The eggplant — a beautiful berry — is so popular that its iconic color is instantly recognizable far beyond the food, in paint and fabric and more. My eyeglasses are eggplant as is a pretty serving platter I have. Even Farberware has an entire cookware set in eggplant. Most restaurants have some iteration of eggplant on the menu and most people eat this in some form or another. But at one time, the eggplant was thought to be poisonous and to make people crazy.
The eggplant came to us via a long a winding road. It was first cultivated in Southeast Asia, where it’s been grown for 4,000 years. It travelled through Persia and then through Europe. It was once reserved for the upper classes; the peasants believed that it was poisonous and called it “melanzana,” which means “mad apple.” It was believed to make people crazy.
Eggplants made their way into Sephardic cooking somewhere around the 9th century in Spain. The fruit was so popular among Sephardim that the phrase, “eating Jewish,” meant eating eggplants. As a result, few people outside of the Jewish neighborhoods, used eggplants in their cooking.
When Jews were expelled during the Inquisition, they inadvertently helped popularize the hardy plant, taking eggplants and their tasty recipes with them as they fled. They spread the hardy plant throughout northern Italy and the Mediterranean, cementing its place as a staple in the Mediterranean diet. Still, the name, and some of the myth, continued.
The integration of the Jewish population throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, and a few hundred years, helped dismiss that myth of the eggplant as poisonous. However, the name was permanent — it is still called melanzana in many parts of the world and on many menus in America — but the fear and stigma eventually disappeared.
Early Israeli settlers took food ideas from their neighbors in what was then Ottoman controlled Palestine. One of those foods was eggplant. Later, during what was called the “tzena,” the austerity, settlers discovered that the strong plant would grow in the desert, making it one of the first crops grown in Israeli soil. Today, chatzilim is still a very popular ingredient in Israeli and Middle Eastern cooking. Many people in that part of the world claim they eat eggplant every day of their lives in many different ways.
Eggplant is a nutritious and versatile ingredient and can be part of a low fat and low calorie eating plan. The berry-used-as-a-vegetable, has about 35 calories per cup and is filled with fiber and lots of nutrients such as Nasunin, an antioxidant that helps fight inflammation in the body. This is found in the deep purple skin which is totally edible, especially in smaller eggplants. Eggplant also has Vitamin B, lots of vitamin K and other nutrients.
Eggplants can be cooked to be savory or spicy, or even bland enough for a young child. It can be fried or stewed, baked or broiled, made into a dip, or even a slightly sweet jam.
Many eggplant dishes are often loaded with oil which adds a lot of calories. Eggplants are like sponges and will drink in any liquid they come in contact with. A little bit of oil will suffice for frying and lots of flavors like lemon juice, vinegars, and tomatoes will seep into the plant when cooking and will enhance the bland flavor.
Enjoy this versatile and delicious ingredient in a myriad of different and scrumptious ways. As we celebrate Lag B’Omer, let’s also celebrate one of the oldest crops grown in Israel and take some eggplant dishes on our picnics.
SmokyRoasted Eggplant Dip (Pareve)
Easy to take on a picnic.
Extra Virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 small eggplants, about 1-1/2 to 2 pounds
1 head garlic, roasted, 15-30 cloves, to taste
2 to 3 large onions, sliced and caramelized
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
3 Tbsp. scallions, minced, white parts, to taste
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. tahini, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Sesame seeds, black and white, to garnish (optional)
Sunflower seeds, to garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil. Set aside.
Rub the eggplant all over with EVOO, prick in about 10 places all over and place on the prepared pan. Roast until black, turning every 10 to 15 minutes. This will take about 30 to 60 minutes. When charred all over, Remove from the oven and let cool.
In a medium heavy saucepan, place 15 to 30 peeled cloves of garlic in enough olive oil to cover. Place over medium-low heat and cook until the cloves turn golden and are softened. Do not let them burn. Turn off the heat and remove from the burner. Let cool.
Alternatively, cut the tips off the cloves of a large head of garlic. Place the garlic on a sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle some olive oil over the garlic, bring the foil up over the top of the head of garlic and place on a cookie sheet to roast. Place in a 375 degree oven for about 50 minutes, until the garlic is soft. Set aside to cool.
While the eggplants are charring, thinly slice the onions and place in a skillet with some extra virgin olive oil. Cook over low heat until they become deep golden brown. Stir frequently to prevent burning. If they stick, add a tablespoon of water and scrape with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. Set aside to cool.
Cool the eggplants and remove and discard the charred skin.
Place the onions, and scallions in the food processor. Add the roasted garlic, reserving the oil for later. Process with a few on/off motions until the mixture is jut blended, but not pasty. Scrape into a large bowl and add the eggplant. Mash with a fork and add tahini and lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Garnish with parsley and sesame seeds. Drizzle a bit of the garlic infused olive oil over all. Serve with warm pita or toasted pita. Makes about 3 to 4 cups.
Eggplant Fakin’ Bacon Snack (Pareve)
This is delicious and has a rich, smoky flavor that is great with dips or alone with your picnic meal.
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. tamari sauce or Soy sauce
2 tsp. pure maple syrup, Grade A dark Amber
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. liquid smoke
1/4 tsp. grated garlic
1/4 tsp. grated onion
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil and then with parchment paper. Set aside.
Whisk all the ingredients, except the eggplant, in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. Cut thin slices and then cut the slices in half lengthwise so you have long, thin strips.
Place them on the parchment so that there is a bit of space between all slices. Brush one side with the seasoning mix, turn the slices and brush the other side.
Place in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Brush the top side once more and place back in the oven for an additional 20 to 30 minutes, until the slices are cooked through and are beginning to get crispy. Makes 30 to 45 strips. Delicious alone or with hummus or eggplant dip.
Simple Roasted Eggplant (Pareve)
This is a simple side dish that is delicious and low calorie. Great cut up in a salad to go.
1 tsp. paprika or smoked paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
OPTIONAL: Garam Masala, cinnamon, celery salt (omit salt) or any other spices your family likes. Place the first 6 ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and then a sheet of parchment. Set aside.
Cut off the ends of the eggplant. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise, and then cut each half in half lengthwise. Place on the prepared pan and brush generously with the olive oil. Let sit for 5 minutes and brush again. Sprinkle all sides with the seasoning and place in the oven. Let roast until deep golden brown and soft. Drizzle with olive oil and/or lemon juice. Serves 4 to 8.