HALVE IT from stem to stern and it becomes a serving bowl, in a fashionable color that decorators call aubergine. Slice it crosswise and it serves as a pedestal, unobtrusively heightening a filet mignon or noisette of lamb. Slice it thinner and it substitutes for bread in a grilled sandwich or for noodles in lasagna.

The eggplant: not always shaped like an egg (sometimes more like a grapefruit, or a zucchini, or a pear), and less than likely to be eggshell-white. It can vary from yellow to red or even have stripes. But it is at its most familiar and most seductive as shiny, dark-as-midnight purple.

No matter what its exterior, the flesh behaves like a sponge, gluttonously soaking up as much oil as the unsuspecting cook adds to the frying pan. While eggplant's bland and watery flesh thrives on frying, it does not need such a generous hand with oil if precautions are taken: Dipping the eggplant in flour or batter before frying will help. Likewise, covering the pan when you pan-fry allows you to use much less oil. In saute'ing, stand firm and add no extra oil after the first couple of tablespoons; just assiduously stir and toss to keep the eggplant from sticking to the pan. Or broil it -- about three inches from the heat -- after brushing it lightly with oil; it won't brown as well as in frying, but will release its juices and soften as much as any recipe requires.

While the eggplant sops up alarming amounts of oil, it also delectably absorbs the flavors you put in its company: onions, peppers, basil, oregano, cinnamon and its inevitable mate, garlic. Strong flavors complement its blandness, so combine it with tomatoes, olive oil, capers or anchovies, bacon or sausage. Its blandness makes it a good companion for seafood, allowing the delicate flavor of shrimp or crab meat to come through in a stuffing or casserole.

The chameleon of the vegetable kingdom, eggplant can pretend to be noodles or stand in for pastry to wrap around ground meat. It layers and chunks and slices as well as fries and steams, bakes and broils.

You can buy eggplants any time of the year, but the supply peaks this month, which is fortunate, since they have as many delicious uses in cold dishes as in hot ones. HOW TO BUY

The rules are not hard and fast, but the aim is to choose eggplants that are just-ripe rather than overripe and therefore bitter. Smaller eggplants are likely to be more satisfactory, but press their skin firmly to find ones that give slightly rather than being rock-hard. If your finger leaves an indentation, the eggplant is overripe. A just-right eggplant should give a little but bounce back. It should feel heavy for its size and look smooth, shiny and dark, with no indentations, shriveling or soft spots. Its green cap should look fresh. HOW TO STORE

While the ideal temperature for an eggplant is said to be 50 degrees, it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week. The longer it is stored, the more likely it is to become bitter. The optimal way to store an eggplant is wrapped in moist towels, then in a plastic bag. HOW TO PREPARE

The skin is a delicious part of a young eggplant, but in an overripe eggplant it turns tough and perhaps bitter. In an eggplant with the dark flesh and visible black seeds that indicate overripening, peel before serving.

To salt or not to salt remains a question. Sprinkling cut surfaces of eggplant with salt -- preferably coarse salt -- then weighting them down for 20 minutes will draw out some of this watery vegetable's moisture. Some people believe that the bitterness leaches out with the excess liquid and that salted eggplant absorbs less oil in the frying, although accounts differ. Salting is more useful for mature eggplants than young ones. After the salting, dry the eggplant thoroughly -- or rinse and then dry to remove more of the salt -- and continue with the recipe.

If eggplant has not been salted, it quickly turns brown when exposed to air. To prevent this, use a stainless rather than carbon steel knife when cutting, and either sprinkle the eggplant with lemon juice or immerse it in cold salted water until cooking time.

Eggplant can also be baked -- whole or halved, or even as breaded and oil-drizzled slices. To bake it whole, lightly grease the skin, pierce it in a few places, and bake at 425 degrees for about a half-hour until thoroughly soft. Or halve and do the same. Baked eggplant is fine for pure'eing; boiling would result in waterlogged flesh, though eggplant can be steamed (without touching the water) for 15 to 20 minutes until soft. For even more flavor, broil an eggplant whole, turning frequently, until the skin is well-charred (or hold it with a long fork over a flame, constantly turning, to char the skin); put eggplant in a paper bag for a few minutes to soften the skin, then rub off the skin, leaving little charred bits if you like a strongly smoky flavor. Then mash or pure'e for spreads or dips such as baba ghanouj or eggplant caviar. In frying, saute'ing or broiling sliced eggplant, figure on cooking about five minutes per side. HOW MANY DOES IT SERVE

