What's round and oblong, and big and small, and white and purple and green, and striped and lavender and black? What else but an eggplant or more precisely a dozen eggplants? You can find these colorful varieties at farmer's markets and ethnic green grocers. Their beauty is only skin-deep, you will discover, as their flesh tastes pretty much the same.
How did this interesting vegetable rise to popularity, especially in the Middle East?
During the days of tzena ("austerity") in Israel in the early 1950s, eggplants were almost a national joke. They were disguised as meat, fish, chicken, and every other unavailable and unattainable food item. Because these members of the nightshade family are a vehicle for flavors that are included in its preparation but have little taste to offer on their own, the eggplant is a most chameleon type of vegetable.
Eggplant is still an Israeli culinary favorite, and a multitude of eggplant dishes are found today on most Israeli menus. Of course, the fact that they grow so abundantly in Mediterranean soil and climates accounts for its ubiquitous presence.
Middle Eastern cooks insist that there are more than a thousand ways to prepare eggplant. I, for one, wouldn't dare dispute that, starting with just these few tasty selections.
Eggplant-and-Tomato Soup Gratin
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 lb. eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsps. tomato paste
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 cup tomato juice
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper
6 slices toasted country-style bread
6 oz. grated cheese
Heat the oil in a sauce pan.
Cook garlic and onion until wilted, about 3 minutes.
Add eggplant and tomatoes, and cook 5 minutes.
Stir in tomato paste, oregano, tomato juice, stock and parsley.
Bring to a boil, and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sprinkle the bread slices with cheese.
Toast or broil until melted and lightly browned.
Ladle soup into bowls and top with cheese toasts.
Thyme-and-Lime Marinated Eggplant Slices
2 Tbsps. lime juice
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/4-inch slices
Combine marinade ingredients.
Pour marinade into a large, shallow, glass bowl. Place eggplant slices in bowl (bowls may actually be needed) and turn so that each side is coated with the marinade. Allow to sit 30 minutes; turn eggplant again and let sit another 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat grill.
Place eggplant close to heat source, and cook about 4 minutes or just until light char marks appear. Turn and cook other side.
Sweet-and-Sour Eggplant Spread
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 cloves garlic minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 medium eggplant, baked until soft*
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup currants or raisins
1/2 cup Greek black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)
Heat oil in a medium skillet.
Cook garlic, onion and pepper for 5 minutes.
Add vinegar and currants, and continue cooking until thick and syrupy.
Cut eggplant into strips and add with remaining ingredients.
Cook another 3 minutes and taste for salt.
Sprinkle with basil, and serve warm or at room temperature with crackers or pita bread, or as part of an antipasto platter.
Makes 2 cups.
*To Bake Eggplant: Pierce the eggplant several places with tines of a fork. Bake in a preheated 375°oven for about 40 minutes, or until very soft.
1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup shredded cheese
1 cup basil leaves
3 cloves garlic
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp. oregano
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425°.
Brush 2 baking pans with olive oil and lay eggplant slices in pan in one layer.
Brush eggplant with remaining olive oil an bake for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make filling by combining all filling ingredients in food processor until smooth.
Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons filling onto each eggplant slice. Fold sides over filling and place seam-side down in greased shallow baking pan.
Sprinkle the shredded cheese over the pockets and bake for 15 minutes at 350°.
Makes about 12 pockets.
Louise Fiszer is a California cooking teacher and food writer.