By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
The eggplant looks so beautiful in the produce display: purple and shiny, like a new car or a John McCracken sculpture. It is lovely to touch, too, with smooth, perfect skin that yields ever so slightly to pressure.
But once it comes home with me, its true personality emerges. Suddenly it is trouble in a purple dress, one of the great challenges of the vegetable world, a greedy sponge shouting out its demand to the cook: "More oil! More oil!"
A recipe that tells you simply to "pan-fry eggplant in oil" plays a cruel joke on a home cook. I cannot be the only one to have experienced the deep disappointment of bungling something that seems so straightforward. Before I knew better, I would start with a generous amount of oil, but the pan would be completely dry after a few seconds. When I added more oil, that disappeared, too, leaving me with the choice of pouring in even more or having some part of the eggplant cooked in a dry pan.
Sometimes I was tempted to let it starve, to just throw it in the pan and hope for the best. But the result was likely to be more burned than cooked, with a bitter taste. "This is what you get when you don't feed me properly: I bite back!" the eggplant seemed to say, appropriately enough for something the Italians called "mala insana" (the mad apple).
A perfectly cooked eggplant, on the other hand, can be a thing of wonder. There is something deep, rich and flavorful, meatlike even, about a successfully grilled or fried slice of eggplant that makes it worth the effort.
Eggplant, technically a fruit that we treat as a vegetable, is surrounded by superstition and old wives' tales. But why does it behave so badly? I think the explanation is much the same as for people: because it is misunderstood.
According to Marie-Christine Daunay, who is in charge of eggplant studies at the French agronomic research institute INRA, eggplant is somewhat of a mystery even to those who work with it daily. But at least we know a little about its propensity to drink. It is due partly to the spongy texture, of course, but Daunay tells me that the eggplant also contains compounds called saponins "that have a natural affinity for lipids." They love fat, in other words, and work as hard as they can to soak up as much of it as possible. Saponins are also responsible for the bitter flavors that in small quantities can be nice but in older or undercooked eggplant can be overwhelming. Although it's not yet scientifically proven, saponins are believed to help lower cholesterol and, if not satisfied in their craving for fat, to absorb fats present in our digestive system.
The eggplant's well-known thirst is central to Imam Bayildi, a Turkish dish that is widely eaten throughout the Middle East. One story behind the dish is interesting, not only in that it gives a rare look into how Muslims poke fun at their clergy: An imam makes a surprise announcement that he is marrying the daughter of a wealthy olive oil merchant. His friends suspect that he has an ulterior motive: a big fat dowry. That turns out to be true. Upon marrying the woman, he receives 12 jugs of oil, each one large enough to hold a man. It also turns out that the woman, though she has little else to recommend her, is an excellent cook. Her best dish is eggplants cooked in olive oil. In fact, the imam likes it so much that he asked her to make it every day. She does so for 12 days. On the 13th day the dish is absent, and the imam asks what happened.
"My dear husband, we have no more oil," she says. "If you want to have the dish again you must buy more olive oil." What happens next is the English translation of the name of the dish: The Imam Fainted.
Naturally, modern versions of the dish are more limited in their use of oil, but this is a dish where, to a certain extent, the eggplant must be allowed to indulge.
How can you cook eggplant without using too much oil and still achieve a decent result? That is one of the biggest challenges for the modern health-conscious home cook who has no relatives in the olive oil industry. I have found that using a brush to apply oil to eggplant slices is the only effective way to prevent overindulgence on one hand and a dry, burned surface on the other. I brush the oil on one side and then place the slices, oiled side down, on a grill or in a nonstick skillet. Only just before turning them over do I brush the other side. (If both sides are brushed at the same time, the oil invariably will have been soaked up by the time I flip the slice.) When the slices come out of the pan crisp outside and soft and creamy inside, they are a small wonder, served in a traditional Italian dish such as eggplant Parmesan (Parmigiana di melanzane), in a French ratatouille, in Greek moussaka or on a splendid vegetarian sandwich.
Counterintuitively, one of the easiest and least greasy ways to fry eggplant is to deep-fry it. The temperature is too high -- the water inside the eggplant is heated and struggles to escape -- for much oil to be soaked up, so if you make sure to pat the slices with a kitchen towel as soon as you remove them from the oil, they will not contain much more fat than if you'd used my carefully measured brushing technique. (But I still prefer the texture eggplant gets when it is grilled or fried in a pan.)
There are also ways to cook eggplant without fat: Simply place the whole eggplant on a grill or in a hot oven and cook until the skin is slightly burned and the interior is soft. It yields a velvety spread that is used for a variety of dishes, mostly of Middle Eastern origin, such as baba ghanouj, sultan's delight or eggplant caviar, that are smoother and richer than almost all other preparations, even without the addition of oil. Different versions of eggplant caviar (often referred to as a "poor man's caviar") are among my favorite dips. Served with freshly made pita breads and champagne, this dip certainly doesn't deserve its name.
A similar recipe calls for the eggplant to be steamed and then dressed with a vinaigrette; my favorite is a Spanish-inspired dish using sherry vinegar. An extreme in the other direction is chef Michel Richard's Eggplant Carpaccio: finely sliced raw eggplant dressed only with oil and herbs.
Then there is the salt. Traditional recipes ask the cook to salt eggplant slices before cooking them, supposedly to remove bitterness. But Nicholas Clee, the British author of "Don't Sweat the Aubergine" (Short Books, 2005), argues that salting probably is unnecessary given the relatively mild bitterness of most of the eggplants available today. Also, salt extracts only as much bitterness as it does moisture: that is, not much.
Salting does cut down on the fat absorption, but that effect, too, is limited; the imam perhaps would not have fainted had his eggplants been pre-salted, but he certainly would have felt quite dizzy. Brushing is much more effective.
Nonetheless, I prefer pre-salting, for two reasons. The first is that salt collapses the outer layers of the flesh, resulting in a more compact surface after frying or grilling. The second, more important reason is flavor. Salt is a great flavor enhancer, and if you enjoy the combination of smokiness and saltiness, you should pre-salt. If you don't, or if you require a low-sodium approach, do as Clee says: Don't sweat it.
Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the new public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.