Whether it's called aubergine, berengina, patlican or melenzane, eggplants got their name because not only did they originally come in one color – white – but also, hanging from the plant, they looked like eggs.
The eggplant is a member of the solanaceous, night shade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, red and green peppers, as well as the paprika. When I was a child, my tongue was very sensitive towards certain fruits and vegetables. Although I loved peaches, tomatoes, and even eggplants the way mother cooked them, my tongue swelled along the sides and felt very uncomfortable for quite a while after the consumption of what I came to name my 'forbidden food'.
Part of my suffering was demystified when I read that in the 1940's, an American horticulturist, Norman F. Childers, claimed that eating nightshade foods results in a "buildup of cholinesterase inhibiting glykoalkaloids and steroids...and may cause inflammation, muscle spasms and stiffness." His theory was based on his claim that eliminating foods of the nightshade family from his own diet cured hid arthritis.
In some places, the eggplant is known as the "mala insana" meaning,"bad egg" or "bad apple". According to a legend, an Indian traveler ate some eggplant raw, had a fit, and people thought the eggplant had posioned him.
Unfavourable health claims and legends aside, eggplant is a celebrated and very versatile vegetable which has found its way into cherished cuisines of many Eastern, Western, Oriental, South Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. Believed to have originated in India, this vegetable spread to Europe by way of Africa. From Europe, it came to the America, and was being cultivated in Brazil by the mid-1600s.
Although Italians were growing it by the 14th century, interestingly the vegetable doesn't figure in the northern Italian cuisine as it does in southern. A probable reason for this is that eggplant needs heat and considerable irrigation in order to grow.
Early in the growing season, eggplants produce beautiful, star-shaped, blue-violet flowers. The eggplant is the berry which form after the flower drops. The vegetable is mild-tasting and spongy; meaty yet low in calories. It's never eaten raw, but it can be baked, sauteed , grilled or fried. The best eggplants are firm and shiny without broken skin.
The most commonly available eggplant, available year round, is a deep purple – almost black. However, when eggplants were shipped, they scarred and bruised easily. Therefore, after much experimentation and work, hybridizers developed an eggplant that wouldn't scar. In the process they widened the variety to many shapes and colors which range from dark purple to light pink and even green.
Baby (Italian) eggplants are available in the summer months, with the peak in July through September. In sunnier climates, they're available year-round, but the supplies may be limited.
Eggplants may be white, purple or striped; round, oval or pear shaped; the flesh is firm and creamy white with a lot of edible seeds i the centre. Baby or Italian egplants are smaller and have a thinner skin. Japanese eggplants are thinner, longer and are a light purple.
In choosing an eggplant, go for a firm and shiny one that's heavy for its size. If it's large but feels light, it will be pulpy. Press the flesh gently with your thumb; if it leaves an indentation, you do not want that one. The tip should be green and fresh-looking; a green cap with little spikes around the stem is a tip that the eggplant is fresh.
Next, lok at the blossom end to determine if it's male or female. Male eggplants tend to have fewer seeds and therefore they taste less bitter than the female eggplants. To determine the gender of the eggplant, look at the indentation at the bottom, away from the stem side. If it's shallow and round, it's a male.
Store at room temperature on the cool side, or wrap loosely and store in the crisper of your refrigerator. A firm eggplant will keep for several days. Freshness is important, s o don't store them for too long.
Although smaller eggplants tend to be less so, eggplant has a tendency to be slightly bitter.
To get rid of the bitterness, wash the eggplant, slice it, sprinkle with salt and allow to drain in a colander for upto half an hour. Besides purging the bitter juices, salting eggplant also prevents it from absorbing oil when you fry or saute it.
Eggplant may be used in dozens of different vegetable dishes. It is a satisfying substitute for meat or vegetarian meals. Here is an out of the ordinary recipe using this shady vegetable.
Before I go into the preperation of this delightful meal, I'd like to share the curious origins of its name. In Turkish "imam bayildi" literally means "the priest fainted".
There are two schools on the interpretation of the origins of this term. I suggest you pick your choice, but whatever you believe, do take it with a little grain of salt.
One is that eggplants are said to absorb a lot of oil. When you read the recipe, you'll understand this explanation, that when the imam, who asked his wife how much oil she used in making the dish, "fainted" at the answer the young wife gave him. She replied, "Why, dear husband, I used only half a gallon – olive oil."
A little overkill, wouldn't you think?
The second explanation is more benign. It is said that the imam, when he tasted this dish for the first time, loved it so much that he declared he "fainted" over it. You see, in Turkish there's an expression, "Aman, bayildim!" It is used to express one's delight in something by stating one has fainted over it, ("Oh, I fainted"). Something a little akin to the expression, "To die for!"
Thus the name Imam Bayildi stuck to this delightful eggplant dish which is consumed at room temperature or straight from the fridge. It makes a great accompaniment for steak, grilled chicken, fish; or can be enjoyed just by itself with a crusty bread and a glass of wine.
I hope you'll give it a try, and as you do, think of the poor imam. Enjoy, but please, don't faint over it !
Bon Apétit. Afiyet Olsun.
This recipe does not need exact measures. If I have left over filling, I use it for pizza topping, huevos rancheros, or toss it with fresh pasta.
6- 8 small, thin Italian eggplants
2 large onions, quartered and sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced.
3-5 Roma tomatoes, diced
Parsley, chopped - divided
salt and ground pepper to taste.
½ cup olive oil
Wash eggplants, dry and remove stems. Peel in strips. In medium hot oil, fry them whole, turning occasionally, until slightly golden and softened but NOT fully cooked. Remove to a plate and set aside.
To the oil remaining in pan add onions, saute until translucent and golden. Add tomatoes, garlic, seasonings and cook another 3 minutes. Add chopped parsley. Cool a little to handle.
With a spoon and a fork, part each eggplant lengthwise in the middle to open a slit. Do not go all the way down to the bottom. Into these "boats" spoon as much filling as possible, pushing gently and pulling the sides over on the filling. Repeat until all are done.
Place stuffed eggplant "boats" in an oven-proof casserole and bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees. Do not add any liquid as the liquids exude during baking. Cool. Before serving, sprinkle with more finely chopped parsley. Store in the refrigerator for upto a week.
There is a more step by step pictorial version of this recipe in a recent post here if you are interested.
Recipe and Photography
Füsun Atalay ~ Copyright © DictionMatters-2010