Exacting the eggplant

Savoring the last bite of summer!

Arlene Ridolfi Valentine
September 6, 2007

Even though the lazy beach days of August are now behind us, there’s still a bit of summer left on our Tuscan tables. The last of the eggplant bounty will linger into September and it’s a wonderful way to gently bridge the gap between the lightness of summer food and the more hearty fare that will follow as autumn peeks around the corner.

 

Eggplant, native to southern India, was introduced to the Mediterranean by the Arabs in the early Middle Ages. In fact, its scientific name, Solanum Melongerna, is derived from an Arabic term for this hearty vegetable. The English term ‘eggplant’ developed during the 18th century, when the fruits of some varieties of the plant were white or tan, thus resembling large eggs.

 

The eggplant belongs to the nightshade family and is actually a berry, related to both tomatoes and peppers. Commonly dark purple, but also white or green, eggplants vary in size and shape from small, slender, and elongated (fewer seeds and best used in recipes that call for dicing and sautéing) to large, round and bulbous (best choice for grilling or stuffing).

 

When choosing eggplants, look for bright green stems and skins that are taut and lustrous. Eggplant is generally bitter when raw, but it becomes tender and richly flavored when cooked. The first step in preparing eggplant is usually to salt it, let it sit for half an hour on a rack or paper towels, rinse and then proceed with the recipe.  This is a very effective way to soften the flesh and remove the bitterness.

 

Here are three eggplant recipes to help you savor summer just a bit longer. One is done on the grill, one in a sauté pan, and one in the oven.  All three, as noted in the recipes, offer great leftover options, so make more than you need.

 

Melanzane Ripiene

(Stuffed eggplant)

Serves 4

 

3 eggplants (tondo, the large bulbous type)

2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, chopped well

1 cup breadcrumbs

3 cloves garlic, diced

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

Preheat oven to 180 C. Wash the eggplant, cut off the green stems and slice in half lengthwise.  Score the pulp side of each eggplant half in a diamond shaped pattern with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut through the layer of skin on the bottom.

In a large frying pan, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Arrange the eggplant, skin side down, in the oil and sauté over medium heat for about five minutes, until the skin softens somewhat.  Turn each eggplant and sauté the cut side for another five minutes or until it begins to brown and soften.  Remove from heat and let cool.

When it is cool enough to handle, scoop out the contents of the eggplant, trying to leave the skin intact.  Place the eggplant pulp into a large bowl and add the chopped tomatoes and their juices, diced garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper and enough olive oil to keep the mixture moist.  Mix well.

Stuff the mixture back into the eggplant shells and arrange on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with olive oil. Bake for 30-40 minutes, checking to be sure the mixture does not dry out excessively. Serve at once.

Leftovers can be covered and stored in the refrigerator and are excellent the next day, either reheated or served at room temperature.

 

 

Melanzana Grigliata

(Grilled eggplant)

Serves 4

 

2 eggplants (tondo, the large bulbous type)

3 cloves garlic, diced

Wild fennel (finocchio selvatico, a fresh herb)

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

 

Wash the eggplant, cut off both ends and slice into thick slices. Arrange the slices on a baking rack or cookie sheet and sprinkle coarse salt over them. Allow them to sit for about half an hour, then rinse and pat dry.

Grill over hot coals, turning once, until both sides are browned well and the eggplant has softened. Remove from grill.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix olive oil, garlic, wild fennel, salt and pepper. Let stand.

Place the grilled eggplant slices in the bowl, allowing each one to be well-coated with the oil mixture. Cover with saran wrap and let sit in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Serve cold or at room temperature as an accompaniment to grilled meats. Any leftovers can be cut up, mashed and stored in a refrigerator container for a few days. This mixture makes an excellent topping on toasted bread rounds and offered as a snack at aperitivo time.

 

 

Melanzana con Finocchio Selvatico

(Eggplant with wild fennel) 

Serves 4

 

4 eggplants (the small, slender variety)

Wild fennel

2 cloves garlic (peeled and left whole)

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

Use the small, elongated type of eggplant for this recipe. Wash the eggplant and cut off the green stem. Slice into stick-like pieces, about the size of a finger.

In a frying pan, sauté the whole garlic cloves in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.

Immediately add sliced eggplant and four or five wild fennel pieces and sauté slowly for about 30 minutes until the eggplant becomes soft.  Add salt and pepper to taste, cover and let sit for a few minutes so that the flavors can meld.

This is a very good vegetable dish served warm or at room temperature. Any leftovers can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator and make excellent sandwich fillings inside crunchy Italian bread.

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