Fragrant and delicate, the eggplant (Solanum melongena) has long been prized for its beauty as well as its unique taste and texture, but did you know that eggplant is botanically not a vegetable but a berry? Also commonly known as nightshade, eggplant is kin to the tomato, bell pepper and potato.
Although the raw fruit can have a somewhat bitter taste, it becomes tender when cooked and develops a rich, complex flavor. An eggplant’s subtle and distinctive combination of textures and flavors – smooth, fleshy, creamy, smoky – make it a versatile and beguiling component of many tasty dishes.
Eggplants are even good for you, one 3 ounce serving only has 25 calories. Plus, they are an excellent source of digestion-supportive dietary fiber and bone-building manganese, enzyme-catalyzing molybdenum and heart-healthy potassium. As well, eggplants are a good source of bone-building vitamin K and magnesium as well as heart-healthy copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, and niacin.
The ancient ancestors of eggplant grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Interestingly, a 5th century Chinese scroll records that ladies made a black dye out of eggplants to spread on their teeth, polishing until they shined like silver. (Yikes, I cannot imaging that being attractive!) It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers.
Eggplant was introduced by Arab traders to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated, in the 14th century. Although it has a long and rich history, eggplant – also known as brinjal, aubergine, melongene, brinjal, garden egg, patlican and guinea squash – did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines. As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties, it seems that people also felt that it had a bitter disposition. Melanzana, (Italian for eggplant), derives from the 16th century scientific classification of mala insana or “mad apple” and was once thought to drive you insane. For centuries after its introduction into Europe, eggplant was used more as a decorative garden plant than as a food. Not until new varieties were developed in the 18th century, did eggplant lose its bitter taste and bitter reputation, and take its now esteemed place in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.
Pretty much available in markets throughout the year, they are at their very best from August through October when they are in season. Smaller, immature eggplants are best; choose firm, smooth-skinned ones that are heavy for their size. Their skin should be smooth and shiny, and their color, whether purple, white or green, should be vivid. They should be free of discoloration, scars and bruises. The stem and cap, on either end of the eggplant, should be bright green in color. As you would with other fruits and vegetables, avoid purchasing eggplant that has been waxed. To test for the ripeness of an eggplant, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe, if an indentation remains, it is not.
When young, the skin of most eggplants are edible; older eggplants should be peeled. Since the flesh discolors rapidly, an eggplant should be cut just before using. One large eggplant (about 1-1/2 pounds) will serve 4 people.
Eggplants are very perishable and become bitter with age. If you plan to cook it the same day you buy it, leave it out at room temperature. Otherwise, wrap the uncut and unwashed eggplant in a paper towel, place it in a Debbie Meyer Green Bag and store in the refrigerator crisper where it will keep for a few days.
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