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IN THE KITCHEN

It's Not Barney, It's Eggplant

October 07, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

There's no way around it; the eggplant is one scary-looking beast. Dark purple almost to the point of blackness, big and round and packed so full the skin is stretched to the verge of splitting, it seems pregnant with malevolent possibility.

The surprise, of course, is that it's among the mildest of vegetables, so accommodating it's closer to a noodle than a blockbuster. Rather than bowling over any flavor that gets in its way, the eggplant absorbs it. Tomatoes, soy sauce, bell peppers, meat, garlic, olive oil . . . the eggplant will go with anything. It gets ahead by getting along.

That's not to say that the eggplant doesn't have its peculiarities. I did some experiments a couple of years ago and found that if you're going to fry eggplant, it really pays to slice it and salt it first. That gives it a silkier texture when it is cooked. You should salt it at least 1 1/2 hours before cooking to get the fullest effect, but I didn't notice much improvement beyond that point.

Some cooks recommend pressing the eggplant with a weighted plate to get rid of even more juice, but I didn't find that that made much of a difference. I also found that, contrary to some claims, salting did not affect the flavor of the eggplant, just the texture (though you certainly won't need to salt the final dish nearly as much). Salting is not necessary if the eggplant will be grilled or baked.

If you do salt, discard the ugly dark water that collects and be sure to rinse the eggplant well afterward and blot it very dry. If there is moisture on the surface, the eggplant won't brown.

The other thing I've learned about frying eggplant is that it will absorb almost as much oil as you can give it. I found that two medium-sized slices of eggplant absorbed almost 1/4 cup of oil before they were done (I wish I had a kitchen sponge that was that efficient).

That leaves you with a couple of options. You can either have a really luxurious oily dish, or you can put the eggplant on a diet. When I fry eggplant, I add only a couple of tablespoons of oil at the start, just enough to soften it, then I fry the second side dry.

Cooked this way, the eggplant doesn't come out quite as pillowy, but you cut the amount of fat in the dish by at least half. Be sure to cook the second side until it is tender enough to pierce with a fork; it may take longer to cook because of the lack of oil.

Once you've fried your eggplant, there are few better matches for it than a deeply flavored tomato sauce--one with enough acidity to balance the richness of the vegetable.

Because of the poor quality of fresh tomatoes this year, I've already reverted to my off-season practice of using canned. If you've got some outstanding home-grown sauce tomatoes, you can substitute them here, but given the nature of this dish, I think that's probably a waste of what is a rare commodity these days. Save your great tomatoes for something simpler, when they'll have an opportunity to show everything they've got.

You can think of this as a kind of eggplant parmigiana, though the reputation of that dish has been sadly debased in this country by inferior copies. There is a lot more to it than the familiar pizza parlor glop; eggplant parmigiana is actually a creation of some delicacy and complexity.

Not at all what you'd expect, considering it's based on such a mean-looking vegetable.

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EGGPLANT AND GOAT CHEESE CASSEROLE

3 (1 to 1 1/4-pound) round eggplants

Salt

1 onion, finely chopped

Olive oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped basil

1 (11-ounce) log fresh goat cheese

1 (8-ounce) ball mozzarella, grated

Use regular, not fresh, mozzarella for this. It is drier and will brown better. You will probably use about 3/4 of the tomato sauce. The other quarter can be saved tightly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator.

Peel eggplants and slice lengthwise between 1/4- and 1/2-inch thick. Salt liberally on both sides and arrange in overlapping layers on jellyroll pan. Set aside, propped upright over sink, at least 1 1/2 hours.

Saute onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil in bottom of saucepan or skillet over medium-high heat. When onion begins to soften and turn translucent, about 5 minutes, add garlic and cook until highly fragrant, about 2 more minutes. Add tomatoes and red pepper and cook until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, add basil and keep warm.

Rinse eggplant slices under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in nonstick skillet and cook 4 slices eggplant until lightly browned on 1 side, about 10 minutes. Flip and cook, without adding oil, until second side is lightly browned, about 10 more minutes.

Spread about 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce over bottom of large gratin dish. When first batch of eggplant is done, remove to gratin dish and arrange in overlapping layer, dotting each eggplant slice with walnut-sized knob of goat cheese.

Repeat, using all of eggplant. When first layer is filled, ladle over enough tomato sauce to barely cover and continue in same manner with second layer.

Distribute grated mozzarella across top. Bake at 400 degrees until mozzarella melts and browns, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes before serving.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings:

263 calories; 545 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 2.06 grams fiber.

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