Colorful eggplant leaps from studio to kitchen

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez / Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, August 16, 2005 9:00pm
  • Life

Before I’m willing to give up even one square foot of precious garden space to a vegetable I’ve never grown, I spend some time getting to know it from more of a distance.

If it’s an unusual veggie, this means tracking it down at a local farmers market or driving out to a specialty grower’s stand.

After five or six weeks of cooking with it, I know whether or not I’m willing to commit to full-time nurturing the following year.

It’s probably a foolish practice, this commitment-challenged approach to back yard gardening, because to date, I have yet to meet a vegetable I haven’t liked.

Even eggplant, which I didn’t think I liked, and grew not so much to eat but to paint, found their way into my heart via the kitchen.

But even if I had never moved eggplant beyond my art studio, I would love it for its beauty, glorious colors, glossy smoothness and sensual shapes.

It’s imperative to pick one that’s at the right stage of ripeness. As the fruits age, they tend toward bitterness, with soft flesh and tough skins. Size is not an indicator of whether or not the fruits are ready to harvest. A mature eggplant will display that classic smooth, taut, shiny skin. It should feel heavy in your hand, and the outer flesh should bounce right back when gently pressed with a thumb. Wrinkled and blemished eggplants should be avoided.

Eggplants do best at room temperature, in the 50-degree range. Refrigerator temperatures impart a bitter flavor and soft flesh.

Also, try to use eggplants within two or three days. If you don’t have a room cool enough, keep the eggplant in as cool a spot as possible, wrapped in a plastic bag with some wet paper toweling or a wet cloth in it to provide humidity.

If the weather is hot and you are forced to store the eggplant in the refrigerator, try to use it within 24 hours.

Additional tips:

* Salting and draining eggplant enables the cook to use less oil during sauting; if you can find a way to weigh down the salted eggplant it will speed up the release of moisture.

* Use only nonreactive knives such as stainless steel; carbon-steel knives discolor eggplant.

* A nice saute blend includes eggplant cubes, summer squash, sauteed potatoes and carrot pieces.

This first recipe is a lovely Mediterranean-style dish. The onions become sweet as they cook, and are a delicious foil to the earthy eggplant and tangy goat cheese.

Bow-tie pasta with eggplant, Walla Walla sweets and pine nuts

1pound bow-tie pasta, rotini, or cavatelli

1/2cup olive oil

2Walla Walla Sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

1/4cup balsamic vinegar

2eggplants, peeled, diced and cut into 1/2-inch cubes to measure about 8 cups

4garlic cloves, minced

3roasted red bell peppers, peeled, cored, seeded and thinly sliced

1/2cup lightly toasted pine nuts

1/2cup chopped fresh parsley

8-10fresh basil leaves, cut into very thin strips

1/2cup Italian vinaigrette (recipe follows, or use your own or a good-quality, store-bought variety)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1cup crumbled goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente. Drain and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and set aside.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook and stir about 10 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add 2 tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar, reduce heat to low, and cook and stir 20 to 25 minutes longer, until the onions are soft, brown, and caramelized; set aside.

Meanwhile, toss the remaining olive oil and remaining balsamic vinegar with the eggplant and garlic and mix to coat evenly. Spread in a single layer in a baking pan and place in the oven to roast for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir several times during the cooking process, until the eggplant is lightly browned and tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Combine the pasta, onions, eggplant-garlic mixture, roasted red bell peppers, pine nuts, parsley, basil, and vinaigrette and toss lightly to mix. Season with salt and pepper and add the goat cheese. Toss gently to mix again. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Foster’s Italian vinaigrette: In a jar or bowl, combine 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, 3 cloves of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano, 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Makes 1 cup.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

From “The Foster’s Market Cookbook,” by Sara Foster

Here’s a favorite technique for handling cubed eggplant. The eggplant is good plain, or with the addition of a few vegetables, becomes a filling meal.

A 2-pound eggplant yields approximately 8 cups.

Sauteed eggplant with garlic and herbs

Cut a 2-pound eggplant into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes. Toss with 2 teaspoons of salt and let drain for 30 minutes. Pat dry before using.

