Eggplants, those lovely deep-purple vegetables with the smooth skin and undulating curves, are difficult to grow in our climate. That makes it a particular pleasure to find them at a farmers market or in a home garden.
I recently found some beautiful, certified organic eggplants at the Sunseed Farm booth at Bellingham Farmers Market. I wanted to make some caponata (see recipe below), so I selected one to bring home with me.
At the last minute, just as I was getting ready to do the cooking, the eggplant met with an untimely end in my refrigerator. Since I had planned to write about eggplant for this column, I now had a full-blown eggplant emergency, for which I had no preparedness plan.
I began calling gardening friends. Sure enough, Randy Smith, gardener extraordinaire here on Lummi Island and author of the Transition Lummi Island blog (transitionlummiisland.com), had managed to grow a few this year and was willing to generously share with me.
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade plant family, along with tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers and some less-enchanting relatives like deadly nightshade (or belladonna). While nightshade vegetables are popular foods, it should be noted that some people are sensitive and have an unpleasant reaction to eating them.
One of the most unique aspects of eggplant is its texture. It is soft and feels a lot like bread. Eggplant will readily absorb any liquid or oil it is cooked with. It has a somewhat bitter flavor.
Eggplant recipes often begin with slicing the eggplant, salting the slices, and letting them sit for about an hour. Reasons given range from drawing out water from the eggplant so it will cook dryer, to drawing out the bitterness, to closing up the spongy openings so the eggplant will absorb less liquid during cooking.
In my experience, this process is only useful if the eggplant is going to be baked as part of a casserole, where excess liquid would be undesirable. When sautéed, it only requires a minute or two to cook off any extra moisture, so I don't bother salting it ahead of time. Roasting sliced eggplant will also cook off any extra liquid.
If eggplant tastes too bitter, the easiest remedy is to peel it before cooking. The bitterest portion of the eggplant is just below the skin.
Also, eggplant will begin to discolor once it is sliced, so it should either be cooked immediately or brushed lightly with lemon juice. Cooking it in an aluminum pan will also cause discoloration.
Eggplants are rich in antioxidants, those wonderful chemicals that protect our cells from harmful free radicals. Nasunin, a particularly effective antioxidant found in eggplant, has been shown in research to protect brain cell membranes.
Nasunin also chelates iron. Iron is an essential nutrient, especially for transporting oxygen in red blood cells. However excess iron can cause free radicals to form. Chelating iron prevents some of these negative side effects.
Nutritionally, eggplant is rich in dietary fiber and manganese, which is necessary for building strong bones.
Eggplant is the primary ingredient in several famous (and difficult to spell) dishes, including moussaka, ratatouille and eggplant parmigiana. For today, I chose to make caponata, a Sicilian favorite.
Caponata recipes tend to fall into three categories. When ingredients are finely chopped, caponata can be used as a condiment, dip or spread for an appetizer. If coarsely chopped, caponata becomes more like a vegetable stew for use as a side dish. Finally, if chicken or ground meat is added it becomes a main dish. The recipe below is intended to be a side dish.
LET'S GET ACQUAINTED!
As part of the Eat Local celebration at the Community Food Co-op, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, I'll be teaching a Locavore 101 class at the Cordata Co-op, 315 Westerly at Cordata Parkway. Come find out what it means to be a locavore and why you might want to try it.
You'll also be able to taste one of my favorite fall dishes - Squash Cider Soup. It's free, but please sign up in advance by calling the co-op at 360-734-8158. Hope to see you there!
1 large eggplant (more if small) (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
1 medium zucchini (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1/2 cup chopped onion (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead, Everson)
1 clove garlic, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
3 large Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped (Terra Verde, Everson)
1 bell pepper, chopped (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
1 cup water
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
1/2 teaspoon raw honey (Backyard Bees, Edison)
1 teaspoon fresh basil, minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
1 tablespoon chopped roasted hazelnuts (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Peel eggplant (if desired - unpeeled is fine, too) and cut into 1-inch cubes. Also cube the unpeeled zucchini. Spread vegetables on an oiled baking sheet and roast in the oven until lightly browned, about 15-20 minutes.
In a large skillet or Dutch oven, warm the hazelnut oil over medium-high heat and then add the chopped onion. Sauté until translucent, then add the minced garlic. Sauté for another minute.
Add the chopped tomatoes and bell pepper and cook until most of the liquid has cooked off, about 10 minutes.
Add roasted eggplant and zucchini cubes, water, apple cider vinegar, honey, basil, salt and smoked pepper. Continue to cook until a thick sauce is formed.
Remove from heat and garnish with chopped hazelnuts. Can serve hot, or let cool to room temperature.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.