What’s round and oblong and big and small and white and purple and green and striped and lavender and black? What else but eggplant? Or, more precisely, a dozen types of eggplants?
You can find these colorful varieties at farmers markets and ethnic greengrocers.
How did this interesting vegetable rise to popularity, especially in the Middle East? During the days of tsena (austerity) in Israel in the early 1950s, eggplants were almost a national joke. They were disguised as meat, fish, chicken and every other unavailable and unattainable food item.
Because these members of the nightshade family are a vehicle for tastes and flavors that are included in the preparation, but have little taste to offer on their own, the eggplant is a most chameleonlike vegetable.
Middle Eastern cooks insist that there are more than a thousand ways to prepare eggplant. Start with these few tasty selections.
Eggplant and Tomato Soup Gratin
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large sweet onion, diced
1 lb. eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbs. tomato paste
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 cup tomato juice
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper
6 slices country-style bread
6 oz. grated cheese
In saucepan, heat oil. Cook garlic and onion until wilted, about 3 minutes. Add eggplant and tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, oregano, tomato juice, stock and parsley. Bring to a boil and simmer partially covered 15 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Sprinkle bread slices with cheese and toast or broil until melted and lightly browned. Ladle soup into bowls and top with cheese toasts.
Thyme and Lime–Marinated Eggplant Slices
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1⁄4-inch slices
2 Tbs. lime juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1⁄2 tsp. dried
1⁄2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 cup olive oil
Combine marinade ingredients. Pour into large, shallow glass bowl. Place eggplant slices in bowl (more than one bowl may be needed) and turn so that each side is coated with marinade. Allow to sit 30 minutes. Turn eggplant again and let sit another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat grill. Place eggplant close to heat source and cook about 4 minutes or just until light char marks appear. Turn and cook other side. Serve immediately.
Sweet and Sour Eggplant Spread
Makes 2 cups
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar
1⁄2 cup currants or raisins
1 medium eggplant, baked until soft*
1⁄2 cup Greek black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1⁄4 cup toasted pine nuts
1⁄4 cup basil, cut into thin strips
In medium skillet, heat oil. Cook garlic, onion and pepper for 5 minutes. Add vinegar and currants and continue cooking until thick and syrupy. Cut eggplant into strips and add to skillet along with olives, pine nuts, cayenne and salt. Cook another 3 minutes and taste for salt. Sprinkle with basil and serve warm or at room temperature with crackers or pita bread or as part of an antipasto platter.
* To bake eggplant: Pierce in several places with fork and bake in 375-degree oven about 40 minutes or until very soft.
Louise Fiszer is a Palo Alto cooking teacher, author and the co-author of “Jewish Holiday Cooking.” Her columns alternate with those of Faith Kramer. Reach her at email@example.com.