Eggplants, those lovely deep purple vegetables with smooth skin and undulating curves, are difficult to grow in our climate. That makes it a particular pleasure to find at the Farmers Market or in a home garden.
I recently found some beautiful certified organic eggplant at the Sunseed Farm booth at the Bellingham Farmers Market. I wanted to make some caponata (see recipe below), so selected one to bring home with me.
At the last minute, just as I was getting ready to do the cooking, that eggplant met with an untimely end in my refrigerator. Now, since I had planned to write about eggplant for this column, I had a full blown eggplant emergency. something for which I had no preparedness plan.
I began calling gardening friends nearby. Sure enough, Randy Smith, gardener extraordinaire here on Lummi Island and author of the Transition Lummi Island blog, had managed to grow a few this year and was willing to generously share with me.
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade plant family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, and some less enchanting relatives like deadly nightshade (or belladonna). While nightshade vegetables are popular foods, it should be noted that some people are sensitive and have an unpleasant reaction to eating them.
One of the most unique aspects of eggplant is its texture. It is soft and feels a lot like bread. Eggplant will readily absorb any liquid or oil it is cooked with. It has a somewhat bitter flavor.
Eggplant recipes often begin with slicing the eggplant, salting the slices, and letting them sit for about an hour. Reasons given range from drawing out water from the eggplant so it will cook dryer to drawing out the bitterness to closing up the spongy openings so the eggplant will absorb less liquid during cooking.
In my experience, this process is only useful if the eggplant is going to be baked as part of a casserole, where excess liquid would not be desirable. When sautéed, it only requires a minute or two to cook off any extra moisture, so I don’t bother salting it ahead of time. Roasting sliced eggplant will also cook off any extra liquid.
If eggplant tastes too bitter, the easiest remedy is to peel it before cooking. The most bitter portion of the eggplant is just below the skin. Also, eggplant will begin to discolor once it is sliced, so it should either be cooked immediately or brushed lightly with lemon juice. Cooking it in an aluminum pan will also cause discoloration.
Eggplants are rich in antioxidants, those wonderful chemicals that protect our cells from harmful free radicals. Nasunin, a particularly effective antioxidant found in eggplant, has been shown in research to protect brain cell membranes.
Nasunin also chelates iron. Iron is an essential nutrient, especially for transporting oxygen in red blood cells. However, excess iron can cause free radicals to form. Chelating iron prevents some of these negative side effects.
Nutritionally, eggplant is rich in dietary fiber and manganese, which is necessary for building strong bones.
Eggplant is the primary ingredient in several famous (and difficult to spell) dishes, including moussaka, ratatouille, and eggplant parmegiana. For today I chose to make caponata, a Sicilian favorite.
Caponata recipes tend to fall into three categories. When ingredients are finely chopped, caponata can be used as a condiment, dip, or spread for an appetizer. If coarsely chopped, caponata becomes more like a vegetable stew for use as a side dish. Finally, if chicken or ground meat is added it becomes a main dish. The recipe below is intended to be a side dish.
- 1 large eggplant (more if small) (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
- 1 medium zucchini (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
- 1 Tbsp hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
- ½ cup chopped onion (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead, Everson)
- 1 clove garlic, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- 3 large Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped (Terra Verde, Everson)
- 1 bell pepper, chopped (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
- ½ tsp raw honey (Backyard Bees, Edison)
- 1 tsp fresh basil, minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- 1 Tbsp chopped roasted hazelnuts (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Peel eggplant (if desired--unpeeled is fine, too) and cut into 1-inch cubes. Also cube the unpeeled zucchini. Spread vegetables on an oiled baking sheet, and roast in the oven until lightly browned, about 15-20 minutes.
- In a large skillet or Dutch oven, warm the hazelnut oil over medium high heat and then add the chopped onion. Sauté until translucent, then add the minced garlic. Sauté for another minute.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and bell pepper and cook until most of the liquid has cooked off, about 10 minutes.
- Add roasted eggplant and zucchini cubes, water, apple cider vinegar, honey, basil, salt and smoked pepper. Continue to cook until a thick sauce is formed.
- Remove from heat and garnish with chopped hazelnuts. Can serve hot, or let cool to room temperature.