sit for 1 hour. Dry with paper towels. Proceed with preferred cooking method.
Choose firm eggplants without marred or bruised skin or soft spots. Stems should be nice a green. The ideal temperature for eggplant storage is 50 degrees, as colder temperatures tend to increase spoilage and bitterness. This requirement is a challenge for us here in the northeast as most cellars are hotter than this in the summer. You can leave an eggplant out on the counter for a few days, but if you need to store it longer than that, refrigerate it. Store unwashed eggplants in plastic or a kitchen towel in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. Make sure the eggplant has plenty of space so that it doesn’t get bruised by other items, which can cause the eggplants to spoil and develop a bitter taste. Eggplants should keep at least a week in the refrigerator, but they may get more bitter the longer they sit.
Cooked eggplant freezes very well, as do pre or partially cooked eggplant casseroles (like Eggplant Parmesan). According to Janet Chadwick in The Beginner’s Guide to Preserving Food at Home, blanched eggplant can be frozen as well. Add lemon juice to the water (1/4 cup per ½ gallon) to prevent discoloration and blanch for four minutes. Drain, pat dry and freeze.
Since I have made sautéed Asian eggplant fairly recently, I decided to focus my globe eggplant preparation around one of my favorite cooking methods—grill roasting whole eggplants. The silky, succulent, smoky flesh is wonderful for dips and soups. I even mix it with ground chicken to make a moist, delicious meatloaf Parmigiana, with hidden nutrition that even the pickiest eater won’t suspect.
I have tried several different ways to grill roast eggplant. My favorite way is to wrap the whole eggplant tightly in foil during most of the cooking. This keeps it really moist and yields a silky outcome. To get some smoky flavor, I keep the packet open for the first 10-15 minutes of cooking (you can even use smoke chips at this point), then turn the eggplants and tightly seal the packet. After cooking, I allow the finished eggplant to steam in the foil packet for at least 30 minutes before scooping the flesh out and pureeing it.
If you have more than one eggplant, roast them all at once in individual packets so you can make several different things with them. The cooked flesh will keep in the refrigerator for several days and can also be frozen (add a bit of lemon juice to avoid discoloring).
Baba ganouj is an absolutely addictive Middle Eastern dip. Once you have the grilled, roasted, pureed eggplant, the rest is a cinch. This recipe is easily halved if you only have one eggplant. Serve with veggies and pita chips. If you wish to forgo the smoking chips, just proceed with the instructions as if the smoking chips were on the grill.
Baba Ganouj Makes about 2 cups
– 2 medium eggplants
– 2 large cloves garlic
– 3 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
– 1/4 cup tahini
– 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
– 1/2 teaspoon cumin
– 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Preheat grill to mediun. Soak smoke chips in water for 20 minutes. Drain. Place woodchips on a piece of heavy-duty foil. Fold up edges to make an open-topped container. Make double-layer foil packets for the eggplants. Place wood chips and eggplants on grill grate over medium heat. Keep eggplant packets open and grill for 10-15 minutes. Turn eggplants and return to foil. Tightly seal foil packets. Grill, covered, turning eggplants every 10-15 minutes, until eggplants are very soft. Remove eggplants and let cool for 30 minutes in sealed foil packet
2. Scoop cooled eggplant flesh away from skin and place flesh in blender or food processor. Add any juices that have accumulated in the foil packet. Add garlic, salt, cumin, tahini and lemon juice and process until very smooth. Taste for salt and lemon juice level. Adjust as necessary. Chill until ready to serve, at least 30 minutes or up to 4 days. Serve at room temperature drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped parsley.
My stepfather requests this soup whenever he visits. It is one of our family’s favorite ways to have eggplant in the summer. The recipe was adapted from Epicurious.com.
