Some eggplants actually do look like eggs — small, white, ovoid. Hence their name in English-speaking North America. Yet most of the world uses other monikers.
Over in Britain, they are aubergines (in France, too, of course). Italians call them melanzane, Spaniards say berenjenas. For South Asians, it is brinjal, and in the Middle East, the Arabic badinjan is the term for this ancient, luscious fruit. (It is a nightshade, like tomatoes, technically a fruit, even if we do prepare it in mostly savory ways.)
Not only are there a multitude of names, there are also seemingly endless kinds of eggplant, in all shapes and colors.
Chinese markets offer slender bright magenta footlong specimens; Japanese shops have the glossy black banana-size variety; and the medium-size pale lavender Rosa Bianca eggplants so popular in Italy are now commonplace in American farmers’ markets.
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There are variegated purple-and-white stripy ones called Graffiti among the many cultivars. And we haven’t even mentioned the tiny multicolored eggplants of Southeast Asia that are no bigger than a cherry tomato. Not that there’s anything wrong with the classic larger Black Beauty type we all know. The most important thing is that eggplant be freshly picked — firm, shiny, with its calyx cap still green. This ensures the flesh will be dense and sweet, without too many seeds.
OK, you’ve got your eggplant. Now cook. How, you say? Let me count the ways (and they’re all good).
Simple eggplant cutlets: thickish slices dipped in flour and egg and rolled in homemade breadcrumbs, then shallow-fried in olive oil. Eat them plain with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon. Or bake them topped with mozzarella and Parmesan and serve with a fresh tomato sauce or with a salad of arugula and cherry tomatoes.
Split Japanese eggplants lengthwise and grill them. Once cooked, coat the cut sides generously with an unctuous miso dressing: thin some miso with a little rice wine vinegar and add a few drops of sesame oil and some grated ginger. Eat warm.
Or make a Middle Eastern smoky eggplant schmear. Grill or broil whole medium-size eggplants until the skin is charred and blackened and the eggplant is soft. Scrape away the charred skin and purée the flesh, now smoke-perfumed, with garlic, tahini and lemon juice. Add enough cayenne to give it a kick. Serve it anointed with olive oil, toasted cumin, parsley and mint, and a basket of warm pita bread.
Sounds a bit like baba ghanouj? Well, maybe, but who’s complaining?
SMOKY EGGPLANT SPREAD
Makes about 2 cups
3 medium eggplants, about 2 pounds
¼ cup tahini paste
¼ cup lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon cumin seed, toasted until fragrant and coarsely ground
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
Pita or other flatbread (optional)
1. Prepare a charcoal fire or heat the broiler. Pierce eggplants here and there with the point of a paring knife. Place eggplants two inches from heat source. Allow skins to blister and char, turning with tongs until entire surface is blackened and eggplants are completely soft, about 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
2. Slice eggplants in half lengthwise and lay skin side down on a cutting board. Carefully scrape away flesh with a knife and put it in a colander. Discard burned skins. Do not rinse eggplant flesh — a few bits of remaining char is fine. Salt flesh lightly and leave for five to 10 minutes, then squeeze into a ball to remove liquid.
3. Blitz eggplant, ½ teaspoon salt, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and cayenne in a food processor or blender to obtain a creamy purée. (For a more rustic spread, beat with a whisk instead.) Taste and adjust salt and lemon juice if necessary. Transfer mixture to a shallow serving bowl.
4. Just before serving, stir together cumin and olive oil, and spoon over the mixture’s surface. Sprinkle with paprika, parsley and mint. Serve with warm pita cut into triangles if desired.