Some people see the world through rose-colored glasses. This means that they are optimists, maybe excessively so. Mine are tinted eggplant. What does this mean? Literally, I have a thing for sunglasses with purple lenses. Figuratively, it means that I am not just an eggplant fan, but a fanatic. There is nothing I don’t adore about eggplant, the food and the color. There’s purple in most everything I own, even my front door. I know many names for eggplant– aubergine, melongene, brinjal, bademjan — and they all sound like poetry to me.
There is no eggplant dish I don’t like. Eggplant is my gateway food into any unfamiliar cuisine. Because I am sure of my love for eggplant, I am willing to try any preparation. This entrée into the unfamiliar has led to new appreciation of cuisines as far flung as Indian, Thai, Persian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek. In all these cuisines, eggplant is cooked in savory dishes, but it is actually a fruit, not a vegetable. Like the other fruit we eat as a vegetable, the tomato, the eggplant is a member of the nightshade family. Yes, it is true that the nightshades include the henbane that killed Hamlet’s father. This may sound forboding to some, but this suggestion of danger only adds to eggplant’s appeal for me. But fear not: while the eggplant’s deep ebony-violet hue enshrouding starkly pale flesh suggests mystery and perhaps danger, it is completely edible, unlike the poisonous members of its extended family.
Since I have always been a huge fan of eggplant, I have never understood why so many people dislike it. How can people hate such a beautiful, delicious and versatile food? It might be the way many Americans are introduced to it. Most often, eggplant is served deep-fried, as in the Italian eggplant parmigiana or as fritters, such as tempura. While I enjoy these heavy treats, I often regret eating them later. That’s because one of the main problems with cooking eggplant is that it has an infinite capacity for absorbing oil. Often, this means a greasy, soggy mess. Another downside of eggplant is its reputation for bitterness. Some varieties actually are not bitter at all, but there is a simple technique to draw out the bitter and bring out the sweetness of any type of eggplant. This involves salting sliced eggplant and allowing the slices to sit for half an hour. The salt causes the slices to “sweat”, and after rinsing, the bitterness is gone. This process is known by the violent-sounding term “degorging.”
So what can you do with this bitter, oil-loving fruit? One of my favorite chefs, Nigella Lawson, British food writer extraordinaire, has a superb recipe featuring eggplant which manages to be neither bitter nor greasy.
Nigella is familiar to her British compatriots, a bit less so here. She has authored many beautiful cookbooks, including Nigella Express, Feast, Forever Summer, Nigella Bites, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, and How to Eat. She has also hosted several cooking shows based upon her cookbooks in Britain and in the US on the Food Network, style, and E! channels.
I can’t even remember how I first heard about Nigella, but I do remember the first recipe of hers that I made. You won’t believe it, and I can’t remember how I decided to make this. It was a recipe for Ham in Coca-Cola, her take on a recipe from the American South. I made it for my baby’s first Christmas. I have no idea if it was authentic, but it was good! After I shared news of my success with this recipe, my college friend Esther presented me with Feast. It’s not just Nigella’s great recipes and gorgeous food photography that enraptured me, but even more so her persona and story.
As I read more about Nigella, I became even more smitten. I admired that she was not a trained cook but rather a journalist who loved cooking for her family, and happened to discover her hidden talents as a food writer and television personality. I identified with her as a working mother of young children. And I was positively drawn in when I read that, in one of life’s greatest ironies, her husband was diagnosed with throat cancer. The treatment, which included removal of the tongue, meant that her husband would never again be able to taste or eat her cooking. Beyond this element of the tragic, which always gets me, I am just a huge fan of her way. She seems like any one of us, or at least the more glamorous among us. She cooks in a casual, chatty way, sincerely enjoying the process. This also comes across in her cookbooks, where she annotates each recipe with hints, much as you might see scribbled on a recipe from a friend. On television, she flirts with her viewers. She licks her fingers and approximates measurements, but in the end, produces stunningly beautiful, delicious and simple food. It seems that if you got to hang out with Nigella, you’d have a great time.
You could imagine enjoying brilliant conversation with her at a summer garden party featuring her grilled eggplant and feta rolls. Like Nigella, these eggplant rolls are sophisticated without being fancy, sensual yet restrained, and appealing to the eye as well as the tastebuds. These make a great appetizer or light entrée in the summer, when eggplant is in season. This is one of the few eggplant dishes where you don’t have to worry about either greasiness or sogginess. A light brush with olive oil before grilling is all you need, and the grilling means that not enough time passes for that oil to get absorbed. The feta is brightened by the summery flavors of mint and lemon and a light bite of chili.
Don’t ask me, the one with the eggplant-colored glasses, to pick my favorite eggplant dish—I simply can’t. But this one would definitely fall in my top 10.
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Grilled Eggplant Rolls with Zesty Minted Feta
Adapted from a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer.
Makes 20 rolls.
Serves 8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course. As a main course, I would serve this with a side of orzo, in keeping with the loose Greek theme, and some black Mission figs, in keeping with the purple theme.
These are Nigella’s notes for this recipe, which give you a sense of her charming style:
“You can fry or broil these eggplant or just blitz them in the heat of the grill: I really don’t care. The point is this: once your slices of eggplant are cooked, you pile up one short end with lemon-soused crumbled feta, chopped red chilli and fresh mint and roll the whole thing up; it’s really more of an assembly job than cooking. I tend to think of these simple snacks as an ideal vegetable picky-thing to serve either as a starter before, or alongside, a generally meat-heavy barbecue, but they don’t have to be: frankly, just serve these with drinks and you don’t have to think of a first course for the rest of summer. And I eat these happily deep into winter too.”
2 large eggplants, each cut thinly, lengthwise, into about 10 slices
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces feta cheese
1 red chili, finely chopped, seeded if desired (I used a bird pepper)
1 large bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped (I used 3 Tbsp)
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Preheat a grill, stovetop griddle or broiler to high heat.
2. Sprinkle slices of eggplant with salt and allow to sit in a colander for at least 30 minutes. After you see droplets of liquid on the surface, rinse well with cool water and dry with a paper towel.
3. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with olive oil, and grill them for about 2 minutes each side until golden and tender.
4. Crumble the feta into a bowl and stir in the chilli, mint and lemon juice. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
5. Place a heaping teaspoon of the feta mixture on the end third of each cooked eggplant slice.
6. Roll each slice up to form a soft, stuffed bundle.
7. Place each roll seam-side down on a plate, and garnish with mint.
© 2010 Linda Shiue