We know them as glossy purple-black and teardrop-shaped. In France and Britain they’re aubergine, in India brinjal, and in Latin America berenjena. Eggplant, our funny North American moniker, is likely because the early varietals here were the heirloom oval white ones. Enjoyed worldwide, eggplant grows in lots of different colors, shapes and sizes—ranging from the bosomy purple to small green and round, to elongated with white, purple, striped or green skin. Like the tomato, eggplant is botanically a fruit, part of the plant family Solanaceae, commonly known as nightshades.
Eggplant grows wild in India. Since it originated in a tropical zone, it is cold sensitive and requires a long, warm growing season—70 to 90 days—and does not care for temperatures below 50° F. In Utah’s more temperate growing zones, gardeners start eggplant seeds indoors, two months before the last frost. If your garden produces eggplant, know that regular picking promotes more fruit production and more time on the vine allows for more seeds and more potential for bitterness. At the market, choose glossy and bright fruit and handle carefully—eggplant bruises easily.
Under the skin, no matter what the color, eggplant has white or light green dense, meaty flesh that behaves like a sponge for oil. The traditional technique to draw off oil-absorbing moisture is to salt and let sit prior to cooking. Some say that salting will take away bitterness; others cut slashes in the eggplant and soak in water for a while to draw out bitterness. But if eggplant is young and garden-fresh it should not be bitter. Lack of bitter flavor is also a quality of the slender “Oriental” varieties currently popular in local gardens and farmer’s markets.
Truly a versatile culinary chameleon, you can broil, roast, grill, bake, steam, stew, sauté or fry eggplant and eat it with or without the skin. Countless curries and condiments and chutneys trace eggplant’s Indian ancestry. From Italy we enjoy eggplant Parmesan, antipasti, and Sicilian caponata with tangy olives, as well as grilled eggplant on pizza or tossed with pasta.
Classic ratatouille is the French Provençal vegetable stew of eggplant, tender summer squash, ripe tomatoes, bell peppers and basil. Eggplant is eagerly receptive to spices of ginger, garlic and hot chiles in Chinese Sichuan stir-fry and it regularly appears in Japanese and Thai recipes. The Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East bless us with dips and spreads and cold eggplant salads, such as baba ganoush with tahini and lemon juice, and roasted halves stuffed with creamy yogurt that you eat with a spoon, like melon.
I favor eggplant broiled or grilled instead of breaded and fried—to avoid the oil absorption problem. I layer or roll broiled eggplant slices with cheese, garlic-sautéed greens and tomato sauce in a lasagna-like casserole, or I build stacks of sliced grilled eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella with dollops of basil pesto. Marinated and grilled eggplant can be the mainstay of a veggie sandwich, like portobello mushroom.
Here is a recipe with the eggplant globe cooked whole. Grilled until the skin is charred and the inside flesh becomes creamy soft and slightly smoky, it’s pureed and seasoned into dip to serve with flatbread crackers or toasted pita chips. For a Southwestern twist, spice with chipotle and cumin; for a taste of Greece, stir in crumbled feta and diced cucumbers.
Smoky Eggplant Dip
2 medium eggplants, about 1 pound each
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Pinch cayenne pepper
About 3 tablespoons finely chopped basil, cilantro or parsley
Preheat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high. Poke a fork in a couple of spots around the eggplants and rub them with oil. Grill, turning the exposed area to the heat every five minutes, until they are charred all over and very soft, about 25 minutes. Cool in a colander so any extra liquid from the cooking drains away.
Once the eggplants are cool enough to touch, peel away and discard the charred skin. Puree the pulp in a food processor with the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, smoked paprika and cayenne until very smooth. Add the chopped herbs and process again until smooth. Taste and add more salt and/or lemon juice to taste.
Serve with crackers or toasted pita chips.
Makes about 2 ½ cups dip.