Behold the late-summer delicacy: eggplant
Eggplant. Could there be a more tragic misnomer in the vegetal lexicon? Not only does the woefully ill-suited term fail to describe the actual appearance of this delectable specimen (the standard 6-12-inch dark purple oblong fruits don’t resemble any egg I’ve ever seen, and to me, the complexity and personality of this creature conjure closer connections with the animal world than plant), but it also fails to capture the dynamic and evolutionary potential of this late-summer delicacy. Perhaps that’s more appropriate than not — aren’t all the truly transformative things in life actually unnamable? So here’s to letting go of our human need to name the unnamable in favor of simply experiencing the sublimity of pleasure in our local agricultural bounty.
Since this is a column largely devoted to celebrating the deliciousness of local, sustainable eating, I must first share my personal love affair with eggplant. Every season, I find myself pining for a different vegetable or herb, and it always catches me off guard; such was the case with eggplant. I grew some in my back-alley garden for the first time last summer, even though I wasn’t a huge eggplant lover (yet). This reluctance was because almost every recipe I’d ever seen emphasized eggplant’s bitterness and involved lengthy instructions on how to address this concern. Many suggested slicing and salting it, then letting it sit to “sweat” out the bitterness, then rinsing it, all before you even began to cook with it. And while I must admit to being a sucker for such demanding plants (there’s something intriguing about that neediness that continually deepens my wonder for the life-force of plants), it seemed like a lot of fuss for something that still needed a lot of seasoning and cooking to become a feast.
My understanding of the possibilities of eggplant exploded when I tossed all those directions out the window. Who says we have to follow directions, especially if they box us into a limited experience? Not only did I find another way to savor this locally grown treasure, I stumbled on a one-ingredient recipe that eliminated all the fuss in eggplant preparation. So, in addition to saving time and energy by letting go of the attempt to “sweat out” the bitterness, this recipe also made me wild for the actual taste of eggplant unadorned.
But first you must choose.
When you go to your local farmers market to stock up on eggplant, take a gander at the amazing varieties available: the graceful curves of the slender Japanese eggplants juxtaposed with the striking luminosity of the albino and the deep purple voluptuousness of the standard varieties. Some local growers offer even more exotic beauties, such as Rosa Bianca, an Italian variety with shades of pink and lavender, Turkish orange or the Thai yellow egg, which serve as the perfect visual arousal for the sensorial celebration that awaits. Perhaps the ideal buildup is a multi-sensory bacchanal consisting of this visual revelry, followed by quietly holding and appreciating their smooth skin and firm weight, heightened by the aromatic seduction that will occur as they slowly roast in the oven, and peaking when you slice the first one open and savor its tender flesh against your tongue and allow its caramelized sweetness to wrap around your taste buds.
If that doesn’t convince you to grab your bag and head to your farmers market, don’t forget about the nutritional benefits of adding a little eggplant to your diet. Not only is eggplant high in fiber and low in fat, it also contains an array of nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, niacin and folic acid, and the minerals iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. The skin of the eggplant is rich in flavonoids and other antioxidants, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke; it’s also packed with compounds called terpenes, which have shown to lower cholesterol. And finally, it’s quite low in calories.
Although I usually enjoy my eggplant au naturel, I’ve been known to serve it to guests with a peanut sauce. Several friends insisted I include the recipe along with this article, because it does beautifully accentuate this roasted revelry. Key to its magic is the use of locally grown herbs, and one I experimented with most recently was lemon balm, which was a smashing success, according to those who sampled it at a garden feast. In addition to lending an intriguing twist to the salty sweetness of the sauce, lemon balm is full of healing properties and has been used homeopathically for more than 2,000 years. Most notably, it’s been used to soothe depression, ease digestion, treat insomnia and strengthen memory and mind. On other levels, it’s used to aid in times of transition and to support increased trust and faith in one’s inner knowing. (A word about locally grown herbs and flowers for those who are new to this column: The healing properties of plants grown in the bioregion in which you live are reputed to be much more potent than distantly cultivated cousins, so the actual “life force” of the plants is stronger when consumed locally.)
While I’ve seen lemon balm at several markets, I’ve also seen it growing prolifically in gardens all over the city, so perhaps you can get some from your neighbor if you don’t see it at your farmers market. If not, this easy-going sauce welcomes pretty much any fresh herb, and basil is always an excellent addition.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, prick the skin of each eggplant four to five times with a fork and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the fruits have caved in (they’ll look a bit deflated). Be sure to place the baking sheet on a lower rack, or the skin will char beyond edibility. Slice open and savor.
Garden Peanut Sauce
4 tablespoons of peanut butter, freshly ground if possible
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon of Braggs, Tamari or soy sauce
2 cloves of crushed garlic
1 tablespoon of hoisin or other black bean sauce
1 tablespoon of sweet hot chili sauce
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs (lemon balm, basil or other savory herb)
Mix together and add water to create desired consistency. Drizzle sauce over freshly sliced, roasted eggplants.
Because one of the best parts of exploring local eating is the ever-evolving opportunity to try new things, I can’t resist sharing one last reason to fall in love with eggplant, which happens to contradict everything I said about simplicity — it’s a ridiculously complicated recipe. However, the lesson on transformation within this wild recipe is worth it: Not only does it provide a window into the alchemical beauty and possibility in food and life, it also requires letting go of restrictive conceptions of how we experience the world. Like any transformative process, it requires risk, trust and a bit of blind faith, and I assure you that I, too, was skeptical until I tried it. So here it is: vegan eggplant cheesecake.
I know, I know — but I assure you that it will knock your socks off. It’s incredible. Since there’s not room to include the recipe here, I’ll list it on the Earth & Spirit website at earthandspiritcenter.org. Drop me a line after you’ve had the first bite and tell me what you think.
If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of supporting local growers, check out the “Healthy Foods, Local Farms Conference: The Politics of Food” Sept. 5 and 6 at the University of Louisville. The featured speaker is Daniel Imhoff, author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill” and “Farming with the Wild: Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches.” Wendell Berry, Christopher Cook and Judy Wick will also be presenting. To find out about registration, go to louisville.sierraclub.org.