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FRESH FROM THE GARDEN : Eggplant: Food Indigo

October 25, 1990|EVAN KLEIMAN

Eggplant is the food sponge of the vegetable world; its greatest asset is its ability to absorb flavors. In addition, its own natural sweet, bland flavor acts as the perfect foil for an endless combination of seasonings.

Because of its unique spongy flesh, the taste and texture of eggplant changes dramatically depending on the cooking method used. Grilling lends a meaty succulence to the vegetable, especially when followed by a savory marinade of good-quality vinegar, olive oil and herbs; frying brings out the sweetness; and roasting results in a creamy, nutty flesh.

Although all varieties, regardless of shape or color, have the same taste, different types of eggplant lend themselves to different preparations. The small white egg-shaped fruits and the Japanese types are perfect for stuffing and baking; we also like to roast them whole with heads of garlic. Standard large purple eggplant yield slices suitable for grilling or frying. In addition, standard eggplants are perfect when roasted whole so that you can scoop out the creamy flesh for dips and cold salads.

Of the standard eggplant varieties, Black Beauty, Beauty Hybrid and Burpee Hybrid are the most commonly grown. Some Japanese-type eggplants are Ichiban, Early Long Purple and Long Tom Hybrid. For lovely small white fruits, try planting Easter Egg. Rosa Blanca yields a large, round violet- and-white-streaked fruit. All varieties of eggplant are perfectly suitable for growing in containers, which should be a minimum of 5 gallons in size. Japanese eggplants grown in containers are particularly beautiful on a sunny porch.

A few words about salting. Many recipes suggest salting sliced eggplant before cooking to extract bitterness. The source of the vegetable's potential bitterness are its seeds, which have a high water content. Salting draws out the water and--with it--the eggplant's bitterness. When the eggplant is young, as it usually is when picked from the home garden, its seeds are pale. Older fruits have darker, sometimes even black seeds. We feel that it is necessary to salt only older eggplants with darker seeds. Whether in the garden or the supermarket, always look for eggplants with taut, glossy skin; these qualities are good indicators of youth.

\o7 A highly seasoned mixture of ground lamb and spices is stuffed into the shell of the eggplant and baked. For the right portion size, pick eggplant when they are about 6 inches long and 4 inches in diameter.

\f7 MOUSSAKA

3 medium eggplants

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 pound ground lamb

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/3 cup red wine

1/4 cup canned tomato puree

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup grated mozzarella or casseri cheese

2 cups Bechamel Sauce

Cut eggplants in halves lengthwise. Scoop out pulp, leaving 1/2-inch shell. Make thin slice from middle of shell on skin side, so shell will stand firmly. Coarsely chop eggplant.

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add onion and cook until transparent. Add eggplant and cook until tender. Add lamb, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and parsley. Cook until browned. Add red wine and tomato puree. Simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Fill eggplant shells with meat mixture, leaving 1/2 inch of shell at top. Sprinkle with half of cheese. Pour Bechamel Sauce over meat, until it reaches top of shell. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Place stuffed eggplants in large baking dish with 1 inch warm water. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until eggplant shells are tender to touch and tops are browned and bubbly. Makes 6 servings.

Bechamel Sauce

1/4 cup butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups hot milk

Salt

White pepper

Melt butter in medium sauce pot over medium flame. Add flour and stir until smooth, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat. Gradually pour in hot milk, whisking constantly until mixture thickens. Simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

\o7 Serve this dip with Middle Eastern crackers or with pita bread. This version is of Syrian origin.

\f7 BABA GHANNOUJ (Eggplant Dip)

1 medium eggplant

Oil

3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)

Juice of 1 large lemon

1 clove garlic, chopped

Salt

Chopped parsley

Wash and dry eggplant. Place in oiled baking pan under broiler. Broil, turning several times until eggplant is evenly charred on outside and very tender on inside. Let cool slightly, then remove skin.

Mash eggplant pulp in bowl. Blend in tahini, lemon juice, garlic and season to taste with salt. Chill at least 1 hour. Serve cold or at room temperature. Garnish with chopped parsley. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

\o7 This salad combines the smokiness of roasted eggplant with crunchy, fresh vegetables.

\f7 EGGPLANT PEPPER SALAD

2 medium eggplants

3 cloves garlic, pressed

3 green onions, finely chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and diced

1 sweet red pepper, seeded and diced

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper

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