North Fork Chef: Eggplant is a fruit of many colors and nationalities

Once upon a time on the coast of Turkey
there lived a woman who could cook eggplant 99 ways.
She could slice eggplant thin as paper.
She could write poems on it and batter-fry it.
She could bake eggplant and broil it.
She could even roll the seeds in banana-
flavored cigarette papers
and get her husband high on eggplant.
But he was not pleased.
He went to her father and demanded his bride-price back.
He said he’d been cheated.
He wanted back two goats, twelve chickens
and a camel as reparation.
His wife wept and wept.
Her father raved …
from “The Eggplant Epithalamion” by Erica Jong

A fruit of the solanaceae family (nightshades), the eggplant has a long history beginning in India and Southeast Asia. It is closely related to the tomato and potato but has a unique texture and complex flavor all its own. Eggplant has a wide international reputation with many countries contributing signature recipes: In India, baingan bharta is a roasted eggplant dish seasoned with curry, cumin, garlic, and ginger; in the Middle East, baba ghanoush is also roasted eggplant mashed with tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and cumin; in France, the famous ratatouille is eggplant mixed with zucchini, tomato, peppers and other vegetables; in Greece, moussaka has slices of eggplant, ground lamb and bechamel sauce; in Italy, caponata served as an antipasto and eggplant rollatine as an entrée; and in the United States, every pizza restaurant serves eggplant parmigiana, with its mozzarella and marinara sauce

Here on the North Fork, eggplant is at its best in August and September and is available in many sizes and colors. It is fat-free and a good source of fiber, potassium and minerals, but its culinary value is in its chewy texture and ability to absorb many flavors. Eggplant by itself is very low in calories, but when sauteed or deep fried (without purging) it absorbs large amounts of oil, making it very high in calories.

Purging (or salting) Eggplant
I used to think that salting the eggplant before using it in a recipe was a waste of time, but now I realize that it contributes to a much better taste and texture. The exception is young eggplant and the thin Asian eggplant. For a large, purple eggplant, purging is when you slice or dice the eggplant, sprinkle it liberally with coarse salt and let it sit for 30 minutes on a rack or in a colander so that it can drain. You then rinse the eggplant under cold water and dry it with paper towels. This will make the eggplant less bitter and also less absorbent. It is well worth the time.

Eggplant Parmesan with Goat Cheese
Purchase 2 purple eggplants, trim the ends off and peel them in alternating strips so as to leave some of the skin on. Slice them into 1/2” slices and purge them using the above instructions above. Break 2 eggs into a bowl and whisk in 2 tbsp. water. Place 2 cups of breadcrumbs in a shallow pan and season them with 2 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano, 1 tbsp. minced garlic, 1 tsp. coarse salt, and 1 tsp. pepper.

Line a sheet pan with foil and spray it with no-stick. Dip the slices of eggplant in the eggs and put them into the breadcrumb mixture, coating both sides. Put the breaded slices on the lined sheet pan and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, turning them once. They will come out golden brown, crisp on the outside and creamy in the center.

Prepare a cheese filling by combining 8 oz. of local goat cheese with 1/4 cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano. Let the cheeses come to room temperature and add 1 beaten egg, 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 1 tsp. coarse salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Stir this mixture with a wooden spoon and set aside. Slice 1 large beefsteak tomato into 1/4” slices and slice 8 oz. of fresh mozzarella into 1/4” slices.

Assemble this dish either in individual ramekins or in a casserole. Place one slice of eggplant in the bottom of the ramekin and cover it with goat cheese filling. Place another slice of eggplant on top and a slice of tomato on top of the eggplant. Put a slice of mozzarella on top of the tomato and sprinkle some grated parmigiano-reggiano over it. Repeat until the ingredients are gone. At service time, place the ramekins in a 400-degree oven until the cheese is bubbling hot, about 15 minutes. Garnish with chopped fresh basil and serve with tomato sauce if desired. (Serves 4-6)

Purchase 3 eggplants, trim off the ends and peel off strips as in the above recipe. Cut the eggplant into 1/2” slices and purge them using the instructions above. Bread them and bake for 30 minutes exactly as in the above recipe for eggplant parmesan and set them aside. Heat a large sauté pan and place 1 1/2 lbs. of ground lamb (or beef) in it to cook. As the meat begins to brown, add 2 cups of chopped onion and 1 tbsp. minced garlic.

Continue cooking until meat is cooked through and add 1/2 cup of red wine. Let this simmer for 5 minutes and add 1 cup of crushed canned tomato and 2 tbsp. tomato paste. Season with 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 tsp. sugar, 2 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. allspice, 2 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Simmer until thick, about 20 minutes.

Make a roux by melting 1 stick of butter in a small saucepan and stirring in 2/3 cup of flour. Let cook for 5 minutes at low heat. Separately, heat 1 quart of milk in a saucepan and season with 1/2 tsp. ground fresh nutmeg, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Add the roux to the milk and cook at medium heat, whisking the sauce until it becomes thick. Boil 6 new potatoes in their skins until just cooked, about 15 minutes. Run them under cold water, drain and slice into 1/4” slices.

Assemble the moussaka by sprinkling bread crumbs in the bottom of a large casserole and placing a layer of the sliced potatoes on top. Lay slices of breaded eggplant on top of the potatoes and spread the meat sauce on top of all.  Sprinkle 1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese over the meat and top with more eggplant slices. Pour the bechamel sauce over everything and sprinkle another 1/4 cup of grated cheese on top. Place in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes and serve. (Serves 6-8)

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]