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Eggplant, Meat of the Meatless

August 15, 1991|FAYE LEVY

Although eggplant evokes images of Mediterranean lands, it originated in Indochina and is important in the cuisines of India and the Far East as well. In the Middle East, it is the basis for a multitude of wonderful dishes. I became familiar with eggplant 20 years ago when I moved to that region. Since I loved the many eggplant specialties I tasted, I was motivated to prepare it often.

Unfortunately, traditional recipes can create the impression that eggplant is complicated to cook and needs lots of fat. Some cooks advise salting the slices and drying them in the sun for an hour before cooking them, to remove bitter juices. Other recipes demand that you dip the slices in egg and bread crumbs, fry them in plenty of oil, then bake them with copious quantities of cheese.

For most meals, I wanted the eggplant to be ready in a short time and with a minimal amount of fat. Boiling the eggplant was not a good solution, I found, as it absorbed too much water and lost its flavor.

My favorite technique for eggplant-in-a-hurry is a combination of sauteing and steaming. I cut the eggplant into cubes, saute the cubes slightly, then cover the pan and let them steam until fork-tender. The eggplant is done in minutes and does not require my standing over a hot skillet for a prolonged session. I use just enough oil for flavor, and I sprinkle the cubes with thyme or oregano and a dash of cayenne pepper. If the eggplant is fresh, there is no need to salt it ahead to remove the juices.

Prepared this way, eggplant is as simple to use as zucchini or broccoli. It can be cooked ahead and reheated easily and can be served hot as a side dish or cool as a salad.

For an accompaniment or a vegetarian main course, quick-sauteed eggplant is delicious mixed with cooked rice, pasta or couscous . You can add diced tomatoes, garlic and herbs at the steaming stage for a quick version of the famous Provencal eggplant stew ratatouille. Or follow the example of Mediterranean cooks--add the cooked eggplant cubes to meat or chicken stews a few minutes before serving, so they gain flavor from the sauce.

At the market, choose eggplants that feel heavy and have glossy, firm skin with no brown spots. It is best to cook them within two days. When eggplants are fresh, there is no need to peel them, but if the peel feels tough, cut it off.

If you happen to find the slim, zucchini-size Japanese or Chinese eggplants or small versions of the regular Italian eggplants, be sure to try these. They have a slightly more delicate flavor than large eggplants. The same is true of the egg-shaped white eggplants.

EASY CURRIED EGGPLANT

1 to 1 1/4 pounds eggplant, unpeeled

3 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced ginger root, optional

5 medium cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley

Salt

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

Cut eggplant in 3/4-inch dice. Heat oil in heavy, wide casserole. Add onion and ginger root and cook over low heat 7 minutes. Add garlic, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add eggplant and season to taste with salt. Saute over low heat, stirring, until eggplant is coated with spices. Add tomatoes and bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring often, about 30 minutes or until eggplant is very tender and mixture is thick.

Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with remaining 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro. Makes 4 servings.

QUICK-SAUTEED EGGPLANT

1 (1-pound) eggplant

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley or cilantro

Cut eggplant in 3/4-inch dice. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large heavy skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add eggplant cubes and season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute, stirring, 3 or 4 minutes. Sprinkle with thyme and cayenne.

Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, 7 to 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Adjust seasonings to taste. Sprinkle with bit more oil, if desired. Gently stir in parsley before serving. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Variation: Quick-Sauteed Eggplant With Mushrooms:

Cut 8 ounces fresh mushrooms into thick slices. Saute in 1 tablespoon oil in skillet about 3 minutes. Remove to plate. Saute eggplant as above. Before covering pan of eggplant, add sauteed mushrooms. Cover and cook together until tender.

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