- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Vegetables don’t usually come to mind when you’re planning festive holiday appetizers. An exception is eggplant, the basis for countless creations and star of the Middle Eastern meze, or appetizer table.

Eggplant is different from most vegetables in two respects. First, its properties enable it to acquire different textures. Grill, broil or saute eggplant slices, and they become meaty and satisfying. Bake eggplant whole and it becomes smooth and creamy. Simmer eggplant in sauce, and it becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Second, eggplant marries well with many flavors. It has enough character to stand up to a meat stuffing, whether of beef or lamb. When stewed with tomatoes and aromatic herbs, eggplant is permeated with sauce and absorbs the aromas.

The pungent Chinese stir-fry combo of garlic, ginger and soy sauce makes a terrific seasoning for eggplant, as does spicy curry paste. Yet eggplant is also at home with delicate flavors, and it tastes great as a gratin with a subtle French-style cheese sauce.

Originating in India, eggplant traveled to China and Japan, where it became important in both cuisines, and west to the Mideast and the Mediterranean. The Saracens brought it to Europe.

Eggplant’s travels can be seen when you explore the origin of the French word for eggplant, aubergine, which is also used by the British.

The word is derived from Arabic and Persian, and ultimately from Sanskrit. No wonder so many of our eggplant recipes originated in southern Europe and Asia. Cooks have had centuries to develop interesting ways to use eggplant to best advantage.

Take a stroll down the pickles and preserves aisle of a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grocery. You’ll see what I mean. You’ll find a colorful array of eggplant appetizers: reddish-orange Yugoslavian ajvar, made of grilled eggplant and roasted red peppers; Turkish rice-stuffed baby eggplant; Italian eggplant caponata with tomatoes, capers and olives.

Eggplant is relatively new to America. My personal experience with eating and cooking it began when I was in my 20s and living in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Parties often began with an eggplant dish.

My friends served eggplant spreads because everyone loved them and they were so easy to prepare. All they did was spoon them into bowls and surround them with fresh pitas. Generally, these were garlicky dips, tangy ones with olive oil and lemon juice, chunky ones with diced grilled peppers, or smooth and creamy dips with mayonnaise or tahini (sesame paste).

For fancier occasions, the same eggplant mixture might have been made into an hors d’oeuvre by spreading it on crackers or toast and garnishing with bell pepper strips or olives. The same dips were also made into tasty party sandwiches with salami or smoked turkey.

In France, I was introduced to the famous ratatouille, the eggplant casserole that also contains tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, onions and herbs. I discovered that ratatouille was the Provencal interpretation of eggplant, tomato and olive oil stews made all around the Mediterranean, including cumin-spiced North African versions, garlicky Greek eggplant with vinegar, and Spanish eggplant with green beans and anchovies.

Although they are usually served as side dishes, I find that these casseroles make wonderful appetizers and are good hot or cold. They are great spooned into small tart shells, then topped with grated Gruyere or bread crumbs and browned in the oven.

Sauteed, grilled, broiled or baked eggplant slices can be the basis of a variety of starters and party snacks. Chefs use them as wraps for savory fillings of feta, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes or prosciutto. Sauteed eggplant slices can sub for crust in low-carbohydrate mini pizzas sprinkled with your favorite toppings.

Another tasty idea comes from Suzanne Dunaway, author of “Rome, at Home” (Broadway), who sprinkles sauteed eggplant with lemon juice, fresh basil, pine nuts and Parmesan.

In ethnic markets, you may have seen tiny Indian eggplants the size of eggs. These are fun to serve as hors d’oeuvres, grilled whole and accompanied by a spicy dip.

The most unusual eggplant dish I have tasted is eggplant jam from Morocco. This might sound strange, but remember that in the United States, hot pepper jelly on crackers with cream cheese was popular for a time.

Some of my students have told me they don’t eat eggplant because they think of it as fattening. I explained to them that this is a myth. What they are thinking of is probably the calorie count of such dishes as eggplant Parmigiana, for which the eggplant is breaded, deep-fried, and smothered in cheese and sauce. Eggplant is actually the lean element of this high-fat dish. One cup of cooked eggplant has only about 30 to 40 calories.

