You've probably seen eggplants at your local supermarket. With their shiny purple skin, rather large shape and unique size, they're hard to miss. You may have even eaten them as a side dish or in a hearty stew. Many people mistakenly believe the eggplant to be a vegetable, mostly because it's treated and prepared that way in most of the world. Technically, the eggplant is a fruit and belongs to the berry family. It can be used in many different recipes and comes in a variety of colors and sizes, depending on where it is grown.
The eggplant is native to Southeast Asia and India, and has been eaten there for thousands of years. The first written mention of this plant comes from a Chinese book on agriculture dating from the sixth century. It likely wasn't introduced to the western world until the 15th century, when people began to use it as a vegetable when cooking. Today, China and India produce the majority of the world's supply of eggplants, which are shipped worldwide.
Today, eggplants (called aubergine in France) come in all shapes, from small, round fruits (about two inches in diameter) to the popular large oblong Black Beauty variety, which can range up to 12 inches long. A newer variety (called Japanese eggplant) is long and thin, resembling zucchini, and has fewer seeds. (The seeds are edible in all varieties.)
Eggplant colors range from white to lavender to dark purplish-black as well as pale green, yellow, and reddish. There are even some striped varieties. Various eggplant varieties may be used interchangably in most recipes, unless the skin color is a specific visual factor in the dish.
Although available year-round, prime time for eggplant is August and September in the United States. Look for eggplants with smooth, shiny skin, heavy for their size, and having no blemishes, tan patches, or bruises. Wrinkled, loose skin is an indication of age, and the fruit will be more bitter. Smaller eggplants have fewer seeds, thinner skin, and tend to be sweeter, more tender, and less bitter.
Press your finger lightly against the skin. If it leaves a light imprint, it is ripe. If it is too soft, it is too old and will be bitter. Looking for less seeds? Check the blossom end of the fruit. A larger scar generally means fewer seeds.
Eggplant is quite perishable and will not store long. Depending on the freshness factor of the eggplant at the time of purchase, it may be refrigerated for up to 4 days (up to 7 days if you pick right from the garden). However, it is best to use them as soon as possible, preferably within a day.
Handle eggplants gingerly, as they bruise easily. If you purchase them wrapped in plastic wrap, remove the wrapper, wrap in a paper towel, and place in a perforated plastic bag before storing in the refrigerator vegetable bin. Do not store raw eggplant at temperatures less than 50 degrees F (10 degrees C).
Cooked eggplant may be refrigerated up to 3 days (it will get mushy when reheated) or frozen up to 6 months in puree form (add a little lemon juice to discourage discoloration). It holds up fairly well in chunks in soups and stews when thawed in the refrigerator, but not as chunks on its own.
Eggplant Cooking Tips
- Eggplant may be steamed, fried, baked, sauteed, boiled, microwaved, stir-fried or stuffed. They are eaten as an appetizer, main dish or as part of a melange of vegetables.
- Eggplant skin is edible. However, some find it bitter, thus some recipes require peeling.
- The flesh is very sponge-like and will soak up juices and oils. Coat slices with flour, beaten egg, and bread crumbs to avoid soaking up too much oil. Let breaded patties dry for half an hour in the refrigerator before frying.
- Par-boiling slices for 1 to 2 minutes can also help reduce the absorbancy of eggplant while ridding it of moisture. Be sure to thoroughly drain and pat dry with paper towels before further cooking.
- Once cut, eggplant flesh will begin to darken with exposure to air. A saltwater bath or a brushing of lemon juice will keep the flesh light.
- Do not use aluminum cookware with eggplant as it will cause discoloration.
- Some cooks salt the cut eggplant and let it sit for up to an hour to leach out water and bitterness before cooking. Today's varieties should not need this step, but follow the directions of your specific recipe.
- Bitterness is concentrated just under the skin, so peeling will also work on especially large eggplants.
- Eggplant may be microwaved to remove excess water. Microwave slices on high for 4 to 6 minutes, remove, cover and let stand for a minute or two. Use paper towels and press lightly to soak up the water.
- If you are baking whole eggplant, be sure to puncture the skin in several places so it does not burst.
- Add eggplant to soups and stews during the last 10 minutes to avoid overcooking.
- Popular eggplant dishes include Caponata, Moussaka, Ratatouille, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Poor Man's Caviar.
- Although iron is essential for many biological process in the body, excess accumulation of iron is not beneficial and causes certain harmful effects in the body. Increased accumulation of iron causes rise in the production of free radicals in the body and is associated with high risk of heart disease and cancer. Hence, it is necessary to remove the excess iron to reduce the free radical production. This can be done by nasunin, a phytonutrient present in eggplant.
- Other beneficial effects of chelating iron are protecting blood cholesterol from peroxidation, reducing the rate of free radical damage in joints and preventing cellular damage that can promote cancer formation.
- Nasunin, the potent antioxidant, also shields the brain cell membranes from any kind of damage and injury. This is really important as the membrane protects the cells from free radicals, allowing the entry of nutrients and exit of harmful wastes. It also receives instructions from messenger molecules telling what activities the different cells should perform.
- Another important function of eggplants are that they act as antimicrobial, antiviral, antimutagenic and anti LDL, all of which is attributed to the action of a phenolic compound, chlorogenic acid, found in abundance in the vegetable. The acid is one of the most potent free radical scavengers found in the tissues of plants.
- The plant also has a high source of dietary fibers, which is helpful for the proper functioning of the digestive system, and also acts against coronary heart disease.
- The potassium content in the vegetable helps to strike a balance in the salt intake and maintain a good hydration level.
- The potassium level also plays a vital role in regulating the blood pressure of the body.
- For those of you who are planning to go easy on your diet and lose some extra weight, you can opt for eggplants as they are very low in calories and also have high moisture content. Hence, brinjal or eggplants can be safely and effectively used to control obesity.
- Eggplants are also used to reduce glucose levels of type II Diabetes. This is attributed to the fact that the vegetable contains low levels of carbohydrates and high fiber levels. In fact, the vegetable is regarded as a natural method of controlling diabetes.
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