Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Mad Apple


I love eggplants. For as far as I can remember, I've always eaten these vegetable-fruits, they were part of my family's culinary landscape. Both my parents have their eggplant repertoire: stuffed and fried; sliced in a fan and roasted; pickled; in salads... However, most of my friends at school had never seen an eggplant, much less eaten one, unless they were of Mediterranean or Asian origin.

Eggplants - aubergine in Britain and France; brinjal in India - have had a checkered past: up until recently, it was believed that these fruits were toxic unless heavily salted and cooked before consumption. Yet the Japanese and Italians have been eating them raw for quite some time. The Italian name, melanzana, is derived from the Latin for 'bad egg'. When first introduced to Europeans, the poor thing, cousin to the 'poisonous' tomato, was believed to cause insanity, hence the moniker 'mad apple'.

My, how times have changed! They are just about everywhere nowadays.  Market stalls have bucketfuls of colourful jewels: long, thin, and dark purple Asians; football-sized oblong 'regulars'; small, egg-shaped white ones; green-striped ping-pong balls from Thailand... When choosing eggplants, make sure their skin is glossy; their flesh firm with the slightest hint of give; they should feel heavy for their size; and their calyx (leafy cap) should be fresh and green.

Aubergines are a chef's best friend. Next time you eat out, look closely at the menu, chances are that there will be eggplants somewhere, most likely in the vegetarian option, probably grilled or roasted, in a 'Mediterranean' style. Despite being a complete mystery for some, eggplants are relatively easy vegetables to prepare. Sliced into 1cm (½") slabs, drizzled with oil and seasoned, they can be pan-friend, oven-roasted or grilled on the barbie, just like a vegetarian steak or burger. Eggplants are absolute heaven when paired with tomatoes, basil, and cumin. They are an integral part of classic summer ratatouilles, and Middle-Eastern baba ghanoujs. And they are essential for my father's eggplant salad.


Coriander is the other essential ingredient for this salad. In fact, one can almost call this a Coriander and Eggplant salad.


If you aren't really fond of cilantro, now is the time to build up a liking for it: try to find a bunch that has a higher proportion of flowers and the more finely-cut, mature leaves. The flavour will be slightly subtler, less pungent. And make sure you remove every bit of stalks before chopping. If, however, you are a fan of coriander, try to find bunches that have begun to set seed, and make sure you keep every last bit of stalk for chopping: the flavour will be more intense, and you will get added texture from the crispy-crunchy stems.


If you happen to have some cilantro growing in a pot or in the garden, you are probably despairing at the state your plants are in: don't throw them out! They still make for great eating and gorgeous garnishes!

This salad can be made a number of ways, depending on the type of eggplant you happen to have on hand. If you bought one of those large football eggplants, you can cut it in half, roast it in the oven, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. That's how my father makes this salad: the result looks like a chunky Chinese baba ghanouj. Smaller eggplants tend to have thinner skin, so you can slice and grill (or roast or pan-fry) the  unpeeled slabs before assembling the salad. If you've got the grill lit, you might as well throw some thickly sliced onions too: while the salad calls for finely, chopped raw onions, you will probably have more takers if they're cooked.


Eggplant Salad
Serves 4 to 6


1 large eggplant, or 5 smaller ones
1 generous bunch coriander/ cilantro
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 large onion or 3 babies
Olive oil
salt and pepper


If you are using a large eggplant, cut in half, generously drizzle the cut side with oil, season with salt and pepper. You can roast it in the oven (cut side down on a foil-lined tray, or in a baking dish) at 375'F /109'C for 30 minutes, or you can grill it on the barbecue for 15-20 minutes on each side. Either way, when the eggplant is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, and put aside.

If you have small aubergines, cut into generous slices, drizzle with oil, season, and throw them on the grill or in a frying pan. The eggplant needs to be cooked through for this salad, so you might have to move the slices to a cooler spot of the grill to let them cook fully. Let the cooked slabs rest under cover while you prepare the rest of the salad.
If you and your fellow eaters like raw onions, finely chop the onion, otherwise, cut in half (if small) or thick slices (if big) and grill alongside the eggplant. Chop to bit-size before mixing with the rest of the salad.
Rough-chop the cilantro -with or without the stalks- and combine with the lemon juice and zest, onions and olive oil. Add any cooking juice collected from the rested eggplants.
You can leave the eggplant as is, but you might find it easier to eat if you chop it a bit . Mix into the dressing and serve. Adjust the seasoning.


It is possible that you will have more eggplant than you can possibly eat in one sitting.  While this salad makes wonderful left-overs, you can set aside some cooked eggplants for something else before dressing it. Grilled eggplants, along with other grilled vegetables, make lovely sandwiches, pizza toppings, pasta sauces and lasagna stuffing. Or you can always use them for an abridged ratatouille.



Bon app'!



2 comments:

  1. I guess there are two schools of thought on buying eggplant. I've happily always bought lighter ones because I like the seeds and the difference they make to the meat: not as dense. Reading your comment about buying heavy ones was news to me. A google search turned up about equal numbers of people recommending light and heavy, most not saying why. One suggested that the purported bitterness of eggplants comes from the seeds, but my dull palate has never encountered an eggplant that it found bitter. Would you care to elaborate on all this and clear up the confusion in my mind? Many thanks.

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  2. If you like the eggplants you choose, you needn't change your method of selection. Modern globe eggplants (the big football-shaped eggplants) have had most of the bitterness bred out of them, so the seed/bitterness rule no longer really applies. However, some aubergine varieties have not been overly hybridized, and do become more bitterwith age. Eggplant seeds are only bitter when they turn blackish-brown, so seed content is not necessarily an indication of bitterness. If you are seeking out bitter eggplants, try Thai aubergines: there are several types; are usually green, sometimes, striped; and are shockingly bitter.

    The heaviness factor is usually an indication of age and freshness: older fruits and those that have travelled far and sat around on store shelves will have lost moisture, so will be lighter than younger, fresher fruits. This dehydration can concentrate bitter elements in the flesh. Also, the dryer flesh will be more spongy, and will therefore soak up more fat during frying -and if you're familiar with eggplants, you've surely seen how much oil eggplants can drink!

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