The eggplant achieved the status of cult vegetable during the cooking revolution of the '80s. What progress! In the Middle Ages, eggplant was feared as a sure cause of insanity.

Indeed, the Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, comes from the Latin term malum insanum, literally "mad apple." This is not as crazy as it sounds, for the eggplant belongs to the nightshade family, many of whose members are poisonous.

To most of us, eggplant means the large oval purple vegetable commonly found at the supermarket. Actually, there are dozens of eggplant varieties, ranging in hue from white to blue-black and from the size of cranberries to large and elongated, like squash. Furthermore, botanically speaking, the eggplant is a fruit (a berry), not a vegetable.

When buying eggplants, look for heavy, unbruised, smooth-skinned specimens. In general, the smaller the eggplant, the less bitter.

Among the more exotic varieties found in specialty markets these days are Oriental eggplants (also known as Chinese or Japanese eggplants), which are distinguished by a long, slender shape, violet or striated skin, tiny seeds and mild, sweet flesh. Italian eggplants (also known as baby eggplants) have thin purple skins, may be round or bulbous and are smaller and more delicately flavored than conventional eggplants. The Thais grow hard, round green eggplants that range from a half inch to 2 inches in diameter and are added to dishes for crunch. There's even a round albino variety that looks exactly like its namesake, the egg.

The larger members of the species contain a bitter juice, which can be extracted by a process known as disgorging. (Oriental eggplants and other small varieties do not need to be disgorged.) For dishes calling for sliced eggplant, arrange the slices on a cake rack or baking sheet and sprinkle both sides with kosher salt. Let stand for 20 minutes; the salt will draw out a bitter brown juice. Rinse the slices under cold water and blot dry. The eggplant is now ready for frying.

To disgorge a half eggplant for stuffing, score the cut side deeply and sprinkle with kosher salt. Let stand for 20 minutes, then squeeze each half over the sink to wring out the bitter juices. Rinse under cold water and blot dry.

The most common methods for cooking eggplant are baking and frying. For the former, place the eggplant halves, cut side down, on an oiled baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes (or until very tender).

When frying eggplant, keep in mind that the more oil you use for frying, the less the eggplant will actually absorb. (And eggplant absorbs oil like a sponge.) Use at least a half inch of oil and heat it to 375 degrees. To tell when the oil is the right temperature without a thermometer, dip in a small piece of eggplant; tiny bubbles should appear at once. Never let the oil get so hot it smokes.

Eggplant is one of the few foods that actually taste good when burned. This comes as no secret to Middle Eastern and Thai cooks, who char it black as coal on the grill. The charring imparts a wonderful smoky flavor and makes the flesh soft, sweet and tender.

When grilling or baking eggplant, be sure to prick it in a few spots with a fork. Unpricked eggplants have been known to explode!

BABA GHANOUSH

(6 servings)

Baba ghanoush, eggplant dip, is well known in North America. Few people prepare it the proper way, however, which is to thoroughly char the eggplant on the grill to give it a smoky flavor.

2 pounds regular or Italian eggplant (enough to make 2 cups cooked pulp)

1 to 2 cloves garlic

2 scallions

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prick the eggplants in a few spots with a fork. Grill the eggplant over medium heat, turning from time to time, until the the skin is charred on all sides and the flesh is soft. Let cool.

Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and scoop the flesh out of the skins. Coarsely chop the eggplant. Mince the garlic and finely chop the scallions and parsley.

Stir the garlic, scallions and parsley into the eggplant. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, the lemon juice, salt and pepper and mix well. Correct the seasoning, adding salt or lemon juice to taste. Spoon the baba ghanoush into a shallow bowl and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Serve with pita bread, using pieces of pita to scoop up the dip.

Per serving: 72 calories, .4 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium.

AUBERGINES NIMOISE (Eggplant With Tomatoes and Basil)

(4 to 6 servings)

N ~mes is a city in southern France famous for its eggplants and tomatoes. (The city also gave its name to a soft blue fabric called denim, literally "from N ~mes.") For the best results, use small, slender Italian eggplants.

1 1/2 pounds small eggplants

1/4 cup kosher salt

4 ripe tomatoes

1 bunch fresh basil

Approximately 1/2 cup flour

2 to 3 cups oil, for frying

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Cut the eggplants widthwise into 1/4-inch slices. Sprinkle the slices with kosher salt and disgorge as described above. Rinse under cold water and blot dry. Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes into as many slices as you have eggplant slices. Remove the basil leaves from the stems.

Dredge the eggplant slices in flour, shaking off the excess. Heat 1/2 inch oil to 350 degrees in a skillet or electric frying pan. Fry the eggplant slices for 30 seconds per side, or until lightly browned, turning with tongs. Work in several batches, without crowding the pan, adding oil as necessary. (Allow the oil to reheat between batches.) Transfer the eggplant slices to paper towels to drain.

Arrange the eggplant and tomato slices in circles on an oven-proof platter, the former overlapping and alternating with the latter, placing a basil leaf between each. You're aiming for a zebra effect. Sprinkle the platter with the garlic, olive oil, pepper and perhaps a little salt. (Remember that the eggplant has been salted already.) The dish can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.

Bake the eggplant for 20 to 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or until the vegetables are thoroughly heated. Eggplant N ~moise is delicious with lamb.

Per serving: 297 calories, 2 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 mg sodium.

CHINESE EGGPLANT WITH GINGER AND SCALLIONS

(4 to 6 servings)

This dish is best made with one of the slender Asian eggplant varieties. Look for them at Oriental markets.

1 1/2 pounds Chinese or Japanese eggplants

3 scallions

2 cloves garlic

1-inch piece of fresh ginger root

FOR THE SAUCE:

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil, or to taste

TO FINISH THE DISH:

1 1/2 cups canola or peanut oil for frying

3 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds

Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, then on the diagonal into 1/4-inch slices. Finely chop the scallion, reserving the green part for garnish. Mince the garlic and ginger. Combine the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl.

Heat the oil in a wok to 375 degrees. Fry the eggplant slices for 1 minute, or until tender, working in several batches, letting the oil reheat between batches. Place the eggplant in a colander to drain.

Discard all but 2 tablespoons oil. Reheat the wok over high heat. Add the garlic, ginger and scallion's white parts and stir-fry for 10 seconds. Add the sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in the eggplant slices and stir-fry until hot. Ladle the eggplant into a bowl and sprinkle with the scallion greens and sesame seeds. Chinese eggplant is delectable either hot or cold.

Per serving: 153 calories, 2 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 349 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.