Eggplant is one of the most versatile vegetables around. Its mild taste and texture allow it to absorb the flavour of the herbs and spices cooked along with it.
My mother, who used to try to disguise food we hated, cut eggplant into French fry shapes, deep fried them, sprinkled on salt and vinegar and told us they were chips. The trick worked: We loved them then and still do.
Although most think of it as a vegetable, eggplant is actually a berry from the nightshade family. It is related to tomatoes, which is why they taste so good cooked together.
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It is rich source of dietary fibre, vitamins C, K and B1, and minerals such as copper, phosphorus and magnesium. The peel is rich in antioxidants, fibre, potassium and magnesium.
Many European and Asian countries consider eggplant a cooking staple. Eggplant parmesan from Italy, moussaka from Greece and Middle Eastern eggplant spreads, loaded with garlic and lemon, are some of the best ways to enjoy this ingredient. In China, eggplant stars in spicy vegetable stir-fries, and eggplant curry is a feature of vegetarian Indian cuisine.
Eggplant comes in a variety of sizes and colours. The white oval eggplants are supposed to be the original of the species, hence the name “egg plant,” although they look rather like ostrich eggs to me. But it’s the deep-hued, oblong, purple ones that are most readily available. Their seeds, however, contain minuscule amounts of nicotine, which creates the bitter taste that some people dislike. To get rid of the bitterness, slice or chop them and sprinkle with salt and let sit for 30 minutes before cooking to allow the bitter juices to seep out, then wipe the slices off. Other varieties do not need this treatment.
Paler purple football-shaped Sicilian eggplants have a custard-like texture and no bitterness. They are wonderful grilled and absorb flavours beautifully. Made into a gratin with some cream, they have a rich taste and texture.
Often used as a substitute for meat because of its texture, taste and health benefits, eggplant can be grilled, baked, sautéed or stuffed with other vegetables (or meat). Recently, I had a vegetarian burger that was one fat slice of garlicky grilled eggplant topped with grilled tomatoes, tahini mixed with mayo and finished with feta cheese. What a treat.
Look for a deep purple colour in regular eggplants, a mauve colour in Sicilian. All eggplant should have a firm texture with a slight springiness when you touch the flesh. If the stem end is brown instead of green, the eggplant is past its prime. Avoid shriveled or wrinkled-looking eggplants. There is no need to peel eggplant, but if the skin of the common variety seems very thick, slice a few strips off it. Store eggplants in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
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