Mala insana. For those of you whose Latin is a little rusty, that translates as "apple of madness," and that's what people used to call the innocuous purple veggie we know as eggplant. As a member of the nightshade family, along with such notorious and occasionally fatal greenery as jimsonweed and belladonna, it was once thought to be dangerous, bordering on downright evil. It has also been referred to as apple of love, guinea squash, gilly bean, and apple of Sodom; as you can see, its reputation is all over the map.
Eggplant history stretches back for millennia. It probably originated in India, but it was in China that it was first cultivated, as long ago as the fifth century BCE. It made its way to Southeast Asia, where the greatest number of varieties can be found, and was then borne into Europe by the Moors invading Spain in the eighth century. Trade with the Arabs introduced it to Italy in the 13th century, and Spanish and Portuguese explorers subsequently ferried it to the New World.
Americans were slow to embrace the eggplant's mild flesh and fibrous skin, and until the late 1800s it was largely used as an ornamental; however, Thomas Jefferson did cultivate it at Monticello, and George Bernard Shaw (a passionate vegetarian) counted his housekeeper's eggplant dishes among his favorite repasts.
American or Asian Eggplant: Take Your Pick
The most familiar and versatile variety in America is the Western or globe eggplant-the plump, pear-shaped shiny purple one found in supermarkets across the land-which lends itself to all sorts of preparations: stuffed, sautéed, baked, or grilled. The long, slender Japanese variety, ideal for stir-fries or grilling, has become more readily available of late, but to find the violet-colored Chinese; the small, round, white, and violet Italian; and the lavender and green-striped Thai versions, you'll most likely have to haunt your local farmers' market.
Tip: Here are a few surprising medical uses for this versatile veggie: for scorpion bites, apply raw eggplant directly to the wound to reduce swelling; for relief from frostbite, apply a compress soaked with a tea brewed from eggplant.
Purple Is in for Health
Eggplant has a decent array of vitamins and minerals, and a good deal of soluble fiber (mostly found in the skin) for lowering cholesterol. Eggplant also boasts a generous dose of a phenolic compound called chlorogenic acid, which has anticancer, antimicrobial, anti-LDL cholesterol, and antiviral effects, as well as 13 other antioxidant phenolics. But the big news here is an anthocyanin phytonutrient called nasunin.
Nasunin is a potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger that has been shown to protect brain cell membranes from damage. It also chelates excess iron, which contributes to protecting blood cholesterol from peroxidation, prevents cellular damage that can lead to cancer, and lessens free radicals in the joints, thereby helping to avert rheumatoid arthritis. And like the soluble fiber in eggplant, nasunin is primarily found in the eggplant's skin, so be sure to retain the skin when cooking and eating.
Storage and Cooking Tips
Your eggplant of choice should be shiny, plump, firm, unwrinkled, and heavy for its size, with no scars or bruises. If you press gently on the skin, it should spring back quickly. It can be stored for 3-4 days in a plastic bag in the fridge. Be sure to cut it with a stainless steel knife-carbon steel causes it to turn black. And the flesh is extremely porous and absorbs oil quickly, so brush with oil just before cooking.
Deconstructed Eggplant Parmesan Serves 4
Try this light and tasty alternative to the traditional heavy, fat-filled, fried dish. Serve with orzo pasta tossed with olive oil and fresh parsley, and you have a meal fit for a vegetarian godfather!
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- ¼ cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 1 clove fresh garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
- 2 tsp. dried oregano
- 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
- 1 large globe eggplant, cut into 4 diagonal slices, each about ¾-inch thick
- 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
- 4 large leaves fresh basil
- 1 ball fresh mozzarella, sliced vertically into 8 thin slices
- Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions until almost translucent, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and oregano, cook 1 minute more. Add tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook until tomatoes soften, about 8 minutes. Lower heat, and simmer.
- Meanwhile, heat large skillet over medium heat. Brush eggplant slices with extra virgin olive oil, and cook in skillet, covered, about 4 minutes per side; they should be flexible but not mushy. Reduce heat to low. Pour tomato sauce around and over eggplant, then top each piece with basil leaf covered by 2 slices of mozzarella. Cover skillet for 1 to 2 minutes, until mozzarella just warms through.
- Place 1 slice eggplant on each of 4 plates, spoon additional sauce around eggplant.
PER SERVING: 307 CAL; 12 G PROT; 23 G TOTAL FAT (9 G SAT FAT); 15 G CARB; 45 MG CHOL; 49 MG SOD; 5 G FIBER; 7 G SUGARS