Just about this time, those of you brave enough to have tilled a garden are scrounging around for recipes requiring bushels and bushels of your rapidly erupting vegetables. Luckily, bumper crops have a way of bringing out sensational creativity in cooks. So while your daily menus might be slave to your crop, there are ways to avoid monotonous meals when one crop is bountiful. Toss it in fragrant herbs, douse it with cream sauces or hide it in thick casseroles; these are just some of the ways to keep things entertaining throughout the summer.
One vegetable that can be sure to crowd a garden is eggplant. Be ready with your scissors when the eggplants are a uniform glossy purple, their skin taut and firm. Overripe eggplants are dull-skinned, tinged with brown, and their flesh is flabby. A good test is to press down on the eggplant gently with your thumb; if its flesh presses in but bounces back, the eggplant is ready for harvesting. If the flesh is hard and doesn't give, the eggplant is immature and too young to pick. And if the flesh stays indented when pressed, the eggplant is overripe.
Eggplants bruise easily, so harvest them gently. Do not try to pull an eggplant off the stem; cut it with scissors. Always include the cap and some of the stem when cutting. It is the seeds that have the strong flavor, so it is best to use eggplants when young, not more than three inches in diameter. Eggplant, by the way, is perfect for dieters; a half cup packs megadoses of potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium at only 25 calories.
To salt or not to salt an eggplant is a question grumbled over in many kitchens. It is a good idea to do so because salting extracts not only excess moisture but also the bitterness inherent in most eggplants. An eggplant that has been salted also absorbs far less oil or butter when saute'ed. You will only need two tablespoons of oil to cook two cups of salted and drained eggplant, compared with the six to eight tablespoons slurped up by the same amount of unsalted eggplant. Salting, therefore, is not only more healthy, it is also cheaper. The best method is to sprinkle coarse salt on all cut slices and then drain them in a colander for at least 30 minutes. Pat the slices free of excess salt before using. Blanching (boiling the vegetable briefly) is another option for those who choose not to include salt in their diets.
According to Marian Morash in "The Victory Garden Cookbook" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), eggplants store poorly. Their optimum storage temperature is 50 degrees, so keep eggplants in a cool but unrefrigerated area (if kept in the refrigerator they will become bitter after a day or two). Wrap the eggplant in a plastic bag with some wet paper toweling or a wet cloth to provide humidity. Note that one pound of peeled and cubed eggplant yields approximately four cups. Six cups of raw, cubed flesh yield three cups cooked. One and a half pounds of eggplant yield four servings.
Eggplant is a versatile vegetable. Perusing Chinese, Italian and Indian recipes is certain to generate many ideas. Below is a recipe for eggplant stuffed with lamb; beef can be substituted. Those not lucky enough to have eggplants and tomatoes outside the back door will still only need salt, oil (preferably olive oil) and butter before a trip through the express lane.
Express lane list: lamb, eggplant, onion, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, dried mint and bread crumbs. LAMB -- STUFFED EGGPLANT (4 servings)
Green peppers, zucchini and large tomatoes would also be perfect for stuffing.
2 medium-sized eggplants (about 6 inches long)
1/2 cup oil, preferably olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 to 4 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste
2 cups chopped cooked lamb (1 pound, uncooked)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon crushed dried mint or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces.
Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, trim off the stem ends, and scoop out the pulp, leaving a shell 1/2-inch thick. Blanch by covering with boiling water for 2 minutes; drain, pat dry. Brush all over, inside and out, with 4 tablespoons oil. In a skillet cook the onion, parsley, tomatoes and garlic in 2 tablespoons oil until the onion is soft. Add the lamb, 1 teaspoon salt, and the mint. Add some of the eggplant pulp, but none of the seedy part. Simmer for 10 minutes. Fill the two eggplant shells with this mixture. Top with the bread crumbs, sprinkle with remaining salt and dot with butter.
Place the eggplant halves in a roasting pan, generously brushed with oil, and bake in a 350-degree oven for an hour, or until the eggplant skin is lightly wrinkled and softened and the crumbs are golden. Adapted from "The Good Cook, Techniques & Recipes: Lamb" (Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va.)