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Seasonal Kitchen: Eggplant can shine as main course

With the gradual shift from summer to fall, breezy mornings and brisk evenings invite us to eat more warming and hearty meals. Eggplant, one of summer’s last harvests, gracefully eases us into autumn.

There is something magical that happens to eggplant when cooked with a little care. The bitter sponginess in its raw state is transformed into a silky meatiness that can make even hard-core carnivores forget all about asking where the beef is.

Rich, earthy and complex, eggplant can hold its own next to a big bold tannic red wine and easily replaces meat as a main course, making it especially desirable to vegetarians and vegans. It can also sublimely mimic a starch, replacing noodles in lasagna or cannelloni, making it a vital tool for those who are gluten free.

This plant is a close relative of tomatoes, potatoes and bell peppers – all members of the nightshade family.

Eggplant, thought to have originated in India, is prevalent in so many different cultures and cuisines around the world, it’s almost baffling. Chameleon-like, it becomes a gracious vessel for whatever surrounds it.

When I was little, I remember wondering why these large, purple, teardrop-shaped globes were called “egg” plants. I wondered if somewhere in the world there were enormous purple-feathered birds that laid eggs as big and glossy and deeply purple as these. Later, I discovered that there were, in fact, pure white eggplants, small and oval like an egg, from which the name was derived.

There are more than 30 Sanskrit names for eggplant in ancient Indian literature. Today, eggplant remains widely used throughout India, where it is hailed as the “king of vegetables” and particularly used in curries, chutneys and sambhars. And from there, eggplant has made its way around the globe, becoming part of many cultures’ local landscape.

In France, eggplant – called aubergine – plays a huge role in one of the country’s most popular dishes, ratatouille. Italians call it eggplant melanzana and use it to make caponata as well as the classic Italian dish we all know and love, Melanzane alla Parmigiana, or Eggplant Parmesan.

It’s impossible to visit Greece without falling in love with Eggplant Moussaka, a rich, hearty and comforting baked eggplant dish with ground lamb, enhanced with the warming spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. In the Middle East, whole eggplants are grilled over a wood-burning fire until blackened and blistered and tender in the middle. Then they’re mashed into a purée with sesame paste, fresh garlic and lemon juice. This smoky luscious eggplant dip, sometimes called baba ganoush, is served with toasted pita bread, and it’s mouthwateringly good.

Throughout Asia, succulent eggplant is one of the mainstays of home cooking because of its affordability and ability to absorb spicy pungent flavors. In Morocco, it’s often included in warm, stewed tagines, and it’s the key ingredient in a popular salad called zaalouk. Pickled in vinegar and sugar for long keeping, eggplants are also served at mealtime, dressed with olive oil, garlic and cilantro.

No matter the country or whether they’re grilled, roasted, wok-fried, breaded, stewed, pickled, marinated or mashed, eggplants offer a wide variety of options to the home cook.

Choose eggplants that are firm and heavy for their size. Their skin should be smooth and shiny, and no matter what their color, it should be vivid. They should also be free of discoloration, soft spots or bruises, which indicate the flesh beneath has become damaged. The stem and cap, on either end of the eggplant, should be bright green in color. To test for ripeness, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe; if an indentation remains, it isn’t.

These days, many varieties – ranging in color from white to bright green, magenta, lavender and plum to the blackest of blacks – are available to us both at farmers markets and Asian markets. Some are variegated or striped. There is even a speckled, multicolored Southeast Asian variety the size of cherry tomato.

Eggplants range in shapes, too – from small and round like a golf ball, to ovals, to banana shaped.

The big debate is to salt or not to salt. There are those that swear by salting eggplant before cooking it, in order to release the liquid from the eggplant, a move that’s thought to make eggplant less bitter. I vacillate on salting, depending on my level of laziness at the moment, how the eggplant is being prepared and, most importantly, the type of eggplant being used.

In general, the more seedy an eggplant is, the more bitter it may be. For example, big purple globe eggplants have more seeds than slender Japanese eggplants, so one might want to salt these – although there is much argument as to whether this really removes the bitterness, or just masks it, and eggplants today are far less bitter than their earlier cultivars.

Salting does seem to soften eggplant and make it less porous, and thus less able to absorb oil. So, if you are going to fry large slices of seedy eggplant in oil, salt it. Otherwise, perhaps, it’s not as crucial.

If you are intent on salting, a simple method to quickly salt eggplant – instead of salting, then having to rinse – is to submerge cut eggplant in a bowl of salted water for 30 minutes, with a ratio of 3/4 tablespoons of salt per quart of water.

The best way to ensure eggplant won’t be bitter is simply to cook it all the way through. Only after cooking eggplant long enough to render its texture as tender as custard does the eggplant develop its rich, complex, earthy flavor as satisfying as meat.

Undercooked eggplant usually means bitter eggplant, and it’s sometimes so unpleasant it can make your mouth itch. Getting eggplant cooked all the way through requires a little finessing. When grilling slices of eggplant, for example, use medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side to get some decent grill marks, then wrap them up in foil for 15 minutes, letting them steam. You’ll know they are done when the white of their flesh has turned translucent. If oven roasting, get them nice and golden brown, then again wrap them in foil for a few minutes if need be.

My favorite eggplant dish is this Rustic Eggplant Moussaka I learned to make early in my young adult life, adjusting and tweaking it through the years. It’s a bit of a chore, requiring a solid two hours, three if you are a dallier, but it will reward you generously.

Decadent slices of roasted eggplant are layered with a cinnamon-infused, tomato-lamb sauce, then topped with creamy nutmeg-scented bechamel sauce and baked until mouthwateringly tender. It’s heavenly – and can be easily adapted for vegetarians.

