Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In Season: Eggplant

As a kid, I hated eggplant. Okay, maybe that is a bit of an overstatement; I thought I hated eggplant. To start, I didn’t like the name. I wasn’t wild about the egg, and figured that anything bearing its name, much less a plant, couldn’t be much better. Besides, it was brown and mushy and there was no way I was eating it.

I’m happy to report that things have changed.

Eggplant is available year round, but is in season in late summer to early fall. The deep purple, elongated pear-shaped variety is the most common, but other types are becoming more popular too. Baby eggplant, sometimes referred to as Italian eggplant, is a smaller version of the ones we’re most used to seeing at the grocery store, and is typically a bit more tender. Japanese eggplants are long and thin, and work well sliced into stir-fries and other mixed vegetable dishes.

But how do you choose a good one? Pick an eggplant that feels heavy and is free of soft spots. Many years ago I remember hearing that you should also look at the eggplant’s blossom end (the one opposite the green stem/cap). If it were round and flat and smooth, then it had fewer seeds and would be sweeter. If the end was indented like a belly button, it would be loaded with bitter seeds. One was supposed to be the “male” eggplant, and the other was “female”. I could never keep straight which was which—- I just knew to avoid those innie-belly buttons like the plague. Now I know that the innies are females and the smooth ones are male… stick with the boys on this one.

I love to grill eggplant— it gives it a great smoky flavor and a nice, crisp skin. I slice it in thick rounds (so they don’t fall through the grates), brush with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and fire up the grill. I like to leave the skin on for two reasons; it helps the rounds stay intact while cooking, and I love its flavor. Once grilled, I either use the rounds for sandwiches, as part of a grilled vegetable platter, or better yet, I spoon on tomato sauce and cheese for little individually-sized eggplant parmesans. They are light and delicious! You get all the flavor of this classic dish, without any of the breading, frying, assembling, and baking, all of which can be very time consuming.

When I prepared these grilled eggplants the other evening, I used a smaller, light purple and white striated variety I got at the farmers market (photo above). They were fresh and tasty, but the beautiful color was completely lost on the grill. Next time, I’ll stick to the larger, dark purple ones I normally use, which get richer looking as they cook.

I wasted a lot of years not eating eggplant…so now I’m making up for lost time. Fire up your grill and let me know if I’ve converted you too!

Italain Style Grilled Eggplant
Serves 2

2 medium eggplant, sliced into ½” rounds
Olive oil for brushing
Salt & Pepper
1 cup tomato sauce (your favorite variety)
½ cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup parmesan cheese

Preheat grill to medium high heat.
Brush eggplant rounds on both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place on grill and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until grill marks appear and the flesh begins to soften.
Flip rounds, and on the cooked side, place about a tablespoon of tomato sauce, a teaspoon of ricotta cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
Continue grilling an additional 3-5 minutes, until softened and sauce/cheese is hot and bubbly.
Serve with a green salad and crusty bread for a complete meal.

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