The nightshade family includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers – and thousands of eggplant varietals that have been cultivated all over the world for centuries. Originally hailing from India, eggplant is widely used all over Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Botanically it’s considered a berry, and like berries eggplants come in many shapes and sizes. In the United States the most commonly grown variety is the Globe Eggplant, which is large, deep purple-black, and glossy, so this image is a natural eggplant association for most Americans. But many early 18th-century eggplant cultivars are creamy white or pale yellow and are smaller and rounder compared to the commonly-known modern globe, giving rise to the name of “eggplant.”
But the world of eggplant is populated by a variety of shapes, colors and tastes. Thai eggplant are tiny, no bigger than a crabapple, and their bright streaks of green make them look almost like a Green Zebra tomato! Japanese eggplant are long, skinny and dark purple; Chinese eggplant are a similar long shape but possess a bright lavender color. Both varieties cook quickly and are great on the grill or in a stir-fry.
Calliope eggplant are small, teardrop-shaped and striped white and bright purple. They’re very sweet and great for grilling, roasting or stuffing.
Listada is an Italian varietal that is striped like the Calliope, but larger and more oblong.
Rosa Bianca is an heirloom Sicilian varietal, large and bulbous, fading from deep purple to lavender to white, and super meaty, sweet, creamy – my personal favorite for Eggplant Parmesan!
Ratatouille, moussaka, caponata, eggplant parmesan, baba ghanoush…eggplant takes well to a myriad of cooking techniques and is at home in an almost endless variety of dishes. It isn’t great raw – it can be somewhat bitter and spongy-textured (the eggplant is a relative of tobacco as well; its bitterness comes from nicotinoid alkaloids) – but cooking coaxes out those meaty and creamy attributes. Like a sponge, eggplant will absorb any flavors (or oils) to which it is exposed, making it a great candidate for stews. Eggplant is often used in Southeast Asian curries or spicy Indian chutneys and pickles. It can be roasted whole in its skin and then scooped out and mixed with other vegetables (think onion, tomato, chiles), or mixed with tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice to make baba ghanoush. Pickled, stuffed, fried, roasted…the possibilities are constrained only by the limits of imagination.
As I mentioned above, Rosa Bianca eggplant is great for Eggplant Parmesan. Here’s a great recipe you can try using ingredients you can get at Bi-Rite Market.
Eggplant Parm is a staple of Italian-American cuisine, served at almost every red sauce joint in the USA. I first became enamored of this dish while living in New York City during college, where I had it between sesame rolls as a hero or over spaghetti with marinara. It’s a hearty, filling dish, and a beautiful way to showcase the meatiness of eggplant. Though it’s served year-round at many restaurants, I like to wait for local heirloom eggplant; Full Belly Farm’s Rosa Bianca eggplant, a Sicilian heirloom varietal, is my absolute favorite in this dish. It’s a large, bulbous type, with skin blushing from deep to lavender purple to white. It looks like a watercolor, and has no bitterness and a thin skin. Any larger eggplant varietal will work, such as Globe or Barbarella, another Italian heirloom variety that we are growing at Bi-Rite Farm in Sonoma!
Traditionally, Eggplant Parmesan is made with thick slices of eggplant that are fried (sometimes battered, floured or breaded and sometimes not), and then layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan, basil, and (sometimes) hard-boiled egg slices. The eggplant can also be grilled, broiled or baked for a lighter version.
Here are two variations that I like to make. The first is a Spiced Eggplant Parmesan, made with a little garam masala in the breading and ginger and chiles in the tomato sauce. The second is a lighter version I came up with during last week’s heat wave, a bit more fit for a hot summer day than the traditional version.
Spiced Eggplant Parmesan
- Basic Fried Eggplant
- 2-3 large eggplant, such as Rosa Bianca, Barbarella or Globe
- Kosher salt, pepper, dried herbs such as oregano, thyme; garam masala for the spiced version
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs
- 2-3 tablespoons milk, water, or buttermilk
- 1 ½ cups Panko breadcrumbs
- Canola, peanut or other neutral oil for frying
Wash the eggplant, peel if desired (I don’t, usually, unless the skin is very thick), and cut into thick 1-inch rounds. Place in a strainer over a bowl or sink. Salt liberally on both sides, rubbing the salt on a little to make sure it’s coated. Set aside to drain for 1 hour while you prep the rest. The salt helps draw out excess water, to prevent your parm from getting soggy when fried. It also seasons and tenderizes the eggplant, and draws out any bitterness that might be present.
Set up three shallow bowls or pie plates, with a clean plate or tray at the end. Put the flour in one, add a big pinch of salt, some pepper, and a big pinch of garam masala or any other spices you want. Whisk it. Crack the eggs into the second bowl, whisk with enough milk or water to loosen slightly, and a pinch of salt. Put the breadcrumbs into the third, add salt and any other seasonings you’re using (about 1 tsp garam masala and 1 tsp dried herbs for the spiced version).
Press on the eggplant lightly and brush off any excess salt (most of it drains away with the water). Dip into flour, flip and roll around to coat it on all sides. Shake off and pat lightly to remove excess. Next, dip it in the egg mixture, flip and shake off excess (tip: use one hand only to dip into the wet ingredients and keep one dry; monster-fingers form very quickly!). Last, dip the eggplant into the breadcrumbs, patting them lightly on both sides to make sure it gets an even coat. Roll it around on its side, then shake lightly and place on a tray or platter. This can be done ahead of time – bread it all and store covered in the fridge until ready to fry.
To fry: heat up a cast-iron skillet or another pan with an inch or so of canola oil. You want it to be fairly hot but not smoking; the eggplant will cool down the oil a lot when it goes in, and if it gets too cold your eggplant will absorb tons of oil and become greasy and heavy. If it’s too hot, the breading will burn before the eggplant cooks fully. To test it, drop a little piece of the breading in. It should bubble and float right to the top. Drop the eggplant slices in gently, 4-5 at a time, so that they still have room to float around. Fry for 3-5 minutes on the first side, until golden brown, then flip and fry the other side for a few minutes. Keep moving them around and checking them to get an even brown; you might have to flip back and forth a few times. Remove to a tray lined with paper towels. Season with a little salt and pepper while still hot and cut one open to see how it’s cooked – it should be creamy, not spongy. If it’s not fully cooked, turn your oil down a bit and let them go a few more minutes, or finish in the oven.
For Spiced Eggplant Parm:
Layer fried eggplant with spiced tomato sauce (your favorite recipe, just add a teaspoon of garam masala, a knob of minced ginger and a little fresh chile with the onions and garlic), fresh mozzarella (I’m obsessed with Point Reyes Mozz right now; it’s cultured so it has a little twang and a little salt from the brine), grated parmesan cheese, and torn basil. Bake or broil until the cheese is melty. Finish with more grated parm and fresh basil.
For Summertime Eggplant Parm:
Arrange the fried eggplant on a platter, alternating with sliced fresh mozzarella and grated parm, or put a ball of burrata in the middle for an extra-special treat. Chop up a mix of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, toss with olive oil, basil, salt & balsamic and spoon over the fried eggplant and cheese. Finish with lots of fresh basil and olive oil. Totally untraditional but a really refreshing take on it, which makes sense since eggplant comes around mid-summer.