A medium eggplant, roughly 1 1/2 pounds, serves about four people as a vegetable, and translates into about four to five cups of cubes or a dozen thick slices. Four cups of raw eggplant will cook down to two cups or even less, and will pure'e into about 1 1/2 cups. It is not a particularly nutritious vegetable, nor is it highly caloric: 3 1/2 ounces or one-half cup of baked, broiled or steamed eggplant has about 19 calories. HOW TO SERVE

The answer comes in many languages: French, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Arabic, Russian. Eggplant stuffed, fried, layered or whipped into a pure'e forms the classics of cuisines from New Delhi to New Orleans. Here are a few of this vegetable's innumerable guises. ANNE MODARRESSI'S KHORESHE BADAMJAN (Persian Eggplant Stew) (4 servings) 1 eggplant Salt Oil for frying 1 pound stew beef, cut up, or chicken pieces (2 pounds) 1 onion, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 8-ounce can tomato sauce 1/2 cup water 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Peel and slice eggplant, either crosswise or lengthwise, salt it and let stand 20 minutes. Pat dry with paper towels and saute' in oil until very brown. Set aside. In another pan saute' meat, onion and seasonings until meat is brown. Add tomato sauce, water and lemon juice, and simmer covered until meat is very tender, about 1 hour. Add eggplant and cook 15 minutes more. Serve over rice. TEMPURA FRIED EGGPLANT (4 to 6 servings) 4 to 6 very thin eggplants (about 1 1/2 inches in diameter) or 2 to 3 larger eggplants, split in half lengthwise (about 2 pounds) 1 1/3 cups flour 2 egg yolks 1 1/3 cups ice-cold water Oil for deep frying

Slice the eggplants into 1/4-inch lengthwise slices, leaving the slices attached at one end. Small eggplants can be sliced whole; large eggplants should be cut in half. Press down on the eggplant to fan out the slices. This fan shape looks beautiful on the plate, but it also exposes the maximum surface area to the oil. Consequently, it doesn't take very long to cook. There's no need to salt batter-fried eggplant, as the batter assures you a crisp crust.

Place flour, egg yolks and half the water in a bowl and work with a whisk until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the rest of the water. This batter produces a very crisp, thin coating. The batter can be made with a whole egg rather than the egg yolks but either way make sure the water is ice cold. If it's not cold, it never seems to get as crisp as it could.

Heat approximately 1/2 inch of oil in a large skillet until very hot. Dip the eggplant fans in the batter. The batter is quite runny, and not too much will adhere to the eggplant. Place each piece flat in the hot oil and cook on medium to high heat for about 4 to 5 minutes on one side. Turn and cook another 3 minutes. The fans should be nice and brown and cooked through. If your skillet is not large enough to accommodate several eggplants, make them in batches or use several skillets. When done, remove to a cookie sheet lined with paper towels and sprinkle with salt. From "Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pe'pin" STUFFED BAKED EGGPLANT (6 servings) 3 small eggplants (they should be the size of little cantaloupes) 2 red bell peppers 4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil 2 large cloves garlic, minced Salt and pepper to taste 2 onions 3 to 4 sprigs fresh parsley 3 to 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1 teaspoon dried basil (1 tablespoon fresh) Topping: 1/2 cup wheat germ 1 cup ground walnuts 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese 2 tablespoons melted butter 1 cup milk or light cream

Slice each eggplant in half lengthwise and cut out the meat, leaving 1/4 inch in the skin. Dice the eggplant into fairly large pieces, and the red bell peppers into small ones, reserving about 1/3 of one of the peppers for decoration.

In a large skillet heat about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and saute' the eggplant, diced bell pepper and half the garlic, tossing the pieces lightly until they are evenly coated and the eggplant begins to soften. Season it with salt and pepper. Divide this mixture evenly between the 6 eggplant shells, pressing it down into them. Chop the onions, parsley and the tomatoes. Saute' the onions in the remaining olive oil, adding the chopped fresh parsley and the crushed sweet basil, along with the remaining garlic. When the onions just begin to get soft, add the chopped tomatoes, simmer a few minutes, then spread the mixture on top of the eggplant pieces in the shells and pat it down. The eggplant shells should now be full to the top but not overflowing.

Finally, combine the wheat germ, ground nuts and parmesan cheese; moisten with the melted butter and enough milk to make a soft paste, and spread a thin layer of the mixture on top of each eggplant half. Decorate this crust with the reserved red pepper, sliced into thin strips. Bake the eggplants in an oiled dish for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve very hot. From "The Vegetarian Epicure," by Anna Thomas EGGPLANT SALAD WITH BASIL (6 to 8 servings) 3 medium-size unpeeled eggplants, about 4 1/2 pounds in all, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes 1 cup olive oil 1 tablespoon coarse salt 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced 2 large yellow onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced Freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped Juice 2 lemons

Line a roasting pan with foil and add eggplant. Toss with half of the olive oil, the coarse salt and the minced garlic. Bake at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes, until the eggplant is soft but not mushy. Cool slightly and transfer to a large bowl.

Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Add sliced onions and cook, covered, over low heat until tender, about 15 minutes. Add onions to the eggplant. Season generously with black pepper; add fresh basil and lemon juice. Toss together. Adjust seasonings and serve at room temperature. From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins PEASANT CAVIAR (4 first course servings)

Serve this well chilled as a first course or as part of an hors d'oeuvre selection, with crisp dry toast or hot triangles of pita bread. 2 small eggplants, about 2 pounds in all 4 garlic cloves, or more, peeled and slivered 1 teaspoon soy sauce 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 medium-size tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped 1/4 cup golden raisins Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts* Chopped fresh Italian parsley (garnish)

Cut the eggplants lengthwise into halves and make several deep slits in the flesh; be careful not to pierce the skin. Insert the garlic slivers into the cuts. Lightly sprinkle the cut surfaces with salt, and place halves on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Remove eggplants, cool slightly, and invert on paper towels. As the eggplants finish cooling, squeeze them gently to eliminate any excess liquid. Scrape the eggplant flesh and the cooked garlic out of the skins and either turn into a small mixing bowl and mash with a fork or puree in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Stir in the soy sauce, olive oil, chopped tomato and raisins. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Just before serving, stir the peasant caviar well, taste and correct seasoning. Stir in the pine nuts and sprinkle generously with chopped fresh parsley. Serve immediately.

*Note: To toast pine nuts, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet; place in 400-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes. Stir once or twice during baking. Remove immediately when well browned and transfer to a cool plate; otherwise the heat from the baking sheet may cause them to burn. Toasted nuts can be frozen for long-term storage. From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins EGGPLANT ROLLS STUFFED WITH LAMB (Roulades aux Aubergines) (8 servings) 4 to 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 pounds stewing lamb, trimmed and cut in cubes 1 clove garlic, minced 2 large onions, chopped 1 cup dry red wine 2 cups beef broth 1 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper 1 eggplant, about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, peeled 1/2 pound mushrooms, chopped 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice 4 tablespoons butter 4 tablespoons flour Chopped parsley for garnish

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium-sized dutch oven or heavy pan with a lid. Brown the meat quickly on all sides. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Add the garlic and half the onions to the pan. Cook until the onion is limp. Return the meat to the pan and add the wine, broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring. Lower the heat and simmer, covered 1 1/2 hours. Drain the meat and refrigerate the cooking liquid.

Chop the meat finely and set aside. When the broth has cooled thoroughly, remove the grease from the surface, and measure 2 cups of liquid, or add water to make it 2 cups.

(Ground lamb may be used to reduce cooking time, but it is very fatty and should be drained well after cooking. Use 2 1/2 or 3 pounds of meat to allow for shrinkage, and reduce the simmering time to 15 to 30 minutes.)

Slice about 1 inch off each end of the peeled eggplant and mince. Cut the remaining eggplant into 16 thin circles. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet and saute' the eggplant slices until limp, adding more oil as needed. Drain well on paper towels.

Add the remaining chopped onion to the skillet and cook until limp. Add the minced eggplant, mushrooms, cinnamon and allspice. Cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add the chopped lamb and mix well. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed.

Grease a shallow baking dish. Place a large spoonful of lamb mixture in the center of each eggplant slice, and roll the eggplant up around it. Place, seam side down, in the baking dish. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until well heated through.

Meanwhile make the sauce: In a saucepan bring the reserved 2 cups of pan juices slowly to a boil. In another saucepan, heat the butter, and when it foams, add the flour. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, pour in the boiling liquid from the other saucepan, and beat vigorously with a whisk. Return the pan to the heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Adjust the seasonings.

Serve the eggplant rolls hot, garnished with chopped parsley and accompanied with the sauce. From "The International Association of Cooking Schools' Cookbook" PUREE D'AUBERGINE A L'AIL (Eggplant Sauteed with Oil and Garlic) (4 servings)

This is so easy to do, and goes with steaks, chops, hamburgers, broiled chicken, broiled fish. 1 pound firm, fine, shiny eggplant 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 or 2 cloves garlic, pureed Salt and pepper Juice of 1/2 lemon, more or less 2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley

Bake eggplants by piercing them in 2 or 3 places with a sharp knife on one side and on the other. Place in an oiled baking dish in the middle level of a 425-degree oven and bake 25 to 35 minutes, until thoroughly soft to the touch.

If you prefer you can steam the eggplant by placing them in a vegetable rack or sieve, and set in a pan of boiling water, not letting the water touch the eggplant; cover tightly, and steam 15 to 20 minutes or longer, depending on size. Watch that you don't overcook them.

