Ancient and multicultural eggplant
Eggplant goes by many names: eggplant in the U.S., aubergine in France and England, eggfruit in Australia, garden eggs in New Zealand, guinea squash in South Africa, melongene in the Caribbean, and brinjal in Asia. Likewise, eggplant is featured in cuisines all over the world: Think Eggplant parmesan in Italy, Ratatouille in France, Moussaka in greece, Baba Ghanoush in the Middle East, eggplant curries in Thailand and eggplant stir fries in China.
Eggplant originally grew wild in India and was first cultivated in China in 500 B.C. Eggplant did not find its way to Italy until the 1300′s. Earlier varieties of eggplant were white in color and thus all the names for this fruit that include the word “egg.”
Eggplant was at one time thought to cause a variety of disorders including madness, leprosy and cancer, and thus the Old English name and my personal favorite mad apple. I can't wait to tell my family we are having mad apple stir fry for dinner!
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Purple globe eggplants and long thin Japanese eggplants are the most common varieties in the U.S., but there are a wide variety of eggplants that vary in size, shape and color, including: green, white, pink, black, purple as well as striped and variegated varieties.
Nutrition and health benefits of eggplant
Eggplants are extremely low in calories at about 20 calories per cup. They are also very low on the Glycemic Index and high in fiber making eggplants useful for weight loss. Eggplants are particularly high in Vitamin B1 and copper, and a good source of vitamins B6 and K, manganese, niacin, potassium, folate.
Eggplants are rich in phytonutrients, particularly nasunin which is concentrated in the skin. Nasunin protects brain cells against cell membrane damage, inhibits neuroinflammation and is thought to protect against dementia and enhance memory.
Can promote kidney stones
If you are prone to kidney stones, you may want to minimize your consumption of eggplant as eggplant contains oxalates that can encourage the formation of kidney stones.
How to pick a good eggplant
The skin of an eggplant should be firm and smooth and the cap and stem should be bright green. A ripe eggplant should feel heavy for its size. A ripe eggplant will give when pressed gently with your fingers and then the flesh will spring back without leaving an indentation.
How to store eggplant
Store eggplant in the fridge, but eat as soon as possible as eggplants deteriorate fairly rapidly.
To salt or not to salt
Salting eggplant has long been used as a method to reduce bitterness. Much of the bitterness from eggplants comes from the seeds. Modern eggplants have been bred to have fewer seeds and are less bitter overall, so salting is really no longer necessary.
The second reason to salt is to reduce the moisture content of eggplant. For most cooking methods this is not necessary, with the possible exception of frying eggplant where reduced moisture can be a benefit. LA times Food Editor, Rick Parsons, advises that for frying, eggplants need to be liberally salted and weighted in a colander for 90 minutes to effectively reduce moisture.
Personally, I skip the salting step and save a good 30 to 90 minutes when I make an eggplant dish.
To peel or eat the skin
A lot of the beneficial nutrients are located in the skin of the eggplant, so when possible I recommend leaving the skin on. In general, the skin cooks down and becomes soft, unless you are charring the skin, like you do for baba ghanoush, in which case the skin becomes hard and should be removed.
Never cut eggplant in advance
Eggplant browns and deteriorates soon after it is cut, so always cut eggplant right before you prepare it.
Eggplants are oil sponges
If you have ever brushed eggplant with oil, you know eggplant literally drinks oil. If you want to minimize the quantity of oil you use here are a few tricks:
- To grill eggplant mix 4 parts balsamic vinegar, 3 parts hoisin sauce, 2 parts olive oil and 1 part sugar. Brush the eggplant with this mixture before you grill it. The sauce adds flavor and minimizes oil slurpage. This is a slight variation on a sauce published in Julee Rosso’s Great Good Foods, published in 1993. I call it 4:3:2:1 sauce. It is also great for grilling zucchini, carrots, onions, mushrooms and fennel.
- Precook eggplant by roasting it for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Then slice the eggplant and prepare it as you normally would. The eggplant will absorb noticably less oil when it is precooked. This tip comes from David Rosengarten. One word of caution, prick the skin of the eggplant in several places before you put it in the hot oven to prevent exploding.
My favorite eggplant dishes
- Ottolenghi's Burnt eggplant and yogurt sauce is a variation on baba ghanoush that makes a delicious dip for crudites and pita.
- Maqluba reconstructed is my version of maqluba that substitutes roasting the eggplant and vegetables instead of frying them.
- Eggplant and pork stir fry is my recipe inspired by a dish I have enjoyed in many Chinese restaurants.