Eggplants (or aubergines as they're also known in the UK, the word derived from from the Arabic al-baðinjān) are a summer delight at the farmer's market and in my kitchen: Their varied colours and shapes (long and more rounded, in an endless spectrum) are sorely tempting, almost pleading with me to buy a few of each as I pass through the open-air market stalls with my basket in hand. One variety's really dark purplish colour almost resembles the shade of my hair in the sun and had thus always attracted me.
The exotic genus of Solanum melongena, part of the Nightshade family with its dangerous reputation, bears something of the dark attraction of India and Pakistan where the plant originates from; and also some distant relation to other solaceae plants such as the tomato and the potato. The little seeds inside the eggplant fruit, containing nicotinoid alcaloids (related to tobacco) burst forth with a bracing bitterness which is testament to the power of the human mind to find beauty in difficulty and hinder. Now that eggplants are still sticking around a little while longer, before the first frost makes them only available through the hothouse (not my choice if I can possibly avoid it!) this post is trying to capture the last rays of sun on their glistening, slick backs and bid them farewell till next spring.
The earthy, tangy and bittersweet aroma of eggplant had been my initiation rite from childhood onwards to the mystique of "grown up food" and its acquired taste delights. Luckily for myself my father loved his "meat and potatoes" meals which ~quite contrarily, as any church boy can tell you their family is probably atheist~ had the amiable effect of making me love just about anything apart from meat and potatoes from a very early age. Mother was bragging at elementary school meetings how I consumed my vegetables and legumes not only with tolerance, but actual glee! Aubergines especially were among my very favourite, an unusual trait for a child, as the vegetable is bitter by its nature. But my mother was savvy to exquisite kitchen arcana that involved little tips to be divulged at a later date: One of them is she used to salt them meticulously before broiling on the stove making the roasting aroma of eggplant one of the most beloved and nostalgic pangs I can feel in my heart of hearts even now. The whole house was aromatized by it and coming back from school I knew there was melitzanosalata on the table (aubergine paste, basically, although "salata" means salad in Greek); it's still one of my favourite goes-with-everything accompaniments on the table (Just try to resist spreading on roasted fresh bread and then we can talk). She used the pulp of the roasted eggplant scooped out with a spoon to prepare it, some crumbled feta cheese (the salty flavour again rounding off the bitterness admirably), a couple of teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil and a little finely chopped fresh garlic and blended them in a hand mixer. It was utterly delicious!
We also used to mix the roasted pulp with fresh Greek yoghurt, the paste/dip becoming a bit blander, for when there was another spirited, fiesty dish on the table and we didn't want them to antagonise; or prepared melanzana alla parmigiana and the French classic ratatouille niçoise for when we were hungrier. My grandmothers customarily prepared a main course with aubergines originating in the Near East: Either Imam bayildi (a Turkish dish literally meaning "the imam fainted", infered by pleasure of course, in which eggplants are roasted in the over, cut in half in olive oil, covered with lots of chopped onion, chopped garlic and tomato slices on top until they sweeten) or the classic moussaka with its sautéed eggplant and tomato-sauce-minced-meat layers under the thick, golden crisp béchamel sauce . I make Sicilian involtini myself nowadays. But la crème de la crème of aubergine dishes in my opinion is the Levantine baba ghanoush (بابا غنوج bābā ġanūj), a similar to melitzanosalata paste of light brown shade with so dense a smoky aroma that it is as much hypnotizing to the senses as the sound of a flute is to a cobra. I certainly can't put the spoon down!
According to the Arabs, who first brought eggplant to the West during the early Middle Ages and indirectly gave it its botanical name, "If your future wife can't prepare aubergine 50 different ways, reconsider marrying". (The info comes from Janna Gur's Book of New Israeli Food which is excellent) In Morocco and Lebanon, people eat them fried up along with hummus made from chickpeas and tahini, spreading on small pieces of pita bread. I very much liked this version and am recommending it to you as well.
Recipe for Fried Eggplants with Hummus
You will need four-five purple eggplants, preferably the long, slender variety with white and purple stripes. Also olive oil for frying and all-purpose-flour, a little salt and pepper and 1 cup of soda water for battering. It takes about 20 minutes to prepare and makes enough quantity for 3-4 people as a side-dish.
1.Put the olive oil in a pan, it should be about two fingers deep and bring it to a frying temperature. (Test it for readiness by sticking a piece of the vegetable in it, if it sizzles, it's ready. You want it to be really, really hot so the eggplants don't absorb too much oil but form a crust immediately)
2.In the meantime peel the eggplants taking care to leave a thin stripe of the peel every inch or so and cut them to pieces: I prefer to slice them or cut them in small cubes about an inch thick.
3.Mix a cup of all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper and a cup of soda water in a deep plate and lightly cover the pieces/slices of the eggplant.
4.Fry them until they turn dark golden, they should be a little crispy but not darken too much. They tend to absord a lot of oil, so drain them on a plate lined with kitchen paper for a while.
5.Salt them some more and serve hot with hummus sprinkled with roasted pine-nuts and some pita bread to bring out all the humble, earthy elements nicely.
If you don't have a reputable Middle-Eastern deli in your area or have the inclination to make hummus from scratch, here is an easy and quite decent recipe.
As an epilogue, no matter how utterly lovely and intriguing I find the smoky aroma of roasted eggplant, I have been searching for it to no avail in some form of a scented product (Have you been successful? I need the feedback, if you have). Perfumers might not have succumbed to its charms yet, nor have home fragrance producing companies, probably because they think that its peculiar scent is not attuned to the sensibilities of western societies who associate smoky with campfires or electrical wire troubles and not indoor fun activities. Still, I am throwing the idea on the table and hoping that the tanginess and earthiness of this dark, slick beauty will find imitators soon.
Pic of eggplants via elements4health.com, pic of frying eggplant by Elena Vosnaki