Eggplant epiphany

A trip to Italy awakened this writer's taste buds to the vegetable's versatility and flavor

Each time I bite into a glorious, succulent eggplant dish - redolent with Italian tomatoes, laced with garlic and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and drizzled with the finest extra-virgin olive oil - I think that maybe, just maybe, I could become a vegetarian.

It's no surprise that eggplant, like tofu, is the darling of vegetarians. Both successfully soak up the seasoning, sauces, and oils they are cooked with. And eggplant has the added advantage of being more meaty in texture, depending on how, and how much, it is cooked.

When I was a youngster, fried eggplant was my least favorite vegetable. (Though it is technically a fruit, it is always used as a vegetable.) I would have arm-wrestled Popeye for a can of spinach, or eagerly devoured a dish of buttered lima beans.

But eggplant? I'd rather take cod-liver oil.

Travel has a way of awakening one's taste buds as well as opening one's eyes. It was a trip to Italy that did it for me. And throughout the Mediterranean, one is assaulted by eggplant whenever and wherever it's least expected. Eggplant lurks in antipasti, hides in casseroles, and even sneaks up on you on pizza.

But those I tasted were not the old, tired eggplants of my youth; they were smaller, and shiny as a new Buick.

I first had them as part of an antipasto; grilled, then cut into cubes, marinated in olive oil and herbs, and served cold. Another time they were served with the main course; sliced thin, grilled, rubbed with garlic and olive oil, sprinkled with oregano and cheese, and then rolled up like a tiny jelly roll.

Even better were some of the eggplant dishes I later succumbed to in Turkey, Greece, and Thailand. In Thailand, and in most of Asia, eggplants are light purple, smaller - about 4 to 5 inches long - slender, creamier in texture, and with fewer seeds. There, eggplant really shows off its versatility. Along with all the popular Western ways of cooking it, eggplant is also stir-fried, steamed, and even pickled.

If you're still not quite sure about eggplant, give one of these recipes a try. I'm not promising you'll become a vegetarian, but I have a hunch you'll prefer it to a side of Brussels sprouts.

For my next vegetable learning experience, I'm thinking of giving okra a try. But then again, maybe not. After all, no one north of the Mason-Dixon line even knows what it is.

Eggplant and Summer Squash Tortino

3/4 cup virgin olive oil

1 pound onions, peeled and sliced

1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch round slices

1 pound yellow summer squash or 1/2 pound each of zucchini and yellow summer squash, cut into 1/4-inch round slices

6 eggs

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté, stirring until soft - about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer onions to a large bowl. Heat another 1/4-cup olive oil in the skillet. Add eggplant and squashes. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until soft - about 8 minutes; add to bowl with onions.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs with the balsamic vinegar, cream, about half the cheese, and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Pour over vegetables and mix gently; season with salt and pepper. Pour mixture in a shallow 2-quart baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 45 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining cheese, and bake, uncovered, for an additional 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted and lightly browned. Remove from oven and let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes to set.

May be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. Serve with a simple green salad tossed with a light, homemade vinaigrette.

Serves 6.

Grilled Eggplant 'Pizzas'

This is unquestionably my favorite summer eggplant dish. My company agrees. As with any pizza toppings, let your imagination and taste be your guide. Fontina or Parmesan cheese may be substituted for the mozzarella. Although I prefer prosciutto, paper-thin slices of pepperoni can be used.

2 large, firm eggplants

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 pound mozzarella

4 large tomatoes, thinly sliced

1/4 pound (or less) prosciutto, thinly sliced

Fresh, whole basil leaves

Prepare grill to medium-high heat. Rinse eggplants with water and dry them with paper towels. Slice eggplants 1/2-inch thick (either in rounds, or, as I prefer, long lengths). Brush both sides of eggplant generously with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place slices on grill and cook about 5 minutes or until grilled side is soft and you see grill marks.

Flip eggplant over, top with a layer of cheese, then tomato slices, prosciutto, and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and top with a few grinds of pepper. If your grill has a cover, you might wish to cover eggplant at this time so the cheese will melt more easily. Grill until cheese is melted and prosciutto oozes into the tomatoes. Serve a slice or two as an appetizer, or several as a light main course.

Baked Eggplant Stuffed With Olives, Tomatoes, and Feta Cheese

2 eggplants, about 6-inches long, cut in half lengthwise

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 medium tomatoes, peeled, skinned, and diced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil, marjoram, oregano, or Greek oregano

1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place eggplants in an ovenproof dish; brush liberally with olive oil. Bake 30 to 40 minutes until tender (when eggplant pierces with a fork). Meanwhile, heat about 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring, about 1 minute; add tomatoes and herbs. Cook about 2 minutes, remove from heat, and set aside until eggplants are cooked. Put tomato mixture in a medium bowl; stir in olives, bread crumbs, and feta. When eggplants are cooked, allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Scoop out seeds into tomato mixture, leaving about 1/2-inch of flesh around each eggplant.

Chop and stir tomato-vegetable mixture; add salt and pepper, and stuff mixture into eggplant "shells." Return stuffed eggplants to baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, and return to 350 degree F. oven. Bake 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or warm. Serves 4.

Note: Tomatoes can be skinned by dropping them in boiling water for 2 minutes; remove from water. Skins will peel off easily.

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