Like the tomato, to which it is botanically related, eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a fruit, not a vegetable, although, as with the tomato, we consider and cook it as the latter.
Unlike tomatoes, however, a food that typically adds flavor to other cooked foods, eggplant is wonderful in the way it takes on flavors. This is one of the great kitchen canvases. It is mild in taste and was built by nature to be little more than a sponge. It is set up to do its job right out of the box.
People all over the world cook with eggplant in different ways. It is roasted, grilled, baked, braised, pan-fried, fried, smoked and simmered. The Turks boast of having 40 ways to cook eggplant; it is omnipresent in the cuisine of the Near and Middle East. No ratatouille without eggplant, no Sicilian caponata, no baba ghanoush.
The Greeks make moussaka of it; Italians are famous for their “melanzane parmigiana,” which we Americans of all backgrounds have eagerly embraced.
You can easily see how it got its name from the eggplant commonly available in our American grocery stores: it’s a large purple-black “egg” with a green cap on it. (If you ever come across a white eggplant, you will clearly see its ovoid character.) Smaller versions of the same are called Italian eggplants; they look like purple-black batons.
Chinese and Japanese eggplants are much more elongated than these two but similar in color, with Chinese eggplants sometimes approaching the lavender hue. Thai eggplants are small and striped with green; Indian, still small, striped and reddish purple. Philippine eggplants are medium in length and greenish purple. There are other eggplants, other colors and other shapes, from elsewhere.
All cook in much the same way, although each has its special place; the Thai eggplant, for example, being one of the only ones to be eaten raw with profit.
Their common problem in the kitchen is how their innate structure absorbs its cooking medium, most often oil, which can give food a greasy and often greasy finish.
You will often read, in a given recipe, “sprinkle salt on the eggplant pieces and let them drain in a colander in the sink”. The reason given – “to eliminate bitterness” – is only a small part of the truth. (Much more bitterness is transformed into a kind of sweetness by the caramelization called the Maillard reaction, given the application of heat later in the recipe.)
The important thing the salting step does, in truth, is remove the eggplant’s bountiful moisture and begin to weaken and collapse the cell walls of the eggplant’s sponge-like construction. Further removal of moisture (for example, roasting the eggplant over high heat or microwaving the slices or cubes between paper towels) allows for even greater development of caramelization later in life. recipe. Without it, the moisture that resides in the eggplant “wicks away” any chance of coloring well.
Keep this moisture level in mind when baking or roasting an eggplant, such as when making a baba ghanoush. Be sure to poke the eggplant in a few places with sharp fork tines; the small holes allow steam to escape during roasting. Once I failed to do this and ended up with a mass of exploded eggplants all over the inside of my oven.
The recipe here is eggplant-based and flavored with many other ingredients, herbs and spices, including tomato. He hails from the Caucasus country of Georgia. The layers of flavor are impressive here and come from the cook adding the same ingredients at different stages. So, for example, fresh garlic is introduced halfway but also towards the end, for two different garlic “flavors”.
I found some pronunciations of this preparation online. A little practice and you’ll spout “a-ZHAP-sahn-DOLL-ee” like a Georgian herself.
A very nice side of ajapsandali is to do more than you would need for a session, because leftovers are better than the first showing. Plus, the ajapsandali tastes delicious warm, with a swirl of extra virgin olive oil on it, or (as I found to my delight) with a shiver on it, like leftovers of course, topped with additional chopped fresh cilantro and parsley.
Eggplant Recipe: Ajapsandali (Georgian “Ratatouille”)
Adapted from Benjamin Kemper of flavor.com and Bill St. John. For 4 to 6 people.
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
1⁄3 cup mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed (ghee OK)
2 pounds eggplant, hulled, unpeeled and cut into 3⁄4-inch pieces (see note)
2 teaspoons sea or kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
2 large yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 large Cubanelle peppers, seeded and cut into 3⁄4-inch pieces (see note)
1 medium red or yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 3⁄4-inch pieces
15-20 ounces thick tomato puree
1⁄3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, divided
1⁄3 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, divided
20 leaves, preferably purple basil (also called Thai or “holy”), torn
1⁄4–1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon coriander powder
1⁄4 teaspoon savory or dried thyme leaves, crushed by hand
3 garlic cloves, mashed, divided
Water or vegetable broth
Microwave potatoes on high, flipping halfway through, until fork tender, 9 to 11 minutes, depending on size. When cool enough to handle, cut into 3⁄4-inch pieces and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add the oil (or ghee). When hot and shimmering, add the eggplant and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat to medium and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant begins to brown and break down, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or “spider”, transfer to a plate lined with paper towel and set aside.
Turn up the heat. To the empty pan, add the onion and remaining salt and cook, stirring frequently and adding more oil or ghee as needed, until translucent and brown in spots, about 10 minutes. Add Cubanelle and peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato purée and only half of the cilantro, parsley and basil.
Add 1/2 of the garlic paste, all of the cayenne pepper, cilantro, thyme, reserved potatoes and eggplant, and 1 cup of water or vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 10 to 20 minutes. Your selection.
Stir in remaining 1/2 garlic and remaining cilantro, parsley and basil and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Salt and serve hot, at room temperature or even chilled, drizzled with a good olive oil if desired.
Cook’s Notes: About the eggplant, use whatever suits your (or the market’s) fancy: a large purple globe, an elongated purple Asian, a small Thai ball, etc. Speaking of hot peppers, substitutions abound for Cubanelle: Anaheim, “mild” Italian, mild Bulgarian red.
Contact Bill St John at [email protected]