Heat about 1/4 cup of oil at a time in a large skillet. Add one batch of eggplant, leaving space between the pieces. Saute the eggplant for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the eggplant cubes are browned on all sides and tender. Add some chopped garlic and herbs (such as basil, oregano, thyme, or rosemary) to the saute pan during the last minutes of cooking. Stir the eggplant or shake the pan constantly so the eggplant doesn’t burn. (If the eggplant browns before it is completely tender, lower the heat, cover the pan, and steam-cook for 2 to 3 minutes) Drain in a colander and season with salt and pepper. Finish cooking the eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary.

Peppery greens and thinly sliced onion cut the unctuousness of eggplant without masking its flavor. A simple favorite for the eggplant obsessed.

Grilled eggplant and arugula sandwich

1/2cup olive oil

2teaspoons minced garlic

1teaspoon herbes de Provence

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1large Japanese eggplant, trimmed and thinly sliced lengthwise

2thick slices rustic country bread

2deli-cut slices of Provolone cheese

Thinly sliced onion

handful of young arugula leaves

Mayonnaise (optional)

Preheat the broiler. Whisk together olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Brush all over the eggplant slices and bread and arrange on baking sheet.

Grill eggplant and bread until beautifully browned on both sides. As soon as the bread is removed from the oven, place the cheese on one side of one piece. To make the sandwich, layer the eggplant slices on top of the cheese. Top with a few onion slices, some of the arugula leaves and the second slice of bread (spread with a bit of mayonnaise, if desired). Slice and serve.

Makes one sandwich.

I love caponata, the traditional sweet-and-sour relish of southern Italy, for sprucing up grilled fish and chicken, or simply for spreading on crackers.

It keeps for at least a week refrigerated in a covered jar.

Sicilian caponata

1large eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2cup red wine vinegar

1/3cup dried currants

2tablespoons olive oil

1onion, roughly chopped

2celery ribs, trimmed and thinly sliced

1/2cup large Italian or Greek green olives, pitted, coarsely chopped

1/3cup capers, drained

2tablespoons sugar

1/4cup tomato paste

Arrange eggplant in single layer in roasting dish. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake in 450-degree oven until it begins to brown, about 30 minutes. Reserve.

Meanwhile combine the red wine vinegar and dried currants in a small bowl and set aside to plump.

In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat. Cook onion and celery until soft but not brown. Add the vinegar and currants, olives, capers, sugar and tomato paste. Stir well, reduce heat and simmer about 8 minutes. Stir in eggplant and cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Makes six servings.

From “Totally Eggplant Cookbook,” by Helene Siegel

Pronounced “eye-var,” this Serbian relish is traditionally served with meats in its nation of origin. But it is also wonderful as a dip for raw or blanched fresh vegetables, as a cooking or table sauce for fish, chicken or turkey, or as a topping for baked potatoes.


1 1/2pounds red, yellow, or orange bell peppers

22- to 3-inch red jalapeno chilies, or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

3/4pound eggplant

11/3cups distilled vinegar, divided (of at least 5 percent acidity)

4cups water, divided

2tablespoons coarse (kosher) salt, divided

2-6garlic cloves, minced

About 2/3 cup olive, canola or corn oil, divided

1 1/2teaspoons table salt

1/2teaspoon paprika (if using red pepper flakes)

Stem, devein and seed the bell peppers and the chilies, and cut them into chunks. Peel the eggplant and cut it crosswise into 1-inch slices.

Put 2/3 cup of the vinegar, 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt in a saucepan of at least 2-quart capacity. Bring to a boil, add eggplant slices, return to boil, and boil 5 minutes, stirring a couple of times so the slices cook evenly. Drain in a colander while you boil the peppers and chilies 5 minutes in the same saucepan, using the remaining 2/3 cup of vinegar, 2 cups of water, and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Drain in a colander and reserve.

Meanwhile, sizzle the minced garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil in a saucepan for 1 minute. Do not allow it to brown. Place the cooked, drained eggplant and pepper mixture in the bowl of a food processor, in batches, if necessary, and puree. Stop to stir down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and the paprika, if using. With motor on, pour in as much of the remaining oil as the mixture will absorb. Return the sauce to the saucepan, and simmer over medium heat, stirring often, for about 15 minutes; mixture should thicken to dipping consistency. Fill wide-mouthed freezer containers, leaving 1-inch headspace, cover, cool, label, and refrigerate or freeze.

Makes about 4 cups.

“Preserving Today,” by Jeanne Leesem

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at

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