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I am the eggplant, goo-goo-g'joob

The meaty vegetable can be your new friend



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.

Jamie Larsen's Roasted Garlic and Eggplant Salad or Dip

1 medium to large eggplant
2-3 cloves fresh garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice (half a lemon)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Red leaf lettuce (or any tender salad green)
Garden ripe tomatoes: grape, cherry, plum or thick-sliced slicers
Pita bread
Parmesan cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Peel garlic and cut into slivers. Cut a few long slits into the skin of each half of the eggplant and insert garlic slivers. Place on foil-lined baking sheet brushed with olive oil and bake 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until silky tender when pierced through. During baking, Jamie turns hers every 30 minutes or so, but I put mine in the oven and went back to grading summer school finals and never turned them once and they were fine. Remove from oven and cut eggplants in half; cool slightly.

Scrape eggplant pulp out of skin into food processor. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Taste and add more seasoning if necessary. Transfer to bowl and cool completely in refrigerator. Keeps well for a day or two. When ready to use, set out the bowl as a dip with pita bread or fix individual salads by lining plates with lettuce leaves, spooning the eggplant puree into the middle and arranging tomatoes around edges. Drizzle top with olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Garnish with oregano sprigs. Serves 4-6.

Another friend makes a similar puree keeping the eggplant skins on and throwing in a few roasted tomatoes from her urban garden. Korki serves it as eggplant pesto pizzas: Spread pesto on a flour tortilla, top with the eggplant puree and slices of mozzarella cheese. Heat the lot in a toaster oven until cheese melts, and serve the "pizza" folded over as you would a taco.

And as long as you're keeping eggplant puree on hand, you can stir a quarter cup into a quart of tomato soup or sauce or black bean chili for the flavor, fiber and texture.

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