Friday, 19 April 2024

The Veggie Girl: The awesome aubergine

A young purple eggplant ripes on the vine at Leonard Organics in Kelseyville, Calif. Photo by Esther Oertel.




Whether you call it a melongene, brinjal, garden egg, patlican, aubergine or eggplant, it’s one of the world’s most versatile vegetables and is featured in the cuisine of countries on almost every continent.

From the Caribbean to Thailand, from Ethiopia to the American South, and from Italy to India, eggplant provides the basis for dishes with an amazing diversity of flavors.

With the edible, soft seeds contained in its center, botanically the eggplant is considered a berry. As a member of the nightshade family, it’s related to tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes.

There’s a surprise surrounding its family tree. The eggplant is closely related to tobacco, and the bitter taste of its seeds comes from nicotinoid alkaloids. An addiction to eggplant, however, must be blamed on its flavor, color or preparation, as the amount of nicotine contained within is negligible.

They’re a favorite of vegetarians, as the flesh is rich, with a meat-like texture. I often pull eggplant out of my “bag of tricks” when I prepare vegetarian cuisine as it’s a great meat substitute for a hearty meal.

They’re a fantastic brain food due to the presence of the powerful antioxidant nasunin, which has been shown to protect the fats in brain cell membranes. Other antioxidant compounds abound that have been shown to promote cardiovascular health and even lower cholesterol.

Eggplants are a great source of fiber, and contain minerals such as potassium, manganese and copper, as well as important B vitamins.

They’re native to India and the surrounding countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

They were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C., were brought into Africa before the Middle Ages, and were introduced to Italy in the 14th century. Thomas Jefferson, an avid experimental gardener, is credited for introducing them to the U.S.

Cultivated varieties range in size from the golf ball-sized Thai eggplant to a two pound variety grown near the Ganges River in India. Wild eggplants have been known to grow on stalks as tall as 7 feet.

The eggplant with which we’re most familiar is called the American, or globe, eggplant, with its characteristic glossy deep purple skin and rotund shape. European eggplants, such as the Italian and Holland varieties, are more elongated, and those from Asia, such as Japanese, Filipino and Chinese eggplants, are long and quite thin. Hawaiian eggplants are the thinnest I’ve seen, with a shape similar to a zucchini.

Each of the varieties mentioned above, save the Chinese eggplant, which is deep lavender, are dark purple; however, other varieties come in a broad range of colors, such as the apple green or green goddess eggplants and the white eggplant, which has a delicate flavor and tough skin.

Small, globelike Indian eggplants are deep red, and early European cultivars were yellow or white, resembling chicken eggs, thus spawning the term “eggplant.”

The flesh of the eggplant is spongy and somewhat bitter in its raw state, though more recent cultivated varieties are not quite as bitter as their ancient counterparts. When cooked, it has a subtle and complex flavor.

Like chicken or tofu, eggplant provides a platform for a plethora of flavors, changing like a chameleon when paired with different sauces and spice combinations. Eggplant is as delicious in a rich Italian tomato sauce as it is in a Thai coconut curry or a spicy African salad.

If an eggplant is young, its skin can be delicate enough to leave on for cooking; otherwise it should be peeled. An interesting preparation is to peel it partially for a striped pattern of skin and flesh. This allows the skin (and its nutrients) to flavor the dish.




A young, developing eggplant nestled amidst the vines grown at Jim Leonardis

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