Eggplant is not usually considered a suitable choice for quick meals or for light cooking. Many old-fashioned recipes call for salting it, breading it and frying it, and these are just the preliminary steps.
Yet eggplant is the ingredient I often turn to when I want a fast, easy-to-make, satisfying entree that is also low in fat. The trick is to choose the right cooking technique. If you stew the eggplant in a flavorful sauce, you can have a vegetarian entree ready in about half an hour.
I like to use a Greek-style tomato sauce with briefly sauteed onions, garlic, bay leaf and oregano. Although I use only a little olive oil, the eggplant stew is rich in flavor. To prepare the sauce rapidly, I use canned diced tomatoes, and I chop the fresh flavorings in the food processor.
The secret to the stew's good taste is to use fresh eggplants with firm, smooth, shiny skins and no soft spots; old ones can be bitter, and their peel can be tough. If your market carries Japanese eggplants, they are the best choice. They cook faster, their peel is more tender and their flavor is more delicate.
In summer, Japanese eggplants are plentiful and their price is reasonable. For the last two years I've enjoyed growing them in my garden. The plants are lovely, with attractive purple flowers, and they produce lots of eggplants.
Like other braised dishes, eggplant stew keeps well, so you can prepare this meatless main course up to three days ahead. It reheats beautifully in a saucepan or in the microwave. On a hot summer day, you'll find it's also delicious served at room temperature.
White rice is a traditional Greek accompaniment, but I opt for brown rice in a vegetarian meal since it is more nutritious. I use the 10-minute brown rice and cook it while the eggplant is simmering. If you don't feel like preparing rice, the eggplant tastes great with fresh crusty bread.
To keep to a Greek theme, prepare an appetizer salad of lettuce dressed lightly with vinaigrette and topped with diced tomatoes, a few capers or black olives and a bit of feta cheese. Finish the dinner with grapes or fresh figs.
Levy's latest book is "30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes" (Warner Books).
GREEK EGGPLANT STEW
1 1/4 pounds Japanese eggplants or 1 Italian eggplant, unpeeled
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground pepper
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, preferably Italian, optional
To save time when preparing this stew, use a food processor to chop the ingredients: first chop the garlic, then the onion. (If you start with the onion, it makes the processor bowl wet.) While the eggplant is simmering, wipe the processor and chop the parsley.
Cut eggplant into 3/4- or 1-inch dice.
Heat oil in heavy Dutch oven or large casserole. Add onion and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Stir in garlic. Add eggplant, salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, over low heat until eggplant is coated with onion mixture.
Add tomatoes, 1/3 cup juice from tomatoes, bay leaf and oregano and cook over high heat, stirring, until bubbling. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often, until eggplant is tender, about 20 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with parsley.
Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
88 calories; 400 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.34 grams fiber.