Despite popular belief, the eggplant is actually a fruit. It comes in many colors, shapes, and sizes; enough to satisfy various cooking needs and tastes. The fruit ranges in color from rich purple to green and white. Its length varies from 2 to 12 inches. The shape of the fruit can be oblong, round or variations in between. There are also eggplants striped with different shades.
With all the varieties of eggplant, there are also many ways of cooking it. You can boil, sauté, stir-fry, broil, or roast it. It goes well with various foods. The Japanese make eggplants into tempura and pickles. Indians and Vietnamese stuff and bake them.
Buying and Selecting Eggplants
You should learn to recognize the different varieties of eggplants in order to avoid confusion. The Western or globe eggplant is the most common variety. It is sold in US supermarkets all year round. There are small Italian eggplants, which could be mistaken for under-ripe standard eggplants. Check the labels or ask the grocer to get informed about the various types.
Always select eggplants with smooth, shiny skin. It should feel firm to the touch. The stem should still be attached and moist, a sign that it was recently cut.
Medium-sized fruits weighing about a pound will be best for your dishes. Too small eggplants may be tasteless, large ones could be overripe and bitter.
Eggplants are best when cooked fresh. During storage, they can be kept for two or three days in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. The fruit is delicate. It is recommended that they are wrapped in a paper or perforated plastic bag for storage. Handle gently to avoid bruising.
The flesh of the eggplant oxidizes very fast and turns brown in minutes. After slicing, brush the flesh with lemon juice to avoid browning. There is no need to peel the globe eggplant because its skin is thin and edible.
The fruit may taste bitter, but salting and rinsing the sliced eggplant can soften it and lessen the bitterness. The globe eggplant, in particular, needs to be salted to reduce bitterness. The salt attracts the juices with bitter flavors. Rinsing the fruit after will remove the salt and the juices.
Salting also helps eggplants absorb less oil, as the salt also draws out the water from the spongy flesh of the globe eggplant. The air pockets inside the eggplant collapse and there will be no more room for oil. Only the globe and large eggplants need to be salted.
To salt the eggplant, slice it into the shape needed for your recipe. Sprinkle the slices with salt. Let it sit in a colander for about 30 minutes to allow the bitter juices to drain. Rinse with water and dry with paper towels.
Ways of Cooking Eggplant
Whatever method of cooking eggplant that you use, make sure that it is thoroughly cooked. Its flavors will come out only when it is very soft and smooth.
Salt your eggplant first so that it will soak up less oil. The oil should be very hot when you put in the eggplant. Olive oil best brings out the flavor. Fry the slices in one layer. Avoid crowding them so that they will cook evenly. Turn the eggplant over to make sure it doesn’t burn. Lower the heat to avoid burning. The eggplants are cooked when they turn rich brown. This may take 5 – 7 minutes. Drain them on paper towels.
Prepare your eggplant as mentioned above. Brush the slices with oil and grill them over a medium – medium high fire until both sides are tender.
Use quick-cooking Japanese and Chinese eggplant. Dice the eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Toss the cubes into the pan when the oil is very hot. Put a dash of salt, and stir-fry until the eggplant’s color turns rich brown.
Stir-fry the eggplant with garlic and red chili, and then add ground pork for a Chinese flavor.
There are eggplant recipes that need a smoky taste. To get this taste, pierce the whole and unpeeled eggplant with a skewer, and cook over a grill. The skin should be blackened all over, and the flesh will become very soft.
If you are not using a grill, use foil to line the trays of the burner. You can also broil the eggplant. Make sure to pierce its skin first so the heat can cook the inside. To peel off the burned skin, drain the eggplant flesh in a colander, then separate the black skin.
If you do not want the mess of char-roasting, pierce the eggplant in several places and roast it whole and unpeeled on a baking sheet at 350°F until it is very soft. Peel it and drain afterwards.