Long before Jenni Ferrari-Adler edited the collection Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (Riverhead, 2007), Laurie Colwin's essay by the same title appeared in Gourmet magazine and reappeared in her 1988 collection Home Cooking. A funny read-aloud piece, "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant" brought home to me how deprived I was growing up not eating them. But it was love at first sight when, at the tender age of 14, I encountered an aubergine in a Paris marche.
Like many veggie fanatics, I'm crazy about eggplant now, though I have veggie fanatic friends (mostly Midwesterners) who still don't quite trust an eggplant. Why should I? they ask. It's so ... rich. Well, there are lots of reasons we should or might learn to like eggplant if we don't already. A meaty vegetable that can beef up stews, stand in for or complement pasta, stretch sauces and be made into a number of low-fat appetizers and dips, eggplant could be the locavore's new best friend.
A cursory search reveals eggplant as a staple in many world cuisines (London's World Food Café has collected some stunner African, Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern examples into one beautiful, slender cookbook by the same name) in addition to the French, Italian and Greek standbys: ratatouille, eggplant Parmesan and moussaka. Eggplant is a hot weather crop, grown anywhere you can grow tomatoes and peppers, so in the Triangle, we find them in the farmers' markets from late June into November (depending on last and first frost dates), giving us a long window in which to fall in love and to try our hand at the substantial dinnertime staple.
The benefit of weaving eggplant into our diet two or three times a week (high in fiber, low in fat and carbs) is this: It empowers us with another versatile vegetable, so we can eat even more locally and in season. They come in many shapes, sizes and colors, and as with most veggies, the younger the better. Among varieties I tested were some with poetic names like Ophelia, Ichiban and Fairy Tale.
A few tricks to getting along well with this new friend. Like a sponge, eggplant absorbs the olive oil it pairs so well with. Lightly roast cubes or run slices under the broiler before using them in a recipe if you want them to keep shape and not become sodden (not that that isn't deliciously indulgent, sometimes). Some cooks peel and slice their eggplant into a colander and sprinkle kosher salt over it to drain off the natural water; others I know soak it in hot water for five minutes, drain and pat dry before using. Both ways keep firmness and encourage silkiness.
After asking friends and colleagues—who were incredibly generous—about their favorite eggplant dish, I got so many wonderful and unexpected possibilities that I've decided I may need to start an eggplant blog. Testing different recipes was a pleasure, and deciding which ones to list here was difficult, so I include two, one a super easy appetizer or salad, one a simplified main dish or side dish.