A Quick, Healthy Way to Enjoy Eggplant’s Peak Season
Chances are you can find some nice-looking eggplant in your market right now — at the best prices of the year. That’s because eggplant’s peak season is from August through October (in the Northern hemisphere, at least). So now is the time to enjoy the rich flavor of this purple-hued veggie.
It’s a favorite around the world. Yet despite its beauty and great nutritional value, eggplant (also called aubergine) isn’t a major player in US kitchens.
Why? Two main reasons, it seems. First, eggplant can be bitter, so you need to spend some time dehydrating it (usually by salting) before cooking to draw out the juices that cause the bitter taste. Second, because eggplant has a spongy texture, if you sauté or fry it (as is common in the US) it absorbs loads of oil — resulting in a sodden, heavy dish.
Well, good news: Roasting eggplant takes care of both concerns! Modern eggplant isn’t that bitter to begin with, but the high heat of an oven evaporates whatever bitter juices may be present — essentially duplicating the end result of salting without all the trouble. And because eggplant cooks beautifully at high heat with minimal oil, roasting yields in a much lighter, healthier dish (one that goes well with roast chicken, beef, or pork).
Best yet? Once your oven is preheated, you can have eggplant on the table in under half an hour. Season it with fresh thyme or basil, and you have a taste sensation that even the most finicky eaters in your household will devour. Then they’ll demand seconds.
Recipe: Roast Eggplant
You can use any kind of eggplant for this recipe — including the fat, deep-purple varieties common in US markets and the thinner Italian and Chinese types. All work, but if you use the big purplish eggplant, try to get ones that weigh a pound or a bit less — they have better flavor than the jumbo ones, IMO (although the huge ones work quite well in this recipe).
The trick to preparing any eggplant is to make sure the interior is fully cooked — because underdone eggplant can be somewhat unpleasant. (This can be a problem when you grill eggplant; the exterior may be nicely charred, while the interior is still a bit raw.) Eggplant is done when the exterior has browned and you can stick a fork into a piece without any resistance.
This recipe will serve 4 to 6, but you can expand it to suit your needs. I usually figure that 1 pound of eggplant feeds 2 to 3 (people will eat more of this than you think). Roasting time is 20 minutes or a bit longer.
- ~2 pounds eggplant
- ~½ cup olive oil or neutral vegetable oil (see Notes)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 - 3 tablespoons fresh basil or thyme leaves for garnish (optional but tasty)
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
- Wash the eggplant and cut off the stem end. Cut the eggplant into round slices (½-inch thick) or cubes (¾-inch) thick.
- Pour the oil onto a rimmed baking sheet (the smallest that will hold the eggplant in one layer). Slick the sides of the eggplant with oil, coating each half if you’ve cut the eggplant into slices, or all 4 sides if you’ve cut it into cubes (use more oil if necessary to lightly coat each side). Arrange the eggplant on the baking sheet, sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste, and put into preheated oven. Set timer for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, wash and chop the fresh basil or thyme garnish, if using.
- At the 10-minute mark, remove the baking sheet and turn the eggplant pieces (flip slices over; turn cubes onto a different side). Sprinkle with more salt and pepper to taste.
- If roasting slices, continue roasting until done (about 10 more minutes). If roasting cubes, set timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, turn the cubes onto another side, then set timer for another 5 minutes. When the timer goes off again, turn the cubes onto another side and cook until done (it’s possible the eggplant will be done after 20 minutes total, though with cubes it often takes a minute or two more).
- Put the eggplant slices/cubes in a bowl and adjust seasoning. Toss briefly with basil or thyme leaves, and serve.
- If you want to salt your eggplant before roasting, it’s OK to do so — though I think it’s a waste of time with this recipe (but see next Note). Directions for salting: After you slice or cube the eggplant, arrange the pieces in a colander so that you line the surface of the colander with them. Salt the pieces, then weigh them down with plates or saucers for half an hour. At that time, wipe off the excess salt and moisture with paper towels, and proceed. Some people rinse off the eggplant at the 30-minute mark, then wipe dry with paper towels.
- Even without salting, I find that a hot oven mellows eggplant (while also allowing a nice crust to form). But some cooks prefer to salt before roasting. One of my blogging friends, Marina, in this post over at Picnic at Marina says she gets a better crust when she salts before roasting (see our discussion in the comments). I have tried it her way and haven’t noticed a difference — but you might. Salting probably makes a bigger difference if you’re frying or sautéing eggplant, because it may prevent the veggie from soaking up so much oil. I haven’t measured, but some people say their eggplant absorbs up to 1/3 less oil if they salt it first. That’s significant! I haven’t done the research to see how true this claim is, but it’s something to keep in mind.
- Which oil to use when roasting? For most veggies, I use “pure” olive oil (the cheap stuff) because the delicate flavors of extra-virgin dissipate in a hot oven. But for this recipe, I typically use an inexpensive extra-virgin olive oil for a flavor boost. Although I lose some volatile flavors to the heat of the oven, the eggplant absorbs enough of the oil to make a difference (remember, it’s spongy). If you’re not looking for extra flavor enhancement, just use pure olive oil or a neutral vegetable oil (canola works well).
- When buying eggplant, make sure to get ones with firm, glossy flesh. If you gently squeeze them, the flesh should spring back, leaving no indent from your thumb.
- You can find decent eggplant year round, but in the Northern Hemisphere this is their peak season, so they’re abundant and inexpensive.
- Although there are numerous types of eggplant available worldwide, most US markets offer only 3 or 4 varieties. For this recipe, any type you’re likely to find works well.
- Eggplant has been cultivated in Asia since prehistoric times (meaning before written records). But it’s been available in the West only since the 15th century or so. Eggplant is now popular throughout the world, and many cuisines (including Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and European) do marvelous things with it. Eggplant is an extremely versatile veggie. Although it’s great roasted, you can also do much more with it (stewing, stuffing, and frying are all popular options). And its flavor beautifully compliments tomatoes - I often serve them together.
Celebrating Columbus Day Week
Speaking of the 15th century: Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas 520 years ago this month (October 1492). He didn’t “discover America,” of course. Numerous indigenous peoples were already living in both North and South America by the time Cristoforo Colombo (his original name) set foot in the New World. He probably wasn’t even the first European to make landfall — Vikings may have established a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland centuries earlier.
But Columbus set off a European rush for conquest that (literally) changed the landscape of the Americas forever. Which is why his arrival is celebrated as a holiday in many parts of the New World today. In the US, we officially observe his day tomorrow (Monday, October 8) — which gives many government workers a 3-day weekend.
Private organizations in the US don’t generally observe Columbus Day, so most of us will be heading off to work or school as usual. But, hey, that just means we can observe the day on our own schedule, right? For me, that means celebrating on Friday, October 12 — which happens to be the anniversary of the actual day that Columbus landed in the New World. (And I still get a 3-day weekend this year. How nice!)
And what better way to celebrate than by cooking something Italian? Columbus was from Genoa, after all (though he sailed on a commission from the monarchs of Spain).
The Italians just happen to be geniuses at cooking eggplant. So later this week, I’ll be doing another eggplant dish: Pasta alla Norma.
Columbus would approve, don’t you think?
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