A Little Word On Eggplant

Eggplant noodles, made with the mandolin, are a low-calorie alternative to sheets of pasta for lasagnas.

Eggplant noodles, made with the mandolin, are a low-calorie alternative to sheets of pasta for lasagnas.

Growing up, I hardly ever ate eggplant. My father hated the texture, and my mother – not being an especially involved cook – stuck to the ingredients she knew how to prepare and preferred. But recently, I’ve been finding eggplant all over menus, sliced thin like roasted chips or cubed, instead, in a Sicilian-style caponata.

It turns up as a thick puree in Greek kitchens and once, in my own, dehydrated and salted until almost bacon-like.

For vegetarians and vegans, eggplant is a fantastic meat substitute because of its hearty texture and bulk. While it is not particularly rich in nutrients, a half a cup of eggplant is only 25 calories, and it’s naturally low in fat. While this fruit (closely related to the tomato and similar in that you can easily eat the thin skin and soft seeds) may not be commonplace on most American dinner plates, it’s my LWB pick of the week for its versatility and low-calorie goodness.

While my parents weren’t keen on eggplant because of its flavor, I was turned off to the oblong aubergine because for the better part of my life, I had only ever seen it deep-fried with parmesan on the menus of Italian restaurants. It was the only vegetarian alternative for pasta, often so overcooked that separating the thick breading from the burnt flesh of the fruit was futile.

When I discovered ratatouille, especially my favorite Ratatouille Provencal served in a cast iron pan at Bistro Du Midi in  Boston, I knew that eggplant was far more exceptional than the sad, thin slabs I had seen deeply battered and fried.

Later, I enjoyed miso-marinated eggplant at my hometown haunt, Oriental Cafe. Here, the salty-sweet strips of aubergine wooed even my father’s discerning palate.

Since then, I’ve been tasting this ingredient in all its versatile forms, barring none from my plate. In the big apple, I’ve found a few particularly delicious uses for this healthy plant, which is best when roasted or baked with a dash of salt.

Thin, shaved pieces of eggplant are perfectly balanced with a tamarind molasses, tomato, and scallion at Ilili Restaurant in the Flatiron District.

Thin, shaved pieces of eggplant are perfectly balanced with a tamarind molasses, tomato, and scallion at Ilili Restaurant in the Flatiron District.

At the stunning Middle Eastern restaurant Ilili, you can order a warm eggplant appetizer, where the eggplant is thinly sliced – not unlike a chip – and tossed with a sticky tamarind molasses with scallions and tomatoes. Paired with a dab of hummus or – better yet – their rich tahini baba ghanoush (a thick eggplant puree common in Middle Eastern cuisine) inside one of their home-baked, lighter-than-air pitas. Their upscale menu of mezza also features Moussaka, a baked eggplant casserole.

A low-calorie alternative to hummus, Baba Ghanoush (Pictured on Bottom Left) you can even buy a container from Sabra.

A low-calorie alternative to hummus, Baba Ghanoush (Pictured on Bottom Left) you can even buy a container from Sabra.

Baba Ghanoush is one of the more easily located eggplant dishes, and I recently enjoyed it at the aforementioned Faros Greek Restaurant in Brooklyn. Accompanied by Tirokafteri (a spiced whipped feta), traditional chickpea hummus, and a roe dip, the Baba Ghanoush at Faros is earthy and smooth, best eaten with a briny kalamata olive.

This past weekend, I dined at Spring Street Natural. Here, at the edge of Nolita and SoHo, my friends and I often enjoy their extensive, all-organic menu with its full list of daily specials and wide variety of vegetarian and vegan options (I’ve heard the Malaysian-braised tofu is surprisingly fantastic). In addition to my hearty chopped salad with roasted corn and peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and mesculen lettuces, my friends and I split their Mediterranean Vegetable Antipasto. Along with olives, roasted beets, peperocinis and creamy hummus, was a particularly delicious Eggplant Caponata. While this mixture of vegetables can be prepared in a variety of ways, the balance of sugar and vinegar in this hearty preparation was near perfect. Caponatas, I know, can easily become too sour, especially when overfull with capers, onions, and olives.

Paired with pita and hummus, the tart caponata is a great, healthy start to any Mediterranean meal.

Paired with pita and hummus, the tart caponata is a great, healthy start to any Mediterranean meal.

Recently, I’ve had an eggplant-noodle lasagna, straight from the LWB kitchen (Pictured At Top). And of course, there was the Vegan Eggplant Fake-Un.  And while eggplant is best in summer or early fall, it’s almost always available. You can easily find this dark, midnight purple vegetable at your local market or Trader Joes. Tucked somewhere between the squash and potatoes, this hearty ingredient is just begging to be bought.

If none of these dishes inspire your appetite, try slicing the eggplant into rounds and grilling it with a splash of soy, or even a thin coat of barbecue sauce. Eggplant also stands up well to spicy ingredients; try it in a red curry or with jalapeno peppers and mint.

Until next time – which, I dare say, will likely be in 2014 –

Melanie

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