- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Once a stranger on the American culinary scene, eggplant has made great inroads on these shores in the past few decades.

Eggplant moussaka is well-known from Greek eateries, eggplant bharta from Indian restaurants, ratatouille from French bistros and eggplant Parmigiano in Italian restaurants. Baba ghanouj, Middle Eastern roasted eggplant dip with sesame paste, is easy to find in restaurants and supermarkets.

In the Middle East, eggplant is the king of vegetables. An old Arabic saying goes that a woman must know how to prepare eggplant 101 ways in order to be considered fit for marriage.

When I lived in the Middle East, I learned eggplant can star in appetizers, entrees, side dishes and even sweets - my husband’s Moroccan relatives make sweet eggplant preserves with sugar syrup.

Eggplant is a valuable addition to all sorts of familiar favorites. Fried or grilled eggplant slices are a terrific topping for salads and pizza. In a sandwich popular from New York to California, grilled eggplant slices are matched with roasted red peppers, tomato slices, goat cheese and sometimes pesto.

Chicken and meat stews benefit from sauteed or grilled chunks of eggplant. Sauteed strips of eggplant dress up pasta with tomato sauce and make a satisfying summertime supper dish that’s especially delicious when finished with basil and Parmesan cheese or with feta cheese and black olives. Eggplant cubes are delicious in rice pilaf, whether in its savory Turkish version with a touch of fresh tomato or in its spicy Indian interpretation with tiny dried hot peppers and black mustard seeds.

Some people hesitate to cook eggplant, thinking its preparation is complicated, but eggplant is easy to use and more versatile than practically any other vegetable. Sauteing, deep frying, baking, grilling and braising all work wonderfully.

You don’t have to be concerned with overcooking eggplant, as it is at its best when very tender and not crisp-tender like green vegetables. Eggplant is rarely eaten raw, although I once encountered thin, uncooked white eggplant slices served with a dipping sauce at a Cambodian restaurant; somehow it worked - perhaps because of the fiery sauce.

Eggplant is best with plenty of seasoning and is a good vehicle for using spicy or salty foods. If I happen to make a hot sauce that I consider to be too pungent, I often find it a perfect addition to mashed baked eggplant.

Grilled chicken and eggplant in tomato cilantro sauce

This dish is often made with stewed beef instead of chicken. Makes 4 servings.

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for brushing on eggplant and chicken

1 large onion, chopped

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, or a 28-ounce can tomatoes with their juice

6 large garlic cloves, chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground allspice, or to taste, plus a little more for sprinkling

1 cup chicken broth

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds eggplant (1 large or 2 medium), cut in crosswise slices about 3/8-inch thick

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs or breasts, with skin

2 to 3 teaspoons lemon juice (optional)

Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

4 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in a stew pan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until golden. Chop fresh or canned tomatoes and add to the pan. Add garlic, salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon allspice, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Stir in broth. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 20 minutes or until thickened.

Prepare a grill or heat broiler with rack about 4 inches from heat source; or heat a ridged stovetop grill pan over medium-high heat. Brush grill rack lightly with oil. Brush eggplant with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add enough slices to make 1 layer in grill without crowding. Grill or broil for 3 or 4 minutes on each side or until nearly tender; remove. Continue with remaining slices.

Rub chicken with oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and allspice on both sides. Grill or broil chicken until nearly tender, about 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken skin if you like. Cut each chicken piece in 3 or 4 pieces. Quarter eggplant slices.

Taste sauce for seasoning, and add lemon juice, cayenne and more allspice if you like. Stir in 3 tablespoons cilantro. Add chicken and eggplant to stew pan and spoon sauce over them. Bring barely to a boil. Cover and simmer, occasionally stirring gently, for 5 minutes or until done. (See note below if you prefer to bake them instead.)

Eggplant should be tender when pierced with a fork. Cut into a thick chicken piece; its color should be white, not pink. If sauce is too thin, remove eggplant and chicken with a slotted spoon and simmer sauce until thickened. Serve eggplant and chicken in sauce, sprinkled with remaining cilantro.

Note: To bake chicken and eggplant, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spoon a little sauce into a baking dish, top with eggplant and then with chicken, and spoon remaining sauce over it. Cover and bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender; uncover after 7 minutes if sauce is too thin.

Spicy stewed eggplant

This savory dish makes a delicious vegetarian entree with rice or a good accompaniment for chicken, lamb or beef. As an easy variation, substitute 1 tablespoon curry powder for the spices. Makes 4 servings.

1 1/4 pounds eggplant

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

6 large garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, diced, or a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, juice reserved

1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional)

1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper paste, chili garlic paste or hot sauce, or to taste

Cut eggplant in 3/4- or 1-inch dice. Heat oil in a heavy stew pan, add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until golden brown. Stir in garlic. Add diced eggplant, cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and stir over medium-low heat until eggplant is coated with onion mixture.

Add tomatoes with their juice and cook over high heat, stirring, until bubbling. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 30 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Mix tomato paste with 2 tablespoons water, add to stew and simmer uncovered for 2 minutes or until thickened to taste. Add hot pepper paste; taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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