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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Downright voluptuous

Eggplant is underappreciated and misunderstood. But, hey, it's not bitter.

September 17, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The eggplant is a thing of rare beauty. Its form ranges from blocky and solid as a Botero sculpture to sinuous and flowing as a Modigliani. Its color can be the violet of a particularly magnificent sunrise or the black of a starless night. It can be alabaster white or even red-orange. And the eggplant's beauty is more than skin-deep. The flesh is at once luxurious in texture and accommodating in flavor.

So why does it scare people?

You can't believe what some cooks say about it (and I mean that literally). Most of the mythology has to do, in one way or another, with the vegetable's supposed bitterness.

You'll hear that eggplants with large green caps are more bitter. Eggplants with more seeds are more bitter. Eggplants that are heavier are more bitter. At least that's what some say. Others claim the opposite: It's the lighter eggplants that are more bitter.

Eggplants that are old are bitter. Eggplants with darker skins are bitter. Eggplants that are male are bitter. (For the record: botanically speaking, eggplants are fruits -- and therefore neither male nor female).

Let's get one thing straight right from the start: Eggplants are not bitter (even though they have every right to be after everything that has been said about them).

At least, they are no more bitter than a green bell pepper or a green apple, or the tannic skin of a fresh walnut. It's a whisper of bitterness that adds to the flavor, rather than ruining it.

In fact, it's that subtle edge that makes eggplant such a great companion to so many other ingredients. Without it, eggplant would be bland, nothing more than tofu in a fancy wrapper. But that earthy undertone serves to focus our attention on other flavors, the way a bass line complements a melody.

Combine that natural accommodation with a sponge-like absorbency and eggplant is one of nature's great sidemen. It soaks up whatever it is cooked with and somehow the flavors are amplified and smoothed out in the process. Good olive oil has no greater friend than the eggplant, and vice versa.

Fry an eggplant in olive oil and what once was a hard, dry, almost pithy vegetable becomes downright voluptuous. The surface crisps slightly, and the inside turns creamy and smooth.

Actually, it's one of those supposed cures for bitterness that is the secret to great fried eggplant. Salting the vegetable does nothing to remove bitterness. But it does pull the water out of the eggplant, collapsing the cells, which then absorb oil more easily during cooking.

Try it and you'll see. I cooked eggplant salted and unsalted with oil in a skillet and dry on the grill. Salting made absolutely no difference in the grilled eggplant, but did with the fried. Unsalted fried eggplant was meaty; salted was creamy. It depends on what you like.

(And be sure to brush eggplant with oil before grilling -- it keeps the surface from drying out. Once it's done enough that you can poke it with a skewer, take it off the fire and while it's still quite hot bathe it in a vinaigrette and swaddle it in fresh herbs.)

And if you do prefer salted, just don't shortcut the process. It takes about an hour of purging to really make a difference. An hour-and-a-half is better. Some cooks recommend pressing the eggplant under a weight during this period. Although this makes sense in theory, I found that pressing resulted in eggplant disks that cooked up like wafers rather than pillows.

It also has been claimed that salting reduces the amount of oil the eggplant absorbs during frying. This, unfortunately, is not true. Salted and unsalted slices both soaked up equally prodigious amounts of oil -- as much as two tablespoons per half-inch slice!

Supposedly, cooking eggplant longer will take care of this -- the vegetable will absorb oil, then release it as the cell structure completely collapses. This is not true either. I fried an eggplant slice in hot oil, then wiped the pan clean and cooked it some more. It didn't give up more than a drop.

What do you do with fried eggplant? If it's cut into disks, one approach is to think of it as a really luxurious fresh pasta. Roll it around ricotta or goat cheese. Or you can layer it with fresh cheese, cover it with tomato sauce and bake it. Or you can go another direction: Dice it before frying and then use it as a creamy counterpart to braised meat in stews.

Hard to tell they're related

There are so many eggplants in the world that it's impossible to keep up with them. In fact, scientists aren't even sure of the exact number. From its ancestral home in Burma (Myanmar today), it migrated to become a staple in India, China, Southeast Asia, much of Africa and the Mediterranean. And as is so often the case after centuries of small-scale subsistence cultivation, there is a rainbow of poorly defined varieties, one shading into the other.

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