Eggplant, botanically speaking a member of the nightshade family, has been cultivated as a vegetable since before recorded history and has played a part in Western cookery since at least the Middle Ages. It’s particularly well regarded in Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cuisines, but has a place of honor in Spanish and Italian dishes as well. The large oblong purple varietal is only one of many cultivated around the world; you can also find slim and small round eggplants in purple, stripes or even pure white, giving a clear clue as to how they achieved their name.
Peeling and salting eggplant before cooking is often recommended but not strictly necessary; it used to be commonly performed to help reduce bitterness, but modern varieties of eggplants are not as bitter as their predecessors. However, salting also draws out moisture from the flesh of the eggplant, leaving it denser, chewier and less soggy when cooked, and less prone to soaking up oil as well. Salt if you wish, then, but if you want to save time it’s OK to skip this step.
When roasting an eggplant whole, don’t bother to peel. Pierce the skin a few times with a fork to prevent it from exploding in the oven. Bake eggplant at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until fork-tender, then scoop out the soft flesh and incorporate into recipes such as baba ghanoush or eggplant caviar. You can also oven-roast peeled cubed eggplant to toss in a salad or stew, or roast small halved eggplants — peeled or unpeeled — as the basis for a side dish.
Eggplant is easy to cook on the grill, and this adds a smoky note that is particularly complementary to the vegetable’s mild flavor. Halve small eggplant or cut larger ones into slices to expose the inner flesh. Oil the cut surfaces, then place directly on the grill. Cook each side for 3 to 4 minutes, turning once. The eggplant should be tender and yielding.
Some people avoid frying eggplant because it’s notorious for soaking up oil, but as an occasional treat it’s worth trying. However, this is one place where it might be worth pre-salting your eggplant to prevent sogginess. Breaded and pan-fried eggplant slices form the basis of eggplant Parmesan; slices can also be served as a vegetarian main course dressed with a tahini sauce or as a cutlet on a sandwich.
Stir-Fried and Sauteed
Cubes of eggplant can be sauteed or stir-fried either by themselves or as part of a more elaborate dish. Saute with tomatoes and basil for an easy pasta sauce. Stir-fry with garlic and ginger and spicy bean sauce for a Chinese classic. Or stir-fry with Thai red curry paste and coconut milk plus Thai basil and pork, tofu or chicken.
References and ResourcesFine Cooking: How to Cook Eggplant to Tender, Silky Perfection
The Guardian: Salting Aubergines and Crossing Sprouts
Real Simple: 15 Easy Eggplant Dishes