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Eggplant: summer's versatile and worldly vegetable

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Could you come up with 12 eggplant recipes on the spot? Even to win over the love of your life? Perhaps not. But in ancient China, that’s the price a bride had to pay to clinch the deal. The ability to be creative with eggplant in the kitchen was apparently very important.

Eggplant enjoyed popularity throughout Asia for centuries before making its way to Europe. The eggplant we know today descended from wild ancestors, with tiny and very bitter fruit. Over the years, farmers selected for the most desirable qualities, saved the seed and developed ever larger, sweeter and tastier varieties. Chinese farmers were improving on nature’s design as early as 59 B.C., cultivating bigger and more flavorful eggplants with every passing year.

The earliest eggplants were the size of peas, with later varieties the size and shape of eggs. (Hence, the name.) This starchy vegetable was loved by Europeans and was a primary source of starch until potatoes arrived from the New World. Both the potato and eggplant are members of the nightshade family, along with peppers and tomatoes. That makes eggplant a cousin of the famous belladonna or “deadly nightshade,” but don’t worry. There’s nothing deadly about eggplant. In fact, it’s loaded with nutrition: more than 80 different vitamins, minerals, plus free radical-gobbling, cancer-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients. That colorful skin is particularly nutritious, so make sure you eat it!

Eggplant has several medicinal claims to fame, at least one of which is a myth. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus gave eggplant the Latin name Solanum insanum, because it was widely believed that eating it would instantly lead to insanity. It doesn’t. (It was later renamed melongena, referring to its rich, dark skin.) Eggplant contains two phytonutrients, scopoletin and scoparone, that are known to have anticonvulsant properties; traditional African cultures used eggplant to control epilepsy and general nervousness. It has also been eaten as a natural contraceptive. (Did the brides know that?) Even today, dried eggplant is used as a medicine in Korea to treat various ailments like alcoholism and stomach cancer.

Look for shiny, smooth, brightly colored, unblemished eggplants at the farmers market. Small fruits will be less bitter, with smaller, softer seeds and tender skin. Check for freshness by pressing the skin with your thumb. If it springs right back, it’s just right. Some of eggplant’s bitter flavor comes from its seeds, and male eggplants have fewer seeds than their female counterparts. Look carefully at the blossom end of the fruit. On a female, the blossom end will be indented, but on a male it will be rounded.

Don’t sweat the details. But DO sweat the eggplant. You can remove some of the bitter juice of the eggplant by cutting thick slices, salting well and leaving on paper towels to “sweat” for at least a half an hour. Rinse and pat dry. Not only will the resulting eggplant be less bitter, but it will retain less oil from cooking.

So, how do you cook eggplant?
Like those Chinese brides, you’ll find dozens of ways to prepare eggplant. It’s likely that at least one of those brides’ recipes might have been for pickled eggplant. The one way you won’t serve it is raw; cooking softens its tough, fibrous texture. Eggplant, once sweated, dried and brushed with olive oil, is a natural for grilling. Puree some roasted or grilled eggplant with tahini, parsley and lemon juice into a delicious baba ghannouj, a cool spread for fresh pita bread or crackers. On a cooler night, try stuffing it or baking a casserole like moussaka or eggplant Parmesan. Definitely try roasted eggplant on a homemade pizza. Eggplant plays beautifully with other summer vegetables and herbs like tomatoes, summer squashes, basil and rosemary, so let your seasonal instincts guide you.

For the next month or so, take advantage of fresh, local eggplant and travel to exotic places in your own kitchen. Maybe you’ll want to challenge yourself to creating 12 eggplant recipes of your own!

Eleanor Baron lives, gardens, cooks, and writes in Concord and stalks area farmers markets for fresh, in-season produce. Visit her blog at nourishingwords.net for more ideas and inspiration.

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