Eggplant: Queen of Vegetables

Growing up in Calabria spoils you for eggplant. The soil and hot weather are ideal there for it, but luckily we have similar weather here in California and I can grow them in my garden. After tomatoes, eggplant takes the top spot in vegetables in Calabria, and there are hundreds of ways of fixing it. I could probably write an entire cookbook on it. My favorite snack as a little girl during the winter was preserved eggplant, or melanzane sott'olio: sliced, cooked with vinegar, dried out for a day and then packed in jars with garlic, hot peppers, wild fennel and olive oil. It is still one of my favorite vegetables.

You can buy seeds from GrowItalian of the "Violetta Lunga" and "Gitana" varieties, which are like the eggplant found in Calabrian gardens;  I plant these because they are hard to find in the farmers' markets.  And the two varieties I usually buy are the "black beauty" or "globe" type, and the Filipino type. The picture below shows all three varieties. The Filipino is the light greenish purple one.

When you buy eggplant, look for firm, heavy ones free from blemishes, with a uniformly dark, rich purple color. The skin should be taut and shiny, not wrinkled or flabby. The fuzzy caps and stems should be green. As eggplant mature on the vine they develop seeds and their shiny deep purple color starts to fade. Eggplant are best eaten the day they are picked, but if you keep them, make sure it's only for a couple of days, and keep them in a cool but not cold area; they go bad quickly in a refrigerator. If you notice black seeds inside the eggplant when you cut it open, throw it away; it has been sitting around too long and will be bitter.

Eggplant are naturally sweet when fresh, and do not need to be salted for a long time to remove bitterness.  I typically salt and brush the slices with oil and immediately grill or bake them.  The only time to keep eggplant under salt would be if you are frying it;  then the salt will prevent too much oil being absorbed.

One of my students once dared me to teach a whole class using only eggplant.  So, I created a menu using only eggplant from appetizer to dessert, and it was such a hit that I have been repeating the class every year during the month of August. I vary the menu for every class--except the dessert!

For instance, here is the menu that we prepared at the eggplant class last Friday:

  • Polpette di melanzane (eggplant fritters) for the appetizer.
  • Involtini di melanzane con ripieno di pasta (eggplant rolls filled with spaghetti, caciocavallo cheese and topped with tomato sauce and ricotta affumicata or smoked ricotta) for the first course.
  • Melanzane ripiene(eggplant stuffed and baked with ground pork, breadcrumbs and pecorino cheese) for the second course.
  • Insalata di melanzane(strips of cooked eggplant tossed with olive oil, garlic, peperoncino, mint and vinegar) as a salad.
  • Melanzane al cioccolato(eggplant layered and filled with ricotta and chocolate) for dessert.

Eggplant in a dessert?! Yep!  It is not a Calabrian dish, but comes from the Amalfi area of Campania, and its ingredients vary from town to town.  I created my own version similar to the one from the town of Maiori.  It's kind of like the dessert version of eggplant parmigiana, with sweet ricotta substituting for the cheese and chocolate sauce in place of the tomato sauce.  This dish is always the piece de resistance in the class.  The only way you can believe that you're eating eggplant is if you make it yourself.

For the rest of the month of August I will share three eggplant recipes from the class. And since I know you can't wait to try it, I will start with the steps of how to make this unique and delicious dessert. To whet your appetite, see below!