One summer when I lived in New Orleans, I stuck a few eggplant seedlings into the ground, never expecting very much would come of my efforts. Certainly in the Pacific Northwest, I'd never seen anyone grow eggplant successfully, and somehow got the notion that they were rare and difficult to grow.
I hadn't factored in Louisiana's rich delta soil, or the long hot summers characteristic of that region. It seemed as if less than two months later, I was bringing laundry baskets full of football-sized eggplant to work in efforts to share the bounty.
I don't come from eggplant-eating people. In fact all the members of that Solanaceae family are rare ingredients in Nordic cuisine. We had tomatoes in our salads of course, and maybe an occasional green pepper, but the vegetables more common to our way of cooking and eating are the root vegetables and brassicas, both of which do well in short, cool growing seasons.
But for some reason, my mother made a dynamite ratatouille. When I stop and think about it, I wonder where she ever learned that such a dish existed, much less acquired a recipe. Certainly I never saw any food containing an eggplant when I stayed with my maternal grandmother on the ranch in Ellensburg.
In the early autumn, sometimes when I walked into the kitchen after school, I could smell something magical. I'd open the oven door, lift the lid on the brown crockery bean pot, and there it would be, ratatouille in all its glory, bubbling away. It was a glorious mixture of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic, simply layered in the pot, with only added salt and pepper. (Olive oil, a staple ratatouille ingredient, was unknown in my house. In fact, in my first years of cooking on my own, I had some major cooking disasters based on my mistaken assumption that olive oil was the juice one poured off a can of olives).
I used to sneak some of the still-cooking ratatouille into a cereal bowl just because I couldn't wait until dinner time. And once I figured out the role of olive oil, it became one of my favorite dishes to cook. It doesn't really take a recipe, in my opinion, as it's a seat-of-the-pants approach, depending on what's available. Certainly great tasting ripe tomatoes add a great deal, but I've even made pretty great ratatoulle with almost marble-hard cherry tomatoes. Many people use summer squash, too, but I find if you add too much, it can make your ratatouille awfully runny.
I like to use the big Black Magic eggplants, but any of the half dozen either kinds I've found in local farmers' markets work just as well. Eggplants come in a wide range of colors and shapes, with some of them the white or green skinned and as small as an egg. It's more work to peel lots of small eggplants, and my preference is for peeled eggplant in ratatouille.
If you're here in the Bay Area and looking for unusual eggplant varieties, check out the Old Oakland Farmers Market, which operates on Friday mornings beginning at 8 a.m. You will see more varieties of eggplants (and other unusual produce) than you ever dreamed possible. But get there early as the best stuff goes quickly.
Did you see the great Disney animated film ``Ratatouille''? Here's the recipe Disney created. It includes tomato sauce, which I never use, and a lot more summer squash (probably for the color effect) than I like. But hey, it's endorsed by the Mouse Kingdom.
However, here's a link to a recipe using unpeeled eggplant that I conjured up a few years ago for my friend Mark's Seasonal Chef website. You insert slices of tomato into slits cut into halved eggplant, cover with chopped celery, onion and garlic and once it's baked, you have a ratatouille-like effect.
Caponata is another favorite dish made with eggplant. I learned my version from the Time Life Foods of the World series published back in the 1970s, but a zillion other very good recipes abound. I've served it hot as a vegetable side dish, and cold as an element of an antipasto. It's also very good spread on some excellent toasted French bread.
Some people don't like capers very much, but for me, that are an essential element in caponata. And yes, as is the case with this recipe from Williams-Sonoma, you do add raisins and sugar. Caponata is a Sicilian dish, and sugar and dried fruit are sometimes seen in recipes from that region.
And then there's the Turkish take on the baked eggplant genre. It's called Imam Bayildi (which means ``the imam fainted,'' supposedly because he was horrified at how much costly olive oil his wife used to prepare the dish). It's a great dish to make when you have an abundance of eggplants, as each person gets a half eggplant that is stuffed with onions, garlic, parsley and, of course, tomatoes. This particular version calls for half a cup of olive oil and don't stint. Besides, as the Mayo Clinic says, olive oil is good for you (all those monounsaturated fatty acids).
You can make your fainting imam dish either on top of the stove or bake it in the oven. I'm of the oven persuasion but your mileage may vary. Here's a pretty good recipe that gives you both options.
As you may have figured out by now, eggplant and olive oil go together like milk and cookies. Eggplant likes to soak up as much olive oil as you will give it. Eggplant Parmesan takes full advantage of this vegetable's affinity for olive oil. Most recipes, including this one, involve slicing the vegetable crosswise into inch-thick slabs, breading and frying them, and then placing them in a baking dish in layers, alternating with a good marinara sauce, and Parmesan and Mozzarella cheese.
In India and Thailand, eggplant is frequently used in curry dishes, sometimes in combinations with other vegetable such as green beans. There are a lot of pretty complicated eggplant curry recipes to be found on the web, but this Thai version has the virtue of simplicity, and it can be cooked fast enough for a just-came-home-from-work-and-what-do-I-cook night.
So far all the eggplant recipes I've listed have been vegetarian-friendly. Not so Greece's moussaka, which includes either ground beef or lamb as part of a many-layered baked eggplant dish. To make a good moussaka, you will also need to be able to whip up a bechamel sauce, which is used in the layering process.
You will note the inclusion of cinnamon and allspice in this moussaka recipe, and yes, they are essential, in my opinion. Too often we thing that spices like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg don't belong in savory dishes, but when used judiciously, they add just the right note.
The simplest way of all to prepare eggplant is one of the best, made preferable with long skinny eggplant, such as the Japanese or Chinese varieties. I just slice them in half lengthwise (without peeling them). paint the cut side very liberally with olive oil and run them under the broiler until they are soft and custardy.
Baba ganoush takes advantage of eggplant's propensity for getting all soft and smooshy when exposed to heat. This is another very simple dish that leaves you with a flavorful eggplant spread, really good on pita chips. Before you start this one, make sure you have some tahini (sesame paste) on hand. Here's a Persian version, but really, baba ganoush is common throughout the entire Middle East.
If you are looking for eggplant on the other side of the Atlantic, be sure to ask for ``aubergine.'' That French name for eggplant is a favorite term designers use to describe that deep purple color that is, well, just like an eggplant skin. Italians know eggplant as ``melanzana,'' and In India, eggplant is called ``brinjal,'' so when you see that term on a menu in an Indian restaurant, you will know eggplant is an ingredient.
Now is the hour of eggplant abundance. And I'm a firm believer in eating foods in season. There are two big shiny purple footballs in my refrigerator that will be tonight's (and probably tomorrow's and the next day's) ratatouille. Now all I need is some good French bread.