The French call it aubergine, the Italians melanzane - that gorgeous glowing purple fruit hanging so heavy on the vine in the late summer garden. If Americans called it anything but the prosaic and somewhat comical eggplant, perhaps more of us would appreciate its lusty and sensuous promise, its delectable potential to be grilled, marinated, stuffed and stewed into culinary splendor.
But while eggplant is a popular ingredient in many cuisines, it usually finds its way onto the American menu at second-hand, through an adopted eggplant parmesan or baba ganouj. Purely anecdotal evidence suggests that eggplant strikes many Americans as more amusing than delicious, and it seems to have a gross-out quotient among American children (and even some adults) that surpasses any other vegetable except the unfortunate okra. Not for me, however.
I am a dedicated admirer of all things eggplant and I think it tastes divine. In the summer, my garden is a kaleidoscope of eggplants - the small marble-like green Thai eggplant, long elegant fuchsia fruit, fiery red-orange balls, white and pink variegated globes, squat inky purple bunches, and the white colored eggs that give them their American name. In my idle moments I have even searched the Web for my favorite vegetable, and I know, for instance, that someone out in cyberspace - even crazier for eggplant than I - has found 2,334 recipes for eggplant dishes that all sound great.
How could they not? The glory of the eggplant - its biting, almost peppery smell, its creamy, spongy flesh - is that it soaks up, and shows off, the flavors of the world.
And the people of the world know just how it should be done, too.
Arabs puree roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon, and garlic, and drizzle with olive oil to serve with flatbread.
Greeks fry up the slices and serve them with voluptuous skordalia sauce - garlic, oil, nuts and bread or potatoes, blended to a thick cream, or layer slices of eggplant with cinnamon-scented meat sauce and bake it in a hearty moussaka.
The Italians marinate grilled slices of eggplant in an herb-infused vinaigrette, and serve them as antipasti; cook chunky pieces into a thick tomato sauce to toss with pasta; or grill thin slices brushed with olive oil as a topping for pizza.
The French make a basilly garlicky eggplant caviar with tomatoes and olives to spread on slices of baguette, or they simmer it, roasted and chopped, with peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and garlic, into a spicy ratatouille.
The Thais turn eggplant into a fragrant curry, the Chinese stir-fry it with garlic and chopped pork, the Japanese batter it into a lacy tempura, and the Indians roast, shred and stew it into a potent topping for basmati rice.
The amazing thing isn't only how many ways international cooks have found to serve the eggplant, but how many of them do it right here in Bloomington. It may be an under-appreciated vegetable in this country, but thanks to our diverse university community, eggplant is more common on Bloomington menus than peas and carrots. I set out to eat my way through the local eggplant dishes, and share the highlights with you. Consider some of the best:
A relatively new restaurant, but one that soared to the top of the eggplant charts on the strength of its Pan con Caponata. Caponata is a Sicilian eggplant relish - usually chopped eggplant stewed with capers, red bell peppers, anchovies, raisins and green olives. Divino's version is slightly different, but great, and what is greater is that they use it to top slices of their herbed focaccia that have been grilled and lavishly spread with goat cheese. The tangy cheese, the sweet sour relish, and the crunchy toast are a perfect match.
Casablanca wins my heart by serving not one but two eggplant dishes. Their wonderfully unctuous Zaalouk - grilled eggplant, shredded and simmered in olive oil with tomatoes, garlic, cumin and paprika, and seasoned just at the end with a touch of red wine vinegar - is served on its own, as part of an antipasti plate, and as a sandwich filling. In addition, Casablanca serves a terrific eggplant parmesan, arguably the best in town, topping a thick breaded slice of eggplant with a spicy marinara sauce showered with chopped herbs and served with a side of pasta.
Samira also doubles my pleasure with two first-rate eggplant offerings. One comes gratis, as soon as you sit down for dinner. Slices of eggplant, cut just slightly thicker than a sheet of paper, are grilled and marinated with chunks of carrot in a hot pepper oil and served with a seriously good flat bread that should be used to blot up every pungent drop. But Samira's Afghan menu also has an eggplant main dish called Badenjan that I love. Served in a tomato sauce over their long grain rice pilaf with shredded carrots and raisins, and topped with yogurt, it is spicy and rich and wonderful.
What? Eggplant in a Mexican restaurant? Yes, indeed, and not buried on the vegetable fajitas platter, either. The cooks at Tortilla Flat cube eggplant, soak it in milk, dust it with cornmeal, fry it and stuff it into a burrito, blanketed with their salsa cruda, a spicy tomato sauce. It sounds weird and tastes lovely. Furthermore, if they aren't busy they can be persuaded to make eggplant chimichangas, eggplant tacos, even eggplant nachos. Eggplant heaven.
Janko's Little Zagreb
Yes, Janko's serves something besides steak, though I may be the only one who has ever noticed. Their Paladzan-Sa-Sirom is a mélange of vegetables - predominantly eggplant, with accents of celery, peppers and onions - braised in a savory tomato sauce and smothered with melted provolone cheese. Unlike their Bucharest meatballs, it is not incendiary - it is sweet and warming comfort food, and a meatless option in the heart of meatland. These five restaurants serve superb eggplant dishes, but they are not the only ones. Most of Bloomington's Chinese restaurants offer a spicy eggplant stir-fry - sometimes in a Szechwan sauce, sometimes a garlic sauce. The Panda Palace version is one of the best. Both our Indian restaurants, Shanti and Bombay House, have excellent baingan bhartha - roasted eggplant, highly spiced and eaten with basmati rice. Siam House can prepare any of their fragrant curries with eggplant.
One of the many nice things about eggplant is that it's not difficult to prepare at home. At least 2,334 vegetarian recipes await for you on Ashley's Aubergine site at home.att.net/~ashburysaubergines/index.html and over 200 (many with meat) at www.epicurious.com
Contact Food Fare columnist
Christine Barbour at email@example.com.
She's still taking nominations for the area's best french fries. Next week,
Food Fare partner Jennifer Piurek will be sharing tips from new parents
on how to make quick, nutritious meals.
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