In the category of vegetables that are actually fruits (a berry to be more precise), the eggplant, originally only small, white, and egg-shaped (hence the name), has evolved over hundreds of years to include several colors, shapes, and sizes. The most common at the local markets will be a dark inky purple and either long and tubular (Asian varieties) or pear-shaped and bulbous (European varieties). While both of those varieties are good (the long ones on the grill, the fat ones pan-fried), a quick trip to the Weiser Family Farms booth this time of year usually introduces us to something new.
"We're picking them smaller this year," says Alex Weiser. "They have so many more applications in the kitchen and have a better texture and flavor." Indeed the purple and white striped Calliopes, the mossy Apple Greens, and the dark wine-colored Black Beautys at the Weiser booth have the creamy texture and taste that most eggplants are known for - the Apple Green most of all, says Weiser - and benefit from simple treatment. Spanish-style eggplant pickles are easy with the selection of smaller fruits. For larger eggplants, all you need is a bit of oil, some grill time, and to finish off with salt and fresh herbs.
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Old kitchen wisdom once mandated that eggplant needed sitting time with a respectable amount of salt before cooking to leech out any bitter flavors. But that's really only true with much larger and older eggplants. The bitterness comes from the seeds, which contain a nicotine alkaloid, so the larger the eggplant, the larger the seeds. Is it worth the trouble? Oh yes. Eggplant transforms when cooked, developing a rich buttery flavor and velvety texture. Mash it up in a tangy mutabbal or baba ghanoush, or simply cube it and brown in simple pan sear with butter.
When buying eggplant, whether long, fat, or small, select for smooth, unblemished skin, firm flesh, and a heavy feel. Avoid fruit with squishy or discolored spots. If presentation is key, cut your eggplant right before cooking as the flesh oxides quickly, turning from eggshell white to muddy brown in mere minutes when exposed to the air. The fruits do have a tendency to go bitter when left to sit (the soft seeds tend to leech a bit), so plan on using them within a few days of purchase. Weiser says his egglants should be available through summer.