Crack the ‘egg’

Many Americans regard eggplant as a slightly suspicious foreign invader... until they taste it

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Susan France

I grew up long ago in the land of eggplant Parmesan. As an Italian Catholic kid in New England, the Friday meatless-meal rotation featured fried eggplant layered with mozzarella and marinara… along with fish sticks. Various family members make the dish but everyone knows that my Aunt Josie bakes the best eggplant.

I did not find out until later that this was odd. I discovered that the vast majority of Americans never eat eggplant and reject its texture and taste. Meanwhile, mention eggplant or aubergine to anybody from almost anywhere else in the world, and they break out in a smile. We’re talking about the comfort-food glories of Middle Eastern baba ghanoush, smoky Greek moussaka, Chinese eggplant in garlic sauce, Indian baingan bharta plus caponata and mirza-qasemi.

It was the French dish ratatouille that melted the nasty dining critic’s heart in that great animated film.

Are you a person of the eggplant persuasion? Data from Nielsen suggests that those most likely to be eggplant people are in families with kids at home, are 40 to 49 years old, have college degrees and a household income of about $100,000. Actually, it sounds a bit like Boulder.

Only about 25 percent of the U.S. population is eggplant-friendly and that bubble is concentrated in the Northeast and California. The berry (yes, berry) that is cooked like a vegetable or meat still makes a lot of people very nervous.

Known as “poor people’s meat,” the lowly eggplant is making inroads because of the rising popularity of meatless cuisine and the fact that eggplant’s low in fat, protein, calories and carbohydrates, with lots of fiber. Of course, that depends what you cook the eggplant with since it is a sponge that soaks up twice its weight in tasty stuff. My prediction is that eggplant-based dips such as baba ganoush will be the next hummus after everyone wakes up and realizes they are paying a lot for bean dip.

The easiest way to get familiar with eggplant is to put aside the familiar large, dark purple American and Italian eggplant and get to know their thin-skinned relatives.

To find these more exotic eggplant types, keep an eye out at the farmers’ market and visit Asian and Indian grocers. They appear under a confusion of monikers and are variously referred to as Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese and Asian eggplant ranging in shape and color from long, thin and light purple (often used in Thai cuisine) to green or purple and round or egg-shaped. They don’t need to be peeled, and cook more quickly. The skin adds crunch when they are fried.

You can use any of them in the usual dishes but they will have a slightly different texture and taste. For instance, long, thin Asian eggplant isn’t well-suited to eggplant Parmesan because it gets creamy inside when roasted. The small round ones are great grilled, stuffed and roasted or simmered in tomato or coconut curry sauces.

Try thinly slicing small eggplants and sauteing them in a generous amount of olive oil for about ten minutes over medium high heat. When soft, season with salt and pepper. To make a sandwich, layer the eggplant on a toasted roll or flatbread that has been brushed with marinara sauce. Heavily sprinkle with shredded provolone and grill in an oiled pan or bake in a 400 degree oven until the cheese is melted. Garlic and fresh herbs are always welcome additions along with caramelized onions and pesto sauce.

I’ve always liked the way author Laurie Colwin expressed her deep affection:

“I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over, I ate it cold the next day on bread.”

What is your favorite eggplant dish served on a Boulder County restaurant menu? Let me know at: nibbles@boulderweekly.com.

Local Food News

Alpine Modern Coffee Bar is open in the new building at 1048 Pearl St. on the former Daily Camera site where Nibbles was born in 1985. … A New York Times travel feature on visiting Boulder for 36 hours noted that there are other things to like about the city besides legal cannabis, including the food and drink at The Kitchen (and relatives), Piece, Love & Chocolate, Under the Sun, Rio Grande, Tahona, Lucile’s, Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse and Jill’s. … The Taste of Tomato, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday at Gateway Park Fun Center features a tasting of up to 100 varieties of homegrown tomatoes. Bring three or more large (or 10 cherry) tomatoes of one variety and admission is free. Bring toast, mayo, lettuce and cooked bacon and you have a great sandwich. harlequinsgardens.com. … Patsy’s Inn in Denver, one of the region’s oldest eateries and an Italian-American icon, has closed.

Taste of the Week

For a change of brunch, trek to Denver for the Sunday jazz buffet at Dazzle, the Golden Triangle club at 930 Lincoln St. A cool combo plays in the main room as you choose from a spread of breakfast items plus carved roast or ham, and pans of pirogies, seafood, cheesy grits, biscuits and gravy and, if you are lucky, hot fried chicken. Kids get an introduction to jazz and a visit to the bar for cheesecake, doughnuts and jelly beans with bagels and the bottomless bloody Mary bar for the elders. Don’t dawdle. After about 90 minutes, you’ll be nudged to finish up. Reservations recommended.

A jazz combo plays at the brunch buffet at Dazzle in Denver. Kim Long
A jazz combo plays at the brunch buffet at Dazzle in
Denver.

Words to Chew On

“Place in the pastry alternate layers of mashed potatoes and slices of mutton or veal, and three cold boiled eggs, sliced. Season with salt, pepper, and mace according to taste. Add butter on each layer, or pour gravy over it. Let the top layer be a thick one of potatoes and brush with yolk of egg.” — A recipe for Potato Pie (a precursor of shepherd’s pie) from the Daily Camera, 1895.

John Lehndorff writes about vegetables for Produce Business magazine and hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM (kgnu.org). Complaints to: nibbles@boulderweekly.com