Friday, August 6, 2010

Ask Veg Baker, J.D.: Why Does Making Eggplant Scare the Pants Off of Me?

Okay, perhaps my title is a little goofy, but it's supposed to cut to the chase about a series of questions and misconceptions that people tend to have about eggplant. So, I thought I would just systematically attack the myths and fearmongering that accompany eggplant prep so everyone will be more likely to enjoy this wonderful farmers' market staple.

Question One: How do I pick a good eggplant?

As with most produce, knowing how to select the proper eggplant can really make or break your cooking experience. This isn't meant to be scary, though; picking a good eggplant is actually quite easy to do. It simply requires that you ignore marketing and confidently follow the proper steps to picking the right one.

I feel that most people gravitate towards the largest, most purple-y eggplant they can find, because whenever they see pictures of this pretty bulbous beast, that's what it looks like. Resist my friends - these eggplants actually tend to taste the worst. The bigger an eggplant, the more likely it is to be bitter. Instead, I recommend you buy smaller (or several smaller, depending on your cooking agenda) eggplant instead; it is far less likely to be bitter or brown inside.

You also want an eggplant that is firm to the touch and that has smooth, non-blemished skin. If it feels even the slightest bit soft when you touch it, put it back. Yes, I realize most eggplant at the grocery store feels soft to the touch. That doesn't mean you should buy it! Eggplant has a very short shelf life, so if you can find it fresher, like at a farmers' market or your local CSA, I'd go that route. Also, don't buy an eggplant unless you are going to make it that night or no later than the next day. Yes, they really do go south that quickly.

Finally, don't let the color throw you too much. There are many different varieties of eggplant that all taste great but that are different colors. I just made eggplant last night that was purple and white speckled, and it was fantastic. Just follow common sense - does the color look like it could just be a different variety of eggplant? Then grab it. Is it brown and moldy and gross looking? Then keep walking. Trust me, this is very easy to do in practice.

Question Two: Do I need to salt my eggplant, or, how do I get rid of the bitterness of an eggplant?

This question is actually more controversial than you might think. Intellectual minds differ on whether salting is required.

For those who have no clue what I'm talking about, salting an eggplant is thought to pull the bitterness out of an eggplant. You cut the eggplant into slices, sprinkle salt on the pieces, and lay them in a sieve for 30 minutes. Rinse, and you've got workable eggplant.

The short answer: salting will never hurt an eggplant, so if you're nervous about it or treat salting as a security blanket, go nuts. Personally, I never salt, for a number of reasons. First, I'm lazy. Second, as addressed in Question One, if you buy a fresh, smaller eggplant, bitterness is likely not an issue. Third, a lot of the bitterness of an eggplant is actually in the outer skin. As a result, I tend to just slice off the skin and cook the goodness that is inside.

So short answer: there is no real wrong answer. If you follow the basic steps in selecting an eggplant, salting is likely not necessary, but it will never wreck your final product.

Question Three: Why bother with eggplant if there is no nutritional value?

Sigh. This stereotype is perpetuated by eggplant haters, and I'll never understand it. It is true that, in the scheme of fruits and vegetables, eggplant is probably the most nutritionally lacking, in the literal sense - it's pretty much just water. That said, that doesn't mean that eating eggplant is like eating donuts or something. Quite the opposite; it barely has any calories and I believe it is really high in one of the vitamins...I just can't recall which one. Maybe A? Regardless, worst case scenario, eating eggplant is like drinking a glass of water, so don't let it throw you.

It's this nature of eggplant that makes it so popular and a favorite of mine, frankly. I feel like it is the tofu of the vegetable world; you can prepare it pretty much anyway you like and it will take on the fabulous flavors of whatever you mix with it. This provides an almost zero calorie way to bulk up your meals to fill you up without adding anything horrible.

In fairness, this sponge-like quality of eggplant means that it also has a tendency to absorb a lot of oil, too. Although delicious, that could quickly convert eggplant into a high fat food, so be careful. I tend to head this off at the pass by using spray if I saute eggplant, or I broil or grill it instead.

Question Four: Why is preparing eggplant so complicated?

Making eggplant in and of itself isn't complicated. Like most any other food, it is as easy or hard to cook as you make it. I think when most people think of eggplant, they think of eggplant parmesan. Don't mistake me, I love eggplant parmesan. Greg and I had it served at our wedding! That said, I never make it at home. I find that it is very expensive and labor intensive to do, and I just don't think mine tastes as good as the wonderful dish the fine people at Maggiano's prepared for our reception. In fact, eggplant parmesan is one of those rare dishes that, if I want to serve it, I have it catered - it's just better taste-wise and more cost effective.

Eggplant parm isn't the only way to make eggplant, though. There are a number of ways to make it, including cutting it into slices and grilling it or broiling it, frying it or sauteing it on the stovetop, adding it to a stew or Moroccan tangine, or tossing it in a stir-fry.

The recipe that follows is one of my new favorite ways to make eggplant; it is so easy and quick to do, you can't mess it up. I wouldn't recommend eating the final product of the eggplant from this recipe. It will, frankly, be kind of bland. Rather, I use this method to prep the eggplant for use in another dinner recipe, like adding it to a sauce or a curry, or even just cooking it up with other vegetables to go over rice, or to spice it up and put it in a salad. The point is: this recipe is a great first step to help you get the eggplant ready so you can feel free to be creative with eggplant in other recipes while knowing that you have properly cooked the eggplant in the first place. Enjoy!

Versatile Steamed Eggplant (adapted from The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet)
Yields: 4 servings

1 medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced
Approx. one pound of eggplant, skin removed, cut into matchsticks
Salt and pepper

1) Combine onion and 1/4 c. water in a wok or deeper pan on high heat; reduce to simmer, cover, and steam for 3 minutes.
2) Mix in eggplant with another 1/2 c. water. Cover and steam, stirring every 90 seconds or so, until the eggplant is tender but not mushy or falling apart. This could take anywhere from 5-8 minutes. If there is any extra water in the wok, drain through a sieve and reserve onion and eggplants.
3) Sprinkle scant amounts of salt and pepper. It's ready to move on to its recipe du jour!

Note: The onions are also quite tasty in this, so I tend to keep the eggplant and onions together and omit or reduce any onions that might be in the final dish.

1 comment:

  1. I like eggplant and I just learned some new way of preparing from this post. Thank you.

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