One Ingredient: Eggplant

Photos by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

Walk through any local farmers market at the height of the summer and you’re bound to be drawn to the vibrant, multicolored eggplant on display. Forget the spongy, squashy, dull-looking globe varieties we’re used to seeing year round in supermarkets, shipped in containers from somewhere warm. No, these beauties are firm and shiny, fresh-off-the-stem, with barely a blemish, glossy skins hiding pure, milky white flesh—these are something different all together.

Even the most ardent eggplant hater could be swayed by a tangle of neon purple Japanese or a pile of tiny “Fairy Tale” and bright orange Turkish varieties. Not bitter, not mushy, just sweet and toothsome, ready to take on the flavors they’re cooked with.

Eggplant’s spongy texture—which is what the haters hate, after all—is also what makes it so prized in vegetarian and vegan cooking around the world. Its flesh absorbs fats and flavors, drinking in sauces, developing a meaty richness no other vegetable can. And while it’s never eaten raw, its affinity for open flames makes it very easy to prepare and wonderful for outdoor summer cooking. A large whole-roasted eggplant, skin blackened directly on the coals, is rendered soft in 20 minutes flat, needing nothing more than a sprinkle of coarse salt, a dribble of olive oil and maybe a trace of crushed garlic. Smash it down with the tines of a fork and spread it on some grilled bread or toss it into a bowl of hot pasta. Meatless Monday, here you come.

As an ornamental plant, eggplant is a natural addition to most home gardeners’ plots. The yellow-centered violet flowers give way to glossy little fruits, ready to pick whenever they’re big enough and you’re ready to eat them. As long as you’ve got a very warm and sunny spot, eggplant will thrive, and some of the smaller fruits (like the amethyst-hued Fairy Tale, pumpkin-orange Turkish and bright green tiny Thai) will do beautifully in container gardens or even patio pots.

But all that being said, eggplant is still a pretty divisive character. People either love it or hate it, and in my family we have folks of both persuasions. I still plant it in my garden every year, especially the light purple Ma-Pu Chinese and the round, squat, lavender Rosa Bianca. They’re just so pretty and abundant! When our eggplant haters aren’t around, we grill the little ones whole, or slice them into coins and tempura-fry them, dunking hot rounds into gingery soy sauce and passing the napkins and beer. They have no idea what they’re missing!

As I do each season, I reached out to some local chefs to find out their favorite ways to cook eggplant. And boy, did they have some creative recipes to share! We got an ingenious twist on the classic “eggplant parm;” some Asian-spiced lamb-and-eggplant dumplings, ready for a crowd; a stunning watercress risotto topped with red miso-glazed eggplant and mushrooms; a grilled eggplant caponata sandwich with fresh ricotta, a poached egg and a sweet-spicy drizzle; and finally, a cooling yogurt, herb and walnut-tossed eggplant salad, perfect for any backyard barbeque buffet. Hit the farmers market—or your own garden—and try these recipes now, while local eggplant is plentiful and in season.