Eggplant dish makes fine party treat

October 24, 2001|By Steve Petusevsky | Steve Petusevsky,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As the weather cools, my friends hold get-togethers just for the fun of it. And I always feel pressure, even if unspoken, to bring a dish with me when I'm invited to a party.

One standby is a simple eggplant dish, which is sort of a salad but can double as a chunky dip. I developed this recipe by combining elements of a number of my favorite eggplant dishes.

It seems every culture has a traditional eggplant specialty. The Greeks have melitzanosalata, a salad of eggplant, walnuts, lemon and garlic. Middle Eastern cuisine has baba ghannouj, an eggplant spread with sesame-seed paste or tahini. The French offer ratatouille and the Russians, eggplant caviar with walnuts and fresh parsley. My mother has adopted the Italian eggplant dish, caponata, as her own.

All of these dishes are successful because eggplant is so adaptable. It is certainly one of the most beautiful vegetables with its glossy purple skin. Although there are several species, the two most common are the oval and the elongated variety, referred to as the Japanese eggplant.

Most of the time, you can find baby eggplants, called Italian or Sicilian eggplants, and during the summer, you can even find white eggplants. These are milder and have less noticeable seeds. You can eat the skin of eggplant because it is usually thin and easy to bite through.

I always recommend salting and rinsing eggplant before cooking because it removes some of the vegetable's natural bitter flavor. It also absorbs liquid from the vegetable, making it less likely to absorb oil.

Depending on the recipe, halve, dice or slice the eggplant, sprinkle a few teaspoons of kosher salt over it and let the vegetable sit in a colander about 20 minutes. Rinse the eggplant well before cooking it.

When you shop for eggplants, look for smooth-skinned ones without bruises or wrinkles. Usually, smaller, thinner eggplants are less mature than big, fat ones so they have fewer seeds. Large tan areas or scars indicate age and mishandling.

Eggplants are low in calories and quite filling. They don't offer much in the way of nutrition, but they have a "meaty" texture great for vegetarian meals.

They are a member of the nightshade family, which includes peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. Some people are sensitive to the plant-based chemicals contained in members of this vegetable family.

If you have a grill, cook the eggplant halves over medium heat until softened. This will give the spread a smoky flavor. If not, cook the eggplant halves in the oven following the recipe directions.

Steve's Global Eggplant Spread

Makes 4 servings

1 large or 2 medium eggplants

kosher salt, to taste

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 roasted red peppers from a can, drained and chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 medium red onion, minced

1/2 cup minced parsley

1/4 cup minced cilantro

1/2 jalapeno pepper, minced

juice of 1 lemon

If cooking eggplant in oven, preheat to 400 degrees. If using grill, preheat to medium hot.

Cut eggplant or eggplants in half lengthwise and sprinkle with kosher salt. Allow to sit on a plate or in a colander 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water and pat dry. Place unpeeled eggplant halves on grill or in roasting pan in oven 35 minutes until tender when pierced with a knife. Cool eggplant halves 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the olive oil, peppers, garlic, red onion, parsley, cilantro, jalapeno and lemon juice in a large nonreactive mixing bowl.

Scoop the cooked eggplant from its skin into the bowl; discard skin.

Mix with a fork or wire whisk until well combined. Season with salt.

Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Per serving: 121 calories; 54 percent calories from fat; 3 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams total fiber; 7 grams fat; no cholesterol; 41 milligrams sodium

Steve Petusevsky is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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