As a chef and restaurant owner, I'm always searching for the freshest foods at the best prices and I found a gem of a produce stand. Each day around 11 a.m. their truck arrives bursting with the day’s harvest. The customers are lined up, eagerly waiting for it. From purple cabbage to leeks and fresh fruit and herbs, they have it all.
While shopping there I found the most perfect eggplants which inspired me to write today’s column, and share with you one of my favorite eggplant recipes.
The first eggplants were white and egg shaped, so it’s easy to see how it got its name. Although most of us think of eggplants as a vegetable, they are actually fruit. The same is true of its cousin in the nightshade family — the tomato.
India is credited with the origin of the eggplant, however Asian countries were the first to cook it in 3 A.D. The first eggplant to arrive in the United States was brought here by Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t used as a food, however, but as a decorative table piece (until the 20th century, when home cooks began creating recipes using the eggplant).
So just how do you know when an eggplant is ripe and ready to be used in cooking?
An eggplant should have a smooth, shiny skin and be heavy for its size. You don’t want one with bruises or tan patches. Wrinkled or loose skin means it’s getting older and will be bitter. The younger, smaller eggplants will have less seeds and less bitterness.
If you get stuck with a bitter eggplant I have a simple way to overcome any bitterness before its cooked.
No More Bitterness: Wash your eggplant. Leave the skin on, but cut off both ends. Slice the eggplant into half inch thick rounds. Lay them out on layers of paper towels. Sprinkle the slices with salt. Lay more paper towels on top and allow the eggplant to sit for at least an hour. When you remove the paper towels, you’ll be amazed to see how much water has been drawn out of them, and along with it, the bitterness. Don’t worry that the eggplant has darkened some. It won’t matter in this dish.
Serves 4 to 6
- 2 to 3 medium eggplants (one medium eggplant is approximately one pound)
- Flour, for dredging
- 2 to 3 eggs
- Italian seasoned breadcrumbs used for dredging
- Canola or vegetable oil used for frying
- 2 cups tomato sauce (I always have homemade tomato sauce on hand, but any jar type that you like will be fine.)
- 3 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Pour some flour in a plate. Pour the breadcrumbs into another plate. Beat your eggs with a fork in a bowl and place that bowl in between the plate of flour and the plate of breadcrumbs.
- Take a slice and lightly coat both sides and the edges with flour, shaking off the excess. Next, dip the slice in the eggs and shake off excess. Finish by coating all sides and edges with the breadcrumbs and lay each slice off to the side on a clean plate. Repeat this with all the slices.
- Heat your oil in a deep fry pan to just under 375 degrees. (If your oil is too hot, your eggplant will burn. If it’s too cold, your eggplant will soak up the oil and your dish will be greasy.) Place the slices in the hot oil, but don’t crowd the pan. You’ll have to do this in batches. Cook to golden brown, turn and do the same on the other side. Remove it and place on a plate with paper towels to drain.
- In a baking or casserole dish spoon some of your tomato sauce. This is so the eggplant won’t stick to the bottom. Then layer in your slices, sprinkle with some shredded mozzarella and Parmesan and a little sauce. Depending on how many slices you have and the size of your pan, you may have to do several layers, so repeat the process, ending with a layer of cheese. Top the entire dish with sauce.
- Bake in a pre-heated 375 degrees oven until heated through. The cheese should be melted and the sauce should be bubbling (about 20 to 35 minutes).
Serve with a crisp salad and some garlic bread.
(Personally, I love this just as much the next day as a sandwich — hot or cold.)
Chef’s Tip: Don’t use aluminum cookware when working with eggplant as it will discolor the eggplant.
In Dunedin, Farmers Market produce can be found at:
- The Dunedin every Friday and Saturday in Pioneer Park
- The Farmers Market at North Pinellas Historical Museum every Sunday (at the corner of Curlew and Belcher roads)
- (must be ordered in advance)