Eggplant's beauty is more than skin deep

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008

If there were ever a beauty contest for vegetables, eggplant would be a serious contestant. Indeed, there are enough lovely varieties of eggplant to have a competition consisting of eggplant alone.

In addition to the common deep purple eggplant, with its smooth shiny skin, you would have to give serious consideration to the long slender Japanese eggplant, the lavender eggplant called purple rain and the purple-and-white striated version known as neon eggplant.

With all these colorful eggplant varieties, you may wonder how this vegetable got its name. Apparently the kinds of eggplant that were most common when it was introduced to this country were the smaller white varieties, including one called "white egg" which bears a striking resemblance to a goose egg.

First cultivated in southern India, eggplant is prominently featured in the cuisine of that country. It was introduced to Europe in the thirteenth century by Arab traders, and became a staple of Mediterranean cooking. Eggplant was introduced to the United States by Thomas Jefferson, who grew it at Monticello.

Eggplant is a versatile vegetable that can be grilled, baked, sautéed in olive oil, cooked in soups and stews, or breaded and fried. It has a firm meaty texture that makes it a favorite among vegetarians. Eggplant has a particular affinity for strong flavored vegetables and herbs like tomatoes, roasted pepper, garlic and basil, perhaps due to its sponge-like tendency to soak up the flavor of whatever it is cooked with.

September is an auspicious time to buy and eat eggplant. Since it is a vegetable that favors hot weather, the best eggplant will come to market after they have had some time to luxuriate in the heat of summer. When buying, favor firm, unblemished eggplant with smooth, shiny skin. Use them soon after buying, as they are exceedingly perishable.

When I was first starting to explore vegetarian cooking over 30 years ago, one of the first recipes I made was eggplant parmigiana from a wonderful cookbook called the "Vegetarian Epicure," which is now out of print. It is still one of my favorite ways to enjoy eggplant. Here's the recipe:

Eggplant parmigiana

1 medium eggplant, sliced thick

flour

1 egg beaten with some milk

dried breadcrumbs, wheat germ, or cracker meal

olive oil

½ pound Swiss Cheese or Mozzarella, sliced

6 oz. can tomato paste

white or red wine as needed

pinch of oregano

clove of garlic

salt and pepper

1 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese

Wash eggplant, and without peeling, slice it about ¾-inch thick. Dip these slices first in flour, then into the egg, then into the bread crumbs so they are well coated.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.



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