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IN SEASON

Breaking the Eggplant Rules

July 11, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

It used to be that eggplant was big and round and black. It was somewhat exotic and there were lots of rules about how it had to be prepared. It had to be peeled. It had to be salted. It was almost always fried. It's no wonder it rarely wound up on anyone's shopping list.

Nowadays, eggplant can be bought in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors--from the round white Southeast Asian variety (now you know why they call it eggplant) to the almost operatic, deeply ribbed lavender Rosa Bianca. Occasionally at farmers markets, you can even find the tiny green Thai eggplants that look like green peas on grape stems.

The most common varieties are the familiar large dark purple round type and the long thin ones. The round ones, which have a higher ratio of meat to skin, are best for sauteeing in dishes like caponata and ratatouille. Eggplant should be peeled for these.

The long thin eggplants--whether they're the dark purple type frequently called Japanese or the lavender-ish Thai type--are best for grilling. Simply cut them into three or four thick slices, keeping them attached at the stem end, and brush them with garlic-flavored olive oil before putting them on the barbecue. Brush again when you turn them and then a final time when they're golden and soft and you remove them from the grill. Layer them on the platter with lots of fresh basil, oregano and parsley and serve. Nothing could be easier.

Notice there was nothing in there about salting before cooking. Even though almost all old recipes call for it, that's really necessary only when you're frying eggplant. Salting does keep the eggplant firm after frying and does prevent it from soaking up too much oil (eggplant can be a bit of a grease sponge).

Salting doesn't do anything for bitterness, though, which is more a factor of the age of the eggplant than anything else. Eggplant that is either very large or very old tends to have more of a bitter edge to it.

Another old wives' tale in circulation has it that looking for a dimple or a point on the bottom of an eggplant can tell you whether an eggplant is male or female and therefore holds more or fewer seeds. In fact, you cannot tell a male eggplant from a female eggplant because there are no male eggplants. Like all other seed-bearing fruits and vegetables, the eggplant is female.

That aside, I haven't noticed any difference in the amount of seeds between dimpled and pointed eggplants, either.

Instead, spend your time searching for the freshest possible vegetables. Eggplant, partly because of its high water content, goes bad fairly quickly. A good eggplant will be heavy for its size, glossy in color and so firm it will look as if its skin is stretched almost to bursting. There should be no dents and certainly no soft spots.

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