Reclaiming the Eggplant

Christi Vivar

Because of my very unconventional childhood, it's no surprise that my mom was somewhat of a food adventurer. She was always finding "new" (sometimes code for "strange") foods and attempting to introduce them into our diet.

Some of them worked out well, like greens. She would sauté them with garlic and olive oil, and they were quite delicious as well as good for you. And then sometimes she would make egg foo yung from a recipe that her dad used when she was growing up.

But then, every once in a while, her culinary exploits wouldn't go over so well. One time, she cooked beets (which I actually love now), and when she forced me to eat them, I ended up not retaining them very well (if you know what I mean). She made deer heart once, after my dad went hunting. While I know there are all sorts of health benefits to heart, like lots of iron and protein, I was and still am very uncomfortable eating it. Come on. Heart?

Possibly one of the worst new foods she attempted to introduce was eggplant. Eggplant is one of those deceiving foods that nature offers up. On the outside, the deep purple color and glossy skin make it seem like a glorious vegetable. However, unless it's cooked well, eggplant comes out tasteless and gray, and not exactly appetizing.

Unfortunately, the first time my mom made eggplant, it came out just like that. We had to eat it because of the family's clean-your-plate rule, but it definitely turned me off from eggplant for many years.

When I looked up the history of eggplant, I learned that I wasn't the first person to give the vegetable a hard time. Eggplant is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, and it's considered one of Japan's five top vegetables. However, eggplant was often grown for ornamental purposes. In fact, people thought it was poisonous for a long time. (The uncooked flesh of eggplant can cause some gastrointestinal problems, so maybe that's where the whole "poisonous" idea started.)

France's King Louis XIV (the one who named himself "Sun King" and performed in ballets) was always interested in impressing his guests at dinnertime. He was the first in France to introduce eggplant into his gardens. It seems, however, that his dinner guests weren't too impressed with eggplant. (They were probably distracted by the shininess of the "Sun King.") A common description of eggplant at the time went something like this: "Eggplant is as large as a pear, but has bad qualities."

For me personally, it wasn't until my boyfriend's Italian roommate made fried eggplant that I was able to even attempt eating it again. I watched her chop up the eggplant, dip it in egg and herbed flour, and fry it golden in oil. She poured out tiny dishes of ranch dressing, and then handed me a piece of fried eggplant. I must have looked skeptical, because she assured me that frying makes anything taste good (which is true.) I tentatively dipped it into the sauce, and popped the whole thing into my mouth. I was prepared to chew and swallow quickly. I didn't need to, it was quite delicious. I'm pretty sure that between the two of us we ate an entire eggplant that night.

Since then, I've had grilled eggplant on vegetarian sandwiches and with rice pilaf. But I had never bought it and attempted to cook it myself until recently. What can I say? I'm not Italian or southern, and frying things scares me. However, I am up for sautéing, and this recipe is all about sautéing. And if I can do it (and I did!), then anyone can do it.

Eggplant Sandwichs
(These are definitely not tasteless and gray!)

1 medium eggplant
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
4 large whole-wheat hamburger buns
1 jar sun-dried tomatoes, packed in olive oil
1 small can chopped olives
Cooking spray
Large non-stick skillet

Wash eggplant thoroughly. The skin has the nutrients and fiber, so don't peel it off). Slice eggplant into round 1/2 slices. Mix flour, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper in a flat-shaped bowl. Mix eggs and milk in another flat-shaped bowl. Dip each slice of eggplant into egg mixture and then flour mixture. Repeat dipping. Place eggplant into hot, sprayed skillet. Repeat with all eggplant slices. Cook eggplant three to four minutes on each side, or until golden brown and soft.

To make sandwiches:
Drain sun-dried tomatoes; save the oil. Brush the buns with the sun-dried tomato olive oil. Layer chopped olives, drained sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach onto buns. Place two to three eggplant slices on top. Serve warm.


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