At the market, select eggplant that feels heavy and has glossy, firm skin with no brown spots. With globe eggplants, the type available at most supermarkets, I prefer those that are small to medium. If you find the slim Japanese and Chinese eggplants, try them. These delicious vegetables have a more delicate flavor than common eggplant.

Cilantro-garlic eggplant on pita toasts with roasted peppers

This Egyptian-style eggplant is one of my favorite hors d’oeuvres. You simply chop grilled or broiled eggplant and saute it briefly with garlic and spices, then spread it on pita wedges or serve it as a dip.

21/4 to 2½ pounds eggplant (2 medium)

3 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1½ teaspoons ground coriander

½ to 1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon paprika, plus more for garnish

Cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1/3 cup plain yogurt, optional

2 teaspoons toasted or raw pine nuts, optional

4 to 8 pitas, split and lightly toasted

2 red bell peppers, broiled and peeled (see note) or from a jar, optional

Prick each eggplant 5 or 6 times with a fork. Grill or broil eggplant (see note). Let stand until cool enough to handle. Cut off caps and remove peel with paring knife, or cut eggplants in half, and scoop out the flesh with a tablespoon. If eggplants appear wet, halve them lengthwise and drain in a colander for 10 minutes. Chop flesh fine with a knife.

Heat oil in a heavy, large skillet. Add garlic; saute over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in coriander and cumin to taste. Add eggplant, ½ teaspoon paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper to taste; mix well. Add cilantro to taste, reserving 1 tablespoon for garnish, if desired. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until eggplant becomes a thick, chunky puree. If serving eggplant cold, let cool and stir in yogurt. Taste and adjust seasoning. Eggplant is best flavored generously with salt and pepper. Serve as a dip with pita or on bread.

If serving as a dip, sprinkle with paprika and pine nuts, if desired, and serve with pita. If serving on bread, cut broiled red pepper in thin strips and pita in wedges. Spread eggplant on pita and garnish with broiled pepper strips and cilantro, if desired. Makes 8 servings as an appetizer.

Note: For grilled eggplant, set on barbecue at medium or medium-high heat. Grill, turning over occasionally, for 40 minutes or until soft when pressed.

For broiled eggplant, set on broiler rack or broiler pan lined with foil. Broil, turning over occasionally, for 30 minutes or until soft when pressed.

For broiled peeled bell peppers, preheat broiler with rack 2 to 4 inches from heat source, or far enough so peppers just fit. Put whole peppers, core and stems still on, in broiler.

Broil peppers, turning every 4 to 5 minutes, until skins are blistered and charred all over but not burned, about 15 minutes.

Halve peppers, being careful to avoid being burned (they may contain hot juices). Discard seeds and ribs; pat dry. Do not rinse.

Cheesy eggplant puree

With its bechamel sauce and plenty of cheese, this Turkish specialty seems almost French. Yet this rich eggplant puree is an Ottoman classic. I love it as a hot appetizer, either on its own as a dip or spread on toast. Use a sheep’s milk cheese such Greek kasseri, Eastern European kashkaval or a few tablespoons of Italian pecorino Romano — or substitute another tasty cheese, such as Gruyere.

2 large eggplants (about 2 to 2½ pounds total)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 to 3 teaspoons lemon juice, optional

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

11/4 cups milk

½ cup grated kasseri, kashkaval or Gruyere cheese

Grill or broil eggplant. (For directions, see note at end of previous recipe). Cut in half and scoop flesh from skin. Chop eggplant with a knife to a smooth puree. Put in a bowl, and season it with salt and pepper to taste and lemon juice, if using.

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, about 2 minutes, or until foaming but not browned. Remove from heat; gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking.

Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking often, 2 minutes. Stir in eggplant puree. Cook, stirring, until mixture is hot and thick. If necessary, simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, to thicken. Stir in cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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