In the pantheon of misunderstood vegetables few stand higher than the humble eggplant. While historically well-received, it seems that in recent years the eggplant has fallen out of favor with more recent generations. Grown men, my father included, avoid it like the plague and the vast majority of children would rather face punishment than be forced to consume it.
Which is a shame considering that the eggplant has more than 4,000 years of culinary history and, as far as I'm concerned, anything that humans have eaten for that long has to have more than a few things going for it. I am a man of faith though, and I like to believe that armed with a little bit of know-how and some creative cooking we can bring the aubergine back into the limelight, one diner at a time.
To be completely honest it isn't that hard to see why so many children and adults alike have a phobia of eggplants. In its raw form eggplants have a tough bitter protective skin and flesh that is spongy and relatively tasteless.
The seeds, though completely edible both raw and cooked, also contain the same chemicals that give the skin its bitter edge. When treated poorly eggplant will continue to taste just like that, mushy, dry and bitter. Not particularly good eating in anyone's book.
But, when given the respect and attention it deserves, eggplants possess an amazing richness and depth of flavor that marries well with all varieties of sauces and flavorings. The texture becomes rich, supple and luxurious, perfect to eat chilled or hot. The eggplant's shape also makes it an ideal candidate to all manners of stuffing, rolling and shaping.
The eggplant has its roots in India but years of domestication have helped it spread throughout the modern world in different forms.
North Americans are most familiar with the classic Italian purple globe eggplant, whereas here in Shanghai you mostly see the smaller, slimmer, and in my opinion, tastier East Asian varietal.
If you've ever spent time in Thailand you will undoubtedly have had the ping-pong ball sized specimens they serve in green curries. These three, while certainly distinct, are but a fraction of the true range that the eggplant encompasses. While all varieties are distinct in their flavor, the approach to cooking them is generally the same.
A lot of eggplant recipes call for the pre-salting of cut eggplants to draw out moisture and to reduce bitterness. My ever-exhaustive research on the subject tells me that this step is actually unnecessary as most modern strains have had their bitterness bred out of them to be more suitable to the human palate.
However, I continue to salt my eggplant because the process will break down some of the eggplant's cell structure, thereby limiting the amount of fat that the eggplant will absorb.
Believe me, I'm all for oil and fat in food but there is a limit to how much even I can consume. And you'll soon see with some experimentation that an eggplant's sponge-like texture acts exactly as one would expect when soaked in oil.
Eggplants can be easily roasted whole with a few stabs of a fork and a healthy coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.
It is equally phenomenal on the grill or deep-fried but when cooking eggplant the most important things to remember is that it must be cooked completely through. As mentioned above, raw eggplants have a pretty unpleasant taste and I think undercooked eggplants are in part responsible for the global movement away from India's so-called "King of Vegetables."
When there is enough oil and the vegetable has been cooked completely through, it should yield easily to a spoon or fork. There should be a sheen of suspended oil droplets through the flesh and the taste should lean toward the sweet and mineral.
A little parsley, garlic and lemon juice and you already have the foundation for a great dip or appetizer.
At the end of the day a little research on the Internet will yield countless recipes for all sorts of eggplant dishes worthy of consideration. A good starting point is one of my Chinese favorites, yuxiang qiezi. All the ingredients are far easier to find here than they would be back home and it's both fast and delicious. If you're so inclined, you can always try your hand at something a bit more involved - like a sweet and tangy eggplant caponata. I use it at the restaurant as a perfect foil for lamb. But in the interest of converting disbelievers out there still on the fence I offer you an oldie but a goodie: Eggplant Parmesan.
You will be hard pressed to find a better dish to sway the minds and palettes of picky children the world over.
Done right the dish combines some of the best flavors and textures the world of cooking has to offer, the crunch of fried perfection, melty cheese and a rich tomato sauce that is hearty while still allowing the mellow richness of the eggplant to shine through.
500g eggplant, large Western globe or Chinese is fine, cut lengthwise into 2cm planks;500ml basic tomato sauce, canned is fine in a pinch; 100g grated parmesan cheese; 200g shredded mozzarella cheese; 4 eggs, beaten; 200g flour; 200g breadcrumbs; 3g dried chili, optional; 5g dried thyme, optional; 5g dried parsley, optional; 5g dried oregano, optional; 20g fresh basil; salt and pepper; olive oil
1Season eggplant slices with salt and pepper as if you were cooking them immediately, let side for 30 minutes on top of paper towels or napkins.
2In the meantime preheat your oven or toaster oven to 180 degrees and make your breadcrumb mixture. Add dried herbs and spices, half the parmesan and the breadcrumbs in a large shallow dish, mix to combine. Also lay out flour and egg mixture into separate shallow containers.
3After 30 minutes, lightly press eggplant between two clean paper towels to squeeze out excess water. Quickly cover the eggplant slices in flour. Shake off any excess flour, dip into egg mixture on both sides and then into the breadcrumb mix. Press to make sure crumbs adhere and move to the side. Continue until all your slices have been breaded.
4In a medium sautee pan heat olive oil over medium-high heat until just below smoking point, about 180 degrees. You want more oil than you think is necessary, a layer about 1cm deep is preferred.
5Fry as many eggplant slices as can fit comfortably in a single layer. Cook until golden brown on one side and flip until both are cooked evenly, about three minutes per side. Remove to the side if you have to cook in batches.
6In a shallow baking dish assemble eggplants in one layer and top with tomato sauce. Sprinkle shredded mozzarella all over the baking dish. Top with the last of the parmesan and bake for five to 10 minutes, just until the cheese bubbles and melts.
7Just before serving, tear up the basil and scatter over the top. Serve as is, or with a side of plain spaghetti in tomato sauce.