It’s prime time for eggplants |

It’s prime time for eggplants

One of late summer’s more regal looking fruit, the eggplant, or aubergine, is a very adaptable food that can be sauteed, broiled, baked, steamed, stuffed, sauteed, or grilled. Like the tomato, the eggplant is a fruit (actually a giant berry) that is eaten as a vegetable. Native to Africa and Asia, eggplants are commonly associated with Mediterranean specialties like moussaka. But they also turn up frequently in Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as in Italian and French dishes like eggplant parmigiana, caponata and ratatouille.

When eggplant arrived in Europe, it had to overcome the stigma of being from the nightshade family. It was originally referred to as “mela insana,” which means mad apple, because people thought that if they ate it they would go insane. This is the derivation of melanzana, a term which we see on the menu at many Italian restaurants.

The mild-flavored, meaty flesh is 90 percent water, naturally low in calories and full of dietary fiber, which plays a part in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels and helps move waste through the intestines. Diets rich in plant fiber are related to a reduction of heart disease, colon cancer and diabetes. Eggplants also contain folate, potassium and phosphorus.

Look for eggplants that are smooth, shiny and unbruised, with bright green caps and stems. Avoid those with tan patches, soft spots or flabby skin. Select those that are heavy for their size; it means they have fewer seeds. When you get them home do not store them in sealed plastic as it makes them spoil and get slimy. Keep them in a paper bag or a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Eggplant is at the heart of many delicious summer and fall meals. For cooking ideas, check your cookbooks or the Internet. Despite their potentially long storage time, try to prepare eggplants right away so they don’t get bitter. Peel only those eggplants that are large and old. Their tough skin takes much longer to cook than the flesh. Do not slice eggplants too far in advance, as they will darken in color.

Eggplants tend to absorb whatever oils or juices they are cooked in, so quickly cook them over high heat in a “healthy” oil ” such as olive, canola or grapeseed oil.

Salting eggplant will reduce the amount of oil that is absorbed during cooking, reduce water content and remove some of the bitterness from eggplants that have been stored too long or those that are overmature. To salt an eggplant, lightly sprinkle salt on all cut surfaces and place in a strainer over a bowl or sink for 30 minutes. Press lightly and pat dry with paper towels to remove moisture and prevent excessive salt in the final product.

Eggplant on the grill is a summer treat that’s quick and easy to do. Cut half-inch thick slices, brush lightly with olive oil, and cook over moderate coals for a few minutes on each side. Serve as is, with a sauce, or as part of a grilled vegetable salad.

For fat-free preparation, eggplant can also be cooked like a baked potato. Just prick with a fork in a few places, put on a baking sheet and place in a 450-degree oven, turning occasionally until the eggplant is soft all over ” about one-half hour. Allow to cool, then peel and discard any large seed pockets.

Eggplant is not suitable for drying or canning. Freezing is the best method for home preservation. To freeze:

Wash, peel if desired, and slice 1/3-inch thick.

Water blanch, covered for 4 minutes in one gallon boiling water containing 1/2 cup lemon juice (fresh or bottled).

Cool, drain and package, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Seal and freeze in quality freezer bags.

For frying ” Pack the drained slices with a freezer wrap between slices. Seal and freeze.

Christina Abuelo is market manager for the Foothill Farmers’ Market Association.

1 large eggplant, diced in 1/2″ cubes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 cup chopped celery

2 -2 1/2 lbs plum or other red tomatoes, chopped

1 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained

1 tablespoon pine nuts

1 1/2 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, warmed

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat a large skillet, and add oil. Cook eggplant 8-10 minutes until soft and slightly browned. Remove and place in large saucepan. Fry onion in skillet, adding more oil if necessary, until wilted. Add tomatoes, crushing slightly, and celery, cooking for 15 minutes until celery is tender. Add capers and pine nuts. Combine mixture with eggplant in large saucepan. Dissolve sugar in vinegar, and add to eggplant. Cover and simmer on low until tomato is cooked and vegetables are tender, not mushy, about 10 minutes. Cool, then serve at room temperature on toasted bread or crackers as an appetizer. Makes six servings.

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