Most people seem to have strong feelings about eggplant. They either love it or hate it. But the key to enjoying eggplant lies in its preparation.
Personally, I like eggplant, but I rarely order it in restaurants because I'll usually be served a soggy, greasy mess on a plate. Give eggplant even a few minutes to sit in some oil, and it will soak it up faster than a sponge.
On the other hand, undercooked eggplant has a disturbingly squishy quality to it, with a nails-down-the-blackboard metallic aftertaste.
Properly prepared, however, eggplant can have a creamy, melting texture and appealing smoky taste that is the essence of early fall.
"When you prepare and grill eggplant correctly," says Kerry Heffernan, executive chef and co-owner of Oakland's Autumn Moon Cafe, "it gets that kind of marshmallow flavor, that hint of charred sweetness."
Eggplant thrives in Northern California's hot inland climate during our late Indian summers. Because we have farmers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds around the Bay Area, it's possible to find everything from the standard purple-black Italian Globe eggplant to skinny purpley-green Indian eggplant the size of a cigar, to golfball or cherry-sized varieties of Asian eggplant ranging from white to pink to green striped.
Farmer Richard Firme of Firme Farms grows just one variety of eggplant on a quarter-acre of his 27-acre farm in Gustine.
"I like my Rosa Bianca, which is a large, whitish-pink Italian variety, because it's very sweet, with a high moisture content, so it doesn't require much additional liquid when cooked. I actually prefer them baked, rather than braised."
Firme's farm is currently in the second year of its transitional phase, which means it has been free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for two of the three years necessary for organic certification in California.
Tom Palley of Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables grows a wide variety of eggplant on his farm. "I have Black Bell, similar to Globe. It's large and glossy, but we pick it at under a pound. If they get too big, they get spongy. If they feel soft when you gently squeeze them, they're no good."
Palley also grows Nadia, a more cylindrical, classic Italian variety, and Neon, a "glowing pink-purple variety similar to the Japanese eggplant," he says.
Snowy is a white version of Nadia, while Orient Express is a classic Japanese variety. Zebra is an elongated, reddish eggplant with white stripes.
Palley says he doesn't notice a discernible flavor difference between varieties, although bitterness is a concern.
"Some people are more sensitive to it than others," he says, "and have allergic reactions if they don't salt the eggplant prior to cooking, which is supposed to draw the bitter juices out. But if eggplant is fresh, it tastes pretty satisfying even if you skip salting."
One thing growers point out is that eggplants are at their best up to two days after harvest. Beyond that, they lose their luster and start to develop unappealing brown spots. "If we have leftover eggplant after a market, or they're ripe on the plant," says Palley, "we have no choice but to harvest and compost them. They just don't hold well."
Although it may seem wasteful, composting leftover ripe eggplant isn't a loss to growers. "As compost, it keeps the crops going, and you have to harvest when crops are ready, otherwise the plant will go to seed, and you won't get a continued yield from it," explains Palley.
Eggplant should be stored in the refrigerator, but use it within a couple of days, or it'll lose its flavor.
My favorite way to prepare eggplant is to halve Japanese or other slender varieties, toss them with a little olive oil, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, and grill or broil until the skin begins to blister and the insides turn soft and creamy. Sprinkle some goat cheese mixed with chopped herbs on top, allowing the residual heat to melt the cheese a bit, or finish under the broiler, and you have a simple starter or side dish for an al fresco meal.
Kerry Heffernan likens eggplant to tofu, because they both take on the flavor of other ingredients.
"We do an African stew with chick peas, roasted eggplant, tomato, cinnamon, cumin, garlic and onion. It's mouthwatering. Eggplant has such a rich, meaty flavor that you can use it as a meat substitute."
Heffernan advises against salting eggplant. "To me, salt overpowers it. They're so absorbent, so they soak it right up -- it's all I can taste. The important thing is to grill or saute immediately after tossing in oil, or else it will sink in and make your dish greasy."
Another way to remove bitterness without having to salt the eggplant is to parboil it for just a few minutes.
To achieve proper browning and prevent excess oil absorption, preheat your grill, oven or saut pan. When sauting, heat your pan over medium-high heat, then add your fat (oil, butter, etc.), swirling it around to coat the surface of the pan. Give the fat time to heat -- at least 30 seconds. Test the temperature of the pan with a drop of water or a piece of raw vegetable. If it sizzles on contact, the pan is hot enough.
Eggplant is available from the following farms: Firme Farms, Berkeley farmers' market; Covelo Organic Fruits & Vegetables, Berkeley farmers' market; Full Belly Farm, Berkeley and Palo Alto farmers' markets; Riverdog Farm, Berkeley and St. Helena Farmers' markets; Terra Firma Farms, Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets.
SUMMER MEDITERRANEAN GRATIN
Recipe by Gary Danko, chef/owner of Gary Danko in San Francisco, featured in "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 cup light olive oil
1 1/2 pounds zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
3 medium onions, peeled and coarsely minced
1 1/2 pounds fennel bulb, sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/2 cup finely grated fresh bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons scallions, green parts only, or chives, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds large ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place eggplant slices on a thick sheet pan. Brush both sides of the eggplant with a thin coat of olive oil. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool.
In a large, hot saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over a medium-high flame, add the zucchini slices, turn heat to high, and saute for 4 minutes. Salt lightly. Remove from pan and cool.
Using the same saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, stir in the onion, and saute for 4 minutes. Add the fennel and cook until tender, over low heat, about 30 minutes. Salt to taste. Let cool.
In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, scallions or chives, 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste), and several grinds of pepper.
Reduce oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush a 16-by-10-inch gratin dish with olive oil. Line the bottom of the dish with half the onion-fennel mixture, and in succession, cover with a layer of sliced tomatoes, a layer of zucchini, and a layer of eggplant. Between each layer, sprinkle 1/4 cup of the bread-crumb-grated cheese mixture. Repeat, using all the vegetables and ending with a layer of eggplant.
Bake for 50 to 70 minutes, until bubbly and slightly brown on top. Serve warm or at room temperature. The gratin is best if allowed to mellow at least 1/2 hour before serving. It also reheats well. Serves 4.
Per Serving: 512 Calories; 35g Fat; 16g Protein; 41g Carbohydrate; 13g Dietary Fiber; 16mg Cholesterol; 495mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
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