Eggplant: Solanum melongen is a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family and is akin to the potato, tomato, tomatillo and chayote. Although we use the eggplant as a vegetable, it is really a fruit, yet botanically it is a berry. The English actually named the plant eggplant” because the shape was similar to an egg In Europe, the eggplant is referred to as an “aubergine” and in Italy it is called melanzana.
A Bit of History: The eggplant is native to India and Pakistan and was first domesticated over 4,000 years ago. The Spaniards thought of the eggplant as an aphrodisiac and referred to it as Berengenas or The Apple of Love. So, you can imagine why this plant became so popular. It was Thomas Jefferson, who introduced the eggplant to the United States in 1806 after receiving one from a friend in France.
For Your Health: Eggplant is not a nutritional superstar, however it does have some nutritional merits. In the darker varieties it has purple power called nasunin, which is a powerful antioxidant that eats up damaging free-range radicals, and is a friend to anti-aging. Low in calories and sodium, eggplant can also be counted on to deliver plenty of minerals. Eggplant also contains the phytochemical monoterpene that may be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells. It has 1,260 mgs of potassium with 18 grams of fiber.
ECO-ISTA Tips: While there are many variations of eggplant, the most common in the United States are Black Beauty or Western Globe, which are your typical grocery store varieties. They are large with glossy purple skin. Japanese or Chinese are my favorites. The Japanese are deep purple but can sometimes be a little lighter purple with greenish patches. The Chinese eggplant shape is more like a zucchini–longer and cylindrical–but is distinguished by its brilliant violet color and tender skin. Dourga are shiny, elongated and small, with thin white skin. They can also be pink or green. Bélangère are squat, with white streaked purple skin, long and slender and great for small servings. There are miniature or baby varieties shaped like walnuts in purple, white, variegated and bright orange. They can be cooked more quickly and tend to be less bitter even with a little aging. Choose firm, glossy-skinned fruits and store refrigerated until ready to use. As your eggplant ages it can become bitter. Did you know male eggplants have fewer seeds?
Uses are many, and include, grilling, frying, baking, and dips. The practice of “breading” keeps the spongy fruit from absorbing too much oil when fried. Eggplants make a great meat substitute for vegetarians. You can easily find eggplant from June thru November at our local farmers markets. Check out, http://phoenix.about.com/cs/shop/a/farmers01_2.htm for locations.
Tomato and Eggplant Gratin
6 medium sized meaty tomatoes like Roma’s or San Marzano’s sliced
6 small Japanese Eggplant sliced
2 small Shallots
6 Tablespoons organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 teaspoons Herbs de Provence
1 teaspoon sea salt
fresh ground Pepper
1/2 cup grated Gruyere Cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large shallow oval if you have it, baking dish, drizzle olive oil in the pan and wipe it around with a paper towel to give it an even coating. Slice the tomatoes and eggplant removing the stems. Peel the outer layer off the shallots and thinly slice, the cuts should be as uniform as possible 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch in width. Now to arrange, take the tomatoes, eggplant, and shallots, layer over each other in shingle-like rows, overlapping and pushing together building layers from one end of the dish to the other. Next in a small bowl, combine the olive oil with the herbs; mix and drizzle with a spoon evenly over the layered produce. Season with sea salt and pepper. Place in the oven bake and for about one hour. Remove from the oven; sprinkle the reserved cheese on the gratin evenly. Place back in the oven and bake another 10 or so minutes until the cheese becomes a golden brown.
Roasted EggplantEggplant can be roasted in slices or wedges to serve warm as a side dish or marinated as a side dish part of an antipasto or salad. First, trim off the stem and blossom ends and then cut the eggplant lengthwise into thick wedges or crosswise into fairly thick slices (1/2 inch thick is good). When cut too thin, the wedges and slices will dry out before they have cooked through. Salt the pieces generously (with a good quality sea salt) and let stand for a few minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven to 400 and oil a baking sheet or shallow dish (with a good quality olive oil). Lay the pieces flat on the pan and then oil the upper sides. Bake for 20-35 minutes, depending on the size of the wedges or slices. The eggplant is done when it is soft all over and brown on the underside. If the pieces are sticking, let them cool for a few minutes and they will be easier to lift. Serve right away, or dress with (in any combination) wine vinegar, slices of roasted garlic, chopped herbs, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and fresh milled pepper. Serve at room temperature. Adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food.