Cut in half lengthwise and scrape flesh from skin. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the garlic, and cook slowly a minute, then add the eggplant. Beat and stir with a wooden spoon for several minutes to break the eggplant meat into a pure'e. Beat in salt and pepper to taste, then drops of lemon juice. Just before serving, reheat, fold in the parsley, and turn into a hot vegetable dish. From "Julia Child's Kitchen," by Julia Child CAVIAR D'AUBERGINE (Eggplant Caviar) (Makes about 2 cups)

Use eggplant caviar as a hot vegetable, as a cocktail dip, or as part of a cold hors d'oeuvre platter to go with hard-cooked eggs, anchovies, tuna fish, sliced tomatoes, olives, and the like. 1 pound shiny eggplant 3 tablespoons olive oil 1 or 2 cloves garlic, pureed 1/4 cup sesame seed paste Salt and pepper The juice of 1/2 lemon, more or less More olive oil if needed 2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley

Bake eggplants by piercing them in 2 or 3 places with a sharp knife on one side and on the other. Place in an oiled baking dish in the middle level of a 425-degree oven and bake 25 to 35 minutes, until thoroughly soft to the touch.

If you prefer you can steam the eggplant by placing them in a vegetable rack or sieve, and set in a pan of boiling water, not letting the water touch the eggplant; cover tightly, and steam 15 to 20 minutes or longer, depending on size. Watch that you don't overcook them.

Scrape out the flesh from the eggplant, and saute' with the olive oil and garlic to evaporate excess moisture. Either put through the finest blade of a vegetable mill into a mixing bowl, or which is very fast, put into the jar of an electric super-blender-food-processor. Puree in a food processor. Beat in the sesame seed paste, salt, pepper and drops of lemon juice to taste, and add a little more olive oil if paste is too thick. Fold in chopped parsley, and serve either warm or cold. From "Julia Child's Kitchen" SPAGHETTINI WITH EGGPLANT (4 to 6 servings) 2 small eggplants, peeled and finely diced Salt 6 medium tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped 1/2 to 3/4 cup good olive oil Freshly ground white pepper 1 pound thin spaghettini 1 cup finely diced prosciutto 1 red onion, thinly sliced 2 garlic cloves, finely minced 1 tablespoon oregano 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, finely minced, or 1 teaspoon dry marjoram Freshly ground black pepper and parmesan for garnish

Peel the eggplants and cut into 1-inch cubes, place them in a colander. Sprinkle them with salt and let them drain for 1/2 hour. Put the chopped tomatoes in a large seive. Sprinkle them with salt and let them drain for 1/2 hours. Dry the eggplant cubes on paper towels. In a large skillet heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil. When it is very hot, brown the eggplant cubes on all sides. (You may need more oil.) Then season them with salt and pepper and reserve.

Bring 4 quarts salted water to a fast boil in a large casserole. Add the spaghettini and cook it over high heat until it is just tender (about 8 to 10 minutes).

While the spaghettini is cooking, saute' the prosciutto in 1 tablespoon oil for 1 or 2 minutes. Remove it from the pan and reserve. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft but not browned. Add the well-drained tomatoes, oregano, marjoram, eggplant and prosciutto. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

When the spaghettini is done, drain it well and return to the casserole. Pour the tomato and eggplant sauce over the spaghettini and toss lightly. Sprinkle with black pepper and grated cheese. Serve additional grated cheese on the side.

In the summer you may vary this dish by adding 1/2 cup of freshly pure'ed basil to the tomato mixture together with 2 additional cloves of minced garlic. From "The Seasonal Kitchen" by Perla Meyers ORIENTAL EGGPLANT SALAD (4 servings) 2 very large eggplants Salt 1/4 cup oil 1 teaspoon sesame seeds 2 teaspoons minced ginger root 2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 tablespoon white vinegar 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 teaspoon sesame seed paste 4 chopped scallions, trimmed of any wilted green tops 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)

Peel and cut eggplant into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes. Salt, let drain for 30 minutes, and dry them thoroughly. Saute' (in several batches) in oil until lightly browned and just barely tender. Remove them to absorbent towels to remove excess oil. Wipe any excess oil from the skillet and add the sesame seeds, stirring them briefly over medium heat to toast them slightly. Set aside. Mash together the ginger root and garlic. Combine this mixture with the remaining ingredients and toss with eggplant. Add sesame seeds. Marinate the salad for at least 2 hours before serving and serve chilled.

Note: You could also steam the eggplant cubes until tender instead of saute'eing in oil. From "The Victory Garden Cookbook," by Marian Morash