Eggplant season, January-March
The maligned eggplant is one of my favourite fruits (Yes, it is a fruit, part of the Solanaceae family and has relatives including chillies, tomatoes and potatoes – more of my favourite things). Some people hate it because it’s ugly, bitter and intense, but just like a person who may appear like that on the outside, once you start treating it the right way, its inner beauty shines through.
We have a bundle of varieties available in Melbourne, but the most common is the Bonica – egg-shaped, midnight-violet, too big to wrap your hand around. Our locally grown Bonicas are going to be good all the way through until at least the end of March, as are the longer, thinner Lebanese (or Ichiban) eggplants. Early in the season look for white eggplants, striped Fairytale and the golfball-shaped Thai eggplants. If you must have these ones later than February, you might need to indulge in some food miles as they prefer warmer zones for year-round fruiting.
How to pick a good one…
Select eggplants that are densely coloured, firm, smooth and seem heavy for their size. Don’t pick up anything with soft spots or wrinkles. There’s no need to smell or tap – no rocket science here, pretty much what you see is what you get.
How to keep them…
Eggplants can keep for a few days on the bench and about a week in the fridge, but this will depend on how naturally ripe it is (Don’t you find that farmers’ market veg always keeps longer?)
These babies do not freeze well, so when you get to the stage of realizing the lot are about to go feral in your crisper, you need to take more serious action. They need to be cooked before any form or preservation is used, and so the easiest way is to cut, salt and cook everything you have, and then either add it to oil or vinegar. Melanzane Sott’aceto, and eggplant confit are a couple of straightforward classics, or try brinjal pickle or makdous for something more exotic.
How to cook them…
Fairytale eggplants are thinner skinned and sweeter, so are the best choice if you are using them in their almost-raw state, e.g. grilled in salads or stir-fried (never completely raw – these deadly nightshades are not as poisonous as you might think, but uncooked they are just yuck). White eggplants can be used similarly, but have thick, bitter skins, so peel them first.
Thai eggplants are firmer and great at soaking up juice, so perfect for curries, so long as the intense bitterness of these varieties is balanced with sweetness, salt and sourness. You could also use these for pickles and preserves.
Our basic big purple beast sits in character between these ones above – it’s got lovely creamy flesh but a little more bitterness. It really shines when smoked or caramelized, so try deep-frying them then adding them to sauce, flame-grilling them whole then removing from the skin and mushing into dips, or slow-roasting halves and served slathered in something cremy and flavoursome. Treat Lebanese eggplants as you would their larger siblings, but keep in mind the higher ratio of skin-to-flesh can mean less creamy flavour and texture, so you might need a little more luscious flavour in your accompaniments.
Flavours they go with…
Remember to balance the bitter, vegetal and creamy notes of eggplant with contrasting or complimentary notes. Think sweet, nutty, sour, fishy, salty, earthy, spicy, citrusy, and herbaceous notes. Don’t just use one contrasting element – use two or three to get good, mouthfilling flavour. Combinations that work well:
- Coconut, palm sugar, chilli and lime
- yoghurt, roasted walnuts, mint leaves and pomegranate seeds
- miso paste, sweet chilli, vinegar and fish sauce
- Tahini, pine nuts, fresh coriander and pomegranate molasses
- Sundried tomatoes, pesto and ricotta
This is not always necessary, particularly for Thai eggplants when used as traditionally intended. If you are firing off the skin (e.g. for making moutabel), or using a whole, uncut eggplant there is also no need. You can choose to salt directly onto the flesh, or place the cut eggplant into a salt bath, and both should not need to take more than 30 minutes.
To salt directly, cut the eggplant into the desired size, place in a colander, then generously sprinkle with salt and toss around to make sure the surfaces are well coated. After half an hour, rinse with clean water then pat dry before cooking.
Some believe the salt bath is more effective at drawing out bitterness further away from the flesh surface, so this makes it a better alternative if you are using larger pieces (e.g. just slicing the eggplant in half and roasting as-is). Personally, I always use this method. In a large pan, pour half a cup of boiling water and then add as much salt as you can before it stops dissolving. Then top up with cold water before adding the cut eggplant. Double or triple quantities if you are are using more than two large eggplants. You might need to put something heavy on top, because eggplant likes to float.
I made fried eggplant with miso paste last night with a bunch of leftover condiments and some other farmers’ market goodies from last Saturday. It’s lovely served as a main course, or you could also serve it alongside a bold protein (e.g. teriyaki beef), or maybe even in a wrap with lettuce, siracha and more fresh herbs.
Some other favourites: