Today I spent a wonderful morning at our local farmers' market with my wife and two young kids, and one of the things that repeatedly caught my eye was the abundance of beautiful, shiny, purple-black eggplants. Everywhere I looked, each stall had a huge, overflowing basket of this often misunderstood, underappreciated, and underused wonder of late summer.
Apparently, eggplant is classified botanically as a berry, but for most purposes it is talked about and treated as a vegetable, so that's how I plan on referring to it. While not hugely popular in most American kitchens, eggplant is actually an extremely versatile ingredient, with the ability to shine within many different cooking techniques and positions on the menu, from hors d'oeuvre to soup, salad to main course.
As a chef instructor at the ultra-French Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, it's unfortunate that we don't have a whole lot of eggplant-centric recipes in our curriculum. Don't get me wrong; the French (especially in the south and west) love their eggplants and make great use of them in stews, casseroles, and gratin-style dishes. But, as is the case in many culinary schools, the main use of eggplants typically occurs in the one or two international cuisine focused classes the students take further on in their schooling. Before coming to culinary school, many of our students, even some of the older ones, have never even tasted an eggplant, let alone purchased and used one in a recipe they've made.
So, for all of you eggplant novices, I'm going to include one of the simplest, and most delicious, recipes you could ever hope for. Don't be scared, there really is no mystery with preparing an eggplant. Here's what you should do: Heat your oven to 425 °F and cut one large eggplant in half lengthwise. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on a sheet pan and place the eggplant on top, cut sides down. Roast in the oven until the eggplant halves look wilted and are very soft, maybe 30-45 minutes. Let the eggplant cool enough so that you can pick it up, and use a large spoon to scoop the flesh out of the skin and into a bowl. Add to that one or two cloves of finely minced garlic, a squeeze or two of lemon juice, a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper, and a couple chopped up tablespoons of any fresh herbs you have around (my favorites are parsley and basil). Side note: should you happen to possess in your pantry a jar of the middle eastern sesame paste called tahini, now would be a great time to crack it open and add a good scoop to the bowl (the resulting dish would be close to what's commonly called Babaganoush in the middle eastern kitchen), but if not, no worries, it isn't absolutely essential. Grab you potato masher, and go to work on the goodies in the bowl.
Once you've formed a chunky looking puree, there you go. Get out the crackers, pita bread, celery sticks, etc. and start dipping! Or, use it as a spread on a sandwich or toss it with cooked pasta as a quick and easy sauce component. Let me know what you think...I hope you'll love it as much as I do.