Another delicious way to cook eggplant is to grill it along with halloumi, a firm Greek cheese that does not melt, and sliced heirloom tomatoes and peppers, then dress them all with a fresh mint vinaigrette and place them on a platter with a scattering of fresh herbs. This makes for a tasty end-of-summer side dish or warm salad. Or, it can be served plated, as a colorful first course, stacked vertically and skewered with a sturdy mint or rosemary sprig.

I particularly like pickling the smaller, colorful varieties of eggplants in the Moroccan tradition – with vinegar, sugar, salt, fresh garlic and coriander seeds. Simmer split baby eggplants in the pickling liquid until just tender, about 10 minutes, then place them in a jar in the fridge. Pull them out at meal time, and drizzle them with olive oil and fresh cilantro for a tasty condiment.

Rustic Eggplant Moussaka

3 pounds eggplant (about 3 large eggplants)

2 3/4 tablespoons kosher salt

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil or olive oil cooking spray

For tomato meat sauce

1 large onion diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

2 pounds ground lamb (or use vegetarian ground meat substitute)

1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes (canned is OK)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper

For bechamel sauce

3 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour (or rice flour)

2 cups whole milk

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (use freshly grated, if possible)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 cup grated Parmesan, pecorino or kefalotiri cheese, divided

1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut eggplant into 1/4-inch-thick rounds (no thinner) and submerge in a large bowl of salted water (4 quarts water with 2 3/4 tablespoons salt) for 30 minutes. Place a plate over top to weigh them down.

After 30 minutes, pat dry and brush each side with olive oil (or spray with cooking oil). Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast in 400-degree oven until golden, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Make tomato meat sauce: Saute diced onion in oil on medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, add garlic, turn heat down to medium-low and saute for 8 to 10 minutes, until onions are tender. Add ground lamb (or veggie substitute), turn heat up to high and brown, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Drain fat if any. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir and cover and let simmer on medium low heat for 20 minutes.

Make bechamel sauce: Melt butter in a small pot. Whisk in flour and let cook for 2 to 3 minutes on medium heat, stirring often. Whisk in 1 cup of milk. Mix well, then add second cup of milk. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil, and let simmer on low for an additional 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add nutmeg, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons cheese. Set aside to cool. In a separate bowl, lightly beat an egg, but do not add it just yet.

To assemble: Divide eggplant slices into three stacks, reserving the best-looking and largest pieces for the top and bottom layers. The others can be placed in the middle layer. In a greased 8-by-13-inch pan, place one layer of eggplant, overlapping the edges to create a solid base. Add half of the meat sauce. Add another layer of eggplant and the remaining meat sauce. Add the third and final layer of eggplant.

Whisk the beaten egg into the bechamel sauce until nice and smooth. Spread bechamel sauce over the final eggplant layer. Sprinkle remaining cheese and place in a 350-degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown.

Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Grilled Eggplant and Halloumi Salad

2 medium eggplants (or 4 Japanese eggplants)

Salt, for water and to season, to taste

4 medium heirloom tomatoes (red and yellow)

8 ounces halloumi cheese

1/3 cup olive oil for brushing

For mint dressing

1/4 cup mint leaves, packed

1/4 cup Italian parsley, packed

1/4 cup olive oil

1/8 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon water

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper

Mint leaves, for garnish

Slice eggplant to 1/4-inch-thick pieces and submerge in a bowl of salted water. (Use three quarts water to 2 tablespoons salt) for 30 minutes. Drain, pat dry.

Make dressing: Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor, adding a little more water if necessary to get the blender going. Do not blend too smooth; you want to see pieces of the herbs.

Pre-heat grill to medium-high. Slice tomatoes to 1/2-inch thick. Brush both sides with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Slice halloumi into 1/2-inch-thick pieces, brush with olive oil, place on the same baking sheet.

Brush both sides of eggplant with olive oil, place on baking sheet. Grill eggplant slices, covering grill, checking heat to make sure they don’t burn, rotating as necessary. Eggplant is done when the white becomes slightly translucent. Stack slices on a heat-proof dish and cover tightly with foil so they continue cooking through. You could place this on your upper grill rack if you have one, or just set aside, covered.

Grill tomato slices, just a few minutes on each side, just to warm them. If you grill too long, they will fall apart. Grill the halloumi just until grill marks appear.

Arrange all on a platter in layers, then drizzle with dressing and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and garnish with fresh mint leaves. Serve at room temperature.

If you want to serve this Napoleon-style, arrange stacked individual portions with a layer of eggplant, tomato, then halloumi, spooning a little mint dressing on each layer, and repeating until 4 to 5 inches tall. Skewer, using a sturdy mint or rosemary sprig (removing bottom rosemary leaves), if available.

Yield: 4 to 6

Moroccan Eggplant Pickles

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar (5 percent acidity)

2 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds

5 large garlic cloves, halved

1 1/2 pounds assorted baby eggplants, with stems

Olive oil, for serving

Cilantro, for serving

In a medium pot, bring first 6 ingredients to a simmer. Slit each eggplant from blossom end almost to stem end twice, crosswise, so that eggplant splays into four “fingers” attached to stem end. Place eggplant in simmering liquid and gently simmer 8 to 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender.

Using tongs, place eggplant in a jar, stems up, and pour pickling liquid over top. Refrigerate 12 hours. To serve, place eggplant on a platter, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with cilantro. Makes one quart jar, and keeps up to three weeks in the fridge.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feasting athome.com/.