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Shades of Purple

Four Southland chefs explore the versatile eggplant.

July 28, 1999|JENNIFER LOWE | Deputy Food Editor

It sits among the leafy greens and familiar fruits of summer looking fairly foreboding. A big bold vegetable, as dark as late afternoon shadows, almost black.

But those who favor eggplant see it as one of the garden's beauties. Its sleek deep purple exterior is as smooth as satin, its green top a sculpted headpiece. Some describe the eggplant as regal, a king among vegetables for its potential.

On its own, the eggplant tastes rather mild for a vegetable of such forceful looks. Simply sliced, brushed with olive oil and grilled for a warm-weather side dish, its pale flesh takes on a nutty creaminess. But let a variety of cultures get hold of it, and the eggplant becomes a chameleon, seemingly perfect in myriad ways.

The French marry chunks of eggplant with zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers in ratatouille, a slightly sweet, multiuse vegetarian stew. Italian cooks bread eggplant slices, fry them, then arrange them in layers with tomato sauce and cheese in melanzana alla parmigiana. In India, eggplant might be sauteed with black cardamom and peppercorns for spicy Kashmirian bangain, while the Turks use eggplant for everything--stuffing it, pureeing it, wrapping it in pastry.

"It's one of the most important vegetables to our cuisine," says Neela Paniz, chef-owner of the Bombay Cafe in West Los Angeles, where she serves eggplant in a variety of Indian dishes. "It's so versatile. You can smoke it, cook it, saute it. And it makes for very satisfying eating."

For years--centuries--suspicion and skepticism have plagued the eggplant, however. Its path to popularity has been a long one.

It was domesticated in Southeast Asia about 4,000 years ago. As the eggplant spread, newcomers were often suspicious of it: It belongs to the same family as poisonous deadly nightshade (as do potatoes, tomatoes and petunias).

In the Middle East and then in Europe, doctors blamed it for all sorts of things, from epilepsy to cancer to causing men to lead less than upstanding lives.

It had its believers, though not necessarily in the kitchen. In the fifth century, Chinese women made a black dye from eggplant skins to stain and polish their teeth. And some in medieval Europe considered eggplant an aphrodisiac.

Although the purple Globe variety is most prominent, an assortment of eggplants can be found at ethnic groceries, farmers markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

The many varieties of eggplant offer vast cooking possibilities. They have names like Neon, which has magenta skin, and Easter Egg, which is small, creamy and about the size of an egg. Of the two most common long eggplants, the Chinese is a lighter shade of purple than its Japanese cousin. Italian eggplants are small and lobed and look a little like soft purple squashes. Southeast Asian eggplants come in a wide variety of colors and sizes, ranging from tiny green ones that cling in grape-like clusters to ivory billiard balls that give an indication of the origin of the name "eggplant."

Since living in Los Angeles, Paniz discovered the Japanese eggplant. She prefers the small eggplants for stuffing, sauteing and cooking whole. One dish, featured in her "The Bombay Cafe Cookbook" (Ten Speed Press, $17.95), is similar to ratatouille, made with Japanese eggplants and seasoned with cumin seeds and turmeric.

In another bit of cross-cultural cooking, Gino Angelini, chef at Vincenti in Brentwood, likes to use Japanese eggplants for a recipe from his Italian grandmother. For Melanzane in Porchetta, he grills thin eggplants, stuffs them with a bread crumb mixture seasoned with fennel and garlic and cooks them over low heat or in a low oven for a long time.

He has altered his recipe a bit, reducing the cooking time. He also prepares eggplant parmigiana a less traditional way, boiling the eggplant slices in salted water rather than frying them as Sicilian cooks do. In Emilia-Romagna, the region of north-central Italy where he's from, the boiled slices are then layered with tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, sometimes prosciutto, and baked, Angelini says.

Eggplant has a reputation for being heavy, justly so. Much of its tissue is intercellular air pockets, so the eggplant absorbs oil like a sponge. Most cooks choose to salt eggplant before cooking it in oil. That collapses the air pockets. Salting isn't necessary, though, if an eggplant is to be grilled or baked whole.

Many chefs and cookbook authors also believe salting reduces an eggplant's bitterness; often the more mature eggplants with dark seeds do have a sharp taste. But in tests in The Times Test Kitchen, this has not been the case.

In a side-by-side comparison of unsalted eggplant and slices that had been salted and drained, there seemed little difference. None of the slices, which had been fried a few minutes per side in olive oil, was bitter. The only noticeable difference was in the texture; the salted slices seemed softer, with the chewy, creamy consistency that makes eggplant so delicious.

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