By Lauren Chattman
Is there one vegetable that polarizes your family? Maybe at your house it’s Brussels sprouts or broccoli or spinach. At mine, it’s eggplant. I adore this rich and meaty treat, while my husband and children complain that it can be slippery and bitter. For years, I’ve been enjoying baba gahnoush and Pasta alla Norma in isolation. But before Labor Day, I’m determined to win everyone over by landing my culinary white whale, the irresistible eggplant dish.
Eggplant has been controversial since antiquity. First cultivated in India over 4,000 years ago, the crop quickly spread East to China and West to Persia, finally reaching Europe via North Africa during the Middle Ages. All the while, experts argued about its nutritional and medicinal value. Ayurvedic texts recommended eggplant for treating diabetes and asthma. But Medieval Persian medical writers warned that eating eggplant could cause leprosy, insomnia, and epilepsy. In Spain, it was prized as an aphrodisiac. In England, it was shunned until a few hundred years ago. A member of the Nightshade family, which includes highly toxic Belladonna along with harmless tomatoes and peppers, the eggplant was believed to cause insanity.
Nutritionists today agree that eggplant is not dangerous. In fact, it is an excellent source of free radical-fighting phytonutrients as well as a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. As for complaints about its taste and texture, these can be overcome by choosing and handling your eggplant properly.
Eggplant becomes bitter as it ages off the vine. For the sweetest specimens, shop where you know the vegetables have been recently picked and the turnover is high. Look for eggplants that are heavy relative to their size. Lighter eggplants have already begun to dry out. Skin should be smooth and shiny, without bruises or rough patches that may indicate decay. Like its relative the tomato, eggplant doesn’t do well in the refrigerator. Keep it at room temperature on the countertop, and cook it within a day of purchase.
Cooking method is key to a successful dish. Sure, you can get kids to eat eggplant by covering it with breadcrumbs and frying it. But since eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge, this strategy may cancel any health benefits we now know it has. Grilling, roasting, and sautéing without abundant oil can result in stringy, dried out vegetables. What is the solution? Steaming, a fat-free alternative, keeps eggplant soft and moist and helps it retain its pleasantly spongy texture while it cooks.
Plain steamed eggplant, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped herbs, is heaven to me. But I knew it would need something extra to win over the skeptics at my table. So I combined my steamed eggplant with three ingredients beloved by everyone: spaghetti, soy sauce, and peanut butter. The eggplant added earthy flavor and custard-like texture to my sesame noodles, transforming them into a satisfying vegetarian main course. Cucumber is optional, but lends refreshing crunch.
Steamed Eggplant with Sesame Noodles
Makes 4 servings
1 pound spaghetti or linguine
2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
1 pounds eggplant (one medium globe eggplant or 2 to 3 smaller Asian eggplants)
¼ cup smooth peanut butter
3 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
½ cup water
4 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped jalapeno pepper (or more to taste)
½ English cucumber, peeled and cut into matchsticks (optional)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the linguine and cook until just tender. Drain and rinse under cold water. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with sesame oil.
- Add 2 cups of water to a pot fitted with a steamer basket steamer and bring it to a boil over medium high heat. Slice the eggplant into 1/3-inch-thick rounds. Add to steamer and steam until soft and cooked, about 5 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat, uncover, and let the eggplant cool down for a few minutes. Cut each round into a couple of strips. Add to bowl with pasta.
- Combine the peanut butter, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, and water in a blender and process until smooth. Pour over eggplant and pasta and toss to coat. Sprinkle with scallions, cilantro, pepper and cucumber if desired and serve immediately.