Chilled Eggplant Soup w/ Red Pepper and Olive Relish Serves 6
– 2 medium globe eggplants (about 1 1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
– 2 teaspoons ground cumin
– 1 16 ounce container plain low-fat or non-fat Greek yogurt
– 1 cup low-fat (1%) milk
– 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
– 2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
– 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
– 3 clove garlic, peeled
– 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
– 1/4 cup roughly chopped pitted Kalamata olives
– 1 large roasted red pepper from a jar, see note below
– 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Prepare grill on medium heat. Place eggplant in a double-sheeted foil packet. Grill eggplant with packet open for 10 minutes to get smoke flavor (if you wish to use smoke chips, do so at this point…) Turn eggplants, then fold packet up tight and continue to grill, turning occasionally, until flesh is very soft. Transfer eggplant to baking sheet. Let stand, covered, for 30 minutes to steam. Set aside.
In a small skillet, toast cumin until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Scoop eggplant from skin and transfer flesh to blender; discard skin. Pour any juices from foil packet into blender. Add cumin, yogurt, milk, olive oil, 1 tablespoon mint, lemon juice, and garlic. Blend until very smooth. Transfer soup to large bowl or pitcher. Mix in 1 1/4 cups broth. If soup is too thick add more broth to desired consistency. Season generously with salt and pepper (this soup needs plenty of salt to liven it’s subtle flavors).
Cover soup and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate). Before serving, thin soup with more broth, if desired. Also, taste again for salt level and add salt if necessary.
To serve, roughly chop roasted bell pepper and mix with olives and remaining 1 tablespoon mint. Ladle soup into bowls. Sprinkle with bell pepper mixture and toasted pine nuts and serve.
If you have a fresh red pepper, grill it and then steam it with the eggplant, remove the skin, and proceed with the rest of recipe.
For this recipe I have included a way to oven-roast globe eggplants. However, you can use grill-roasted eggplant to the same effect (see above). This meatloaf is surprisingly moist and delicious for such a lean meat. As I mentioned, even the most stubborn eggplant hater will love this.
This recipe can easily be halved for one pound of ground chicken, but you may not have any leftovers!
Chicken Parmesiana Meatloaf Serves 6
– 2 medium globe eggplants
– 4 cloves garlic, crushed
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 2 pounds ground chicken
– 1/3 cup tomato sauce or marinara
– 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400. Spray a 9X 13″ baking pan or casserole dish (like a pyrex) with cooking spray. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and place each half, cut side-down in pan. Cover tightly with foil and place in preheated oven. Bake until completely soft, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 10 minutes. Uncover and allow to cool. Using a spoon, scoop flesh from eggplant skin and place in food processor. Add crushed garlic and salt. Process until completely smooth. Scrape out into a medium bowl.
2. Add ground chicken to bowl with eggplant mixture. Using hands, mix gently until combined. Mixture will seem quite moist.
3. Spray a flat baking rack with cooking spray and place in a baking pan (or use a broiler pan with bottom insert). Carefully pat chicken mixture into a 9 X 5″ loaf shape on baking rack, not pushing too hard to avoid pushing the delicate, moist meat mixture to the bottom through the rack. Cover with tomato or marinara sauce. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with Parmesan. Place back in oven and continue to bake for 10-15 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 170. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes. Slice into individual servings.
As the summer wears on, it can be challenging to figure out how to use all the cucumbers….here is a delicious cold cucumber soup that will not only cool you off, but make your taste buds sing. I used the wonderful cutting celery that is in the PYO section of the farm for this recipe.
Cool, Creamy Cucumber Soup Serves 4
– 4 medium cucumbers, peeled and chopped
– 2 small shallots, chopped
– scant 1/4 cup cutting celery, loosely packed
– 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
– 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
– 3/4 teaspoon salt
– 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
– 1/2 cup Fat Free Greek Yogurt
– 1/2 cup Low fat buttermilk
– chopped golden cherry tomatoes
– minced cutting celery
Place cucumbers, shallots, 1/4 cup cutting celery, extra virgin olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, and white pepper in a blender. Blend on high until completely smooth. Mix in yogurt and buttermilk. Mix until smooth and completely incorporated. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve cold with tomato and cutting celery relish.