Like the tomato, to which it is related botanically, the eggplant (Solanum melongena) is a fruit, not a vegetable, though, as with the tomato, we consider it and cook it as the latter.
Unlike the tomato, however, a food that typically adds flavors to other cooked foods, the eggplant is marvelous in how it takes on flavors. It is one of cooking’s great canvases. It is mild in flavor and has been constructed by nature to be little more than a sponge. It is set up to do its job from the get-go.
Around the world, people cook with eggplant many different ways. It is roasted, grilled, baked, braised, pan-fried, deep-fried, smoked and stewed. Turks brag that they have 40 ways to cook eggplant; it is ubiquitous in the cooking of both the Near and Middle East. There is no ratatouille without eggplant, no Sicilian caponata, no baba ghanoush.
Greeks make moussaka of it; the Italians are famous for their “melanzane parmigiana,” which we Americans of whatever background have taken to with alacrity.
You can readily see how it gets its name from the eggplant commonly available in our American grocery stores: it’s a big, purple-black “egg,” capped with a green beanie. (If you ever encounter a white eggplant, you’ll clearly see its ovoid character.) Smaller versions of the same are called Italian eggplants; they resemble purple-black truncheons.
Chinese and Japanese eggplants are much more elongated than these two but similarly colored, with Chinese eggplants sometimes approaching lavender in hue. Thai eggplants are smallish and green-striped; Indian, small again, striped and reddish-purple. Philippine eggplants are medium-long and greenish-purple. There are other eggplants, with other colors and other shapes, from other places.
All cook up much the same, although each has it special place; the Thai eggplant, for example, being one of the only that’s profitably eaten raw.
Their common issue in the kitchen is how their innate structure soaks up its cooking medium, most often oil, which can make for a fatty-tasting, often greasy finish to the food.
You often will read, in a given recipe, to “sprinkle salt on the pieces of eggplant and let them drain in a colander in the sink.” The reason given—“to remove bitterness”—is merely a small portion of the truth. (Much more bitterness is transformed into a sort of sweetness by the caramelization called the Maillard Reaction, given the application of heat later in the recipe.)
The important thing that the salting step does, in truth, is to remove the eggplant’s generous moisture and begin to weaken and collapse the cell walls of the eggplant’s sponge-like construction. Further removal of moisture (say, by roasting the eggplant in high heat or microwaving the slices or cubes between paper towels) allows for even more development of caramelization later in the recipe. Without doing that, the moisture resident in the eggplant “steams away” any chance at coloring nicely.
Keep that moisture level in mind when baking or roasting an eggplant, for instance in the preparation of a baba ghanoush. Be sure to prick the eggplant in a few places with sharp fork tines; the wee holes allow steam to escape during the roasting. I once failed to do that and ended up with a mass of exploded eggplant goo all over the interior of my oven.
The recipe here is based in eggplant and flavored with many other ingredients, herbs and spices, including the tomato. It originates in the Caucasus country of Georgia. Layers of flavor impress here and come by way of the cook adding the same ingredients at different stages. So, for instance, fresh garlic gets introduced midway but also toward the end, for two different “flavors” of garlic.
I found a couple of pronunciations of this preparation online. A little practice and you’ll be rattling off “a-ZHAP-sahn-DOLL-ee” like a Georgian herself.
One very nice facet of ajapsandali is making more than you’d need for one sitting because the leftovers are better than the first showing. Plus, ajapsandali tastes delicious warm, with a swirl of extra virgin olive oil atop it, or (as I found to my delight) with a chill on it, as leftovers of course, topped with additional chopped fresh cilantro and parsley.
Eggplant recipe: Ajapsandali (Georgian “Ratatouille”)
Adapted from Benjamin Kemper at saveur.com and Bill St. John. Serves 4-6.
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
1⁄3 cup mild-tasting extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed (ghee OK)
2 pounds eggplant, stemmed, unpeeled and cut into 3⁄4-inch chunks (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 purée
1⁄3 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, divided
1⁄3 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, divided
20 basil leaves, preferably purple (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 in hand
3 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste, divided
Water or vegetable broth
Microwave the potatoes on high, turning them halfway through cooking, until fork tender, 9–11 minutes, depending on size. When cool enough to handle, cut into 3⁄4-inch chunks and set aside.
Meanwhile, to a large pot set over medium-high heat, add the oil (or ghee). When hot and shimmering, add the eggplant and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Turn the heat to medium and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant begins to color and break down, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or “spider,” transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and set aside.
Turn the heat to high. To the empty pot, add the onion and remaining salt and cook, stirring frequently and adding more oil or ghee if needed, until translucent and brown in spots, about 10 minutes. Add the Cubanelle and bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato purée and only half each of the cilantro, parsley and basil.
Add 1/2 of the garlic paste, all of the cayenne, coriander, thyme, reserved potatoes and eggplant and 1 cup of water or vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, anywhere from 10-20 minutes. To your choosing.
Stir in the remaining 1/2 garlic and remaining cilantro, parsley and basil and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Season with salt and serve hot, at room temperature or even chilled, drizzled with good olive oil if desired.
Cook’s notes: About the eggplant, use whatever suits your (or the market’s) fancy: large purple globe, elongated violet Asian, small ball-like Thai, and so forth. About the spicy peppers, substitutions abound for Cubanelle: Anaheim, “sweet” Italian, sweet red Bulgarian.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]