Think eggplant, and you’re likely to picture a beautiful, glossy, dark purple, oblong vegetable. The star in so many exotic, flavorful dishes, eggplant is also one of those ingredients that can leave even the most confident cook totally befuddled. The eggplant seems to have its fair share of haters, but perhaps that’s because it’s so misunderstood.

The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, which makes it related to the potato and the tomato. Though widely regarded as a vegetable, eggplant is technically a fruit -- specifically, a berry. There are many eggplant varieties, resulting in myriad shapes, sizes and colors to choose from. 

Chef, writer and television host Amy Thielen knows her way around an eggplant. The author of The New Midwestern Table and host of Heartland Table explains why you want to pick the shinest eggplant at the store, and why smoking eggplant is one of her favorite techniques ("If you consider yourself masterful with s’mores, you’ve got this," she says.)

Jennifer Russell: Could you please demystify the eggplant a bit? It’s one of those ingredients that really seems to throw and divide people.

Amy Thielen Amy Thielen

Amy Thielen: I can relate. I didn’t eat a piece of eggplant I liked until I was well into my 20s. Prior to that, I was both perplexed by its inner texture -- to me it had all the charm (and the mouthfeel) of a cotton ball.

Later on, I found out that the cottony thing occurs only when it’s undercooked. Properly cooked eggplant is as plush as a pillow, as soft as custard. There’s a reason why African cooks call eggplant "garden eggs."

JR: What should we look for when shopping for eggplant at the market?

AT: You want to pick the shiniest eggplant you can find -- as in, reflective. When they ripen on the plant and reach maturity, their shine is brilliant. But as they age past that peak (whether they’re picked and sent to the store, or just left to hang on the vine), their skins grow duller looking.

A fresh eggplant should feel heavy for its size. And it’s just personal preference, but I tend to go for the smaller ones. You can really tell when an eggplant is past its prime when you slice into it, which is of course too late. In ripe eggplants the seed clusters are taupe-colored, and in over-mature eggplants, they’re darker.

JR: Are they easy to grow?

AT: We’re Zone 3 here in northern Minnesota, and eggplants need heat. So in truth, they’re not the easiest thing to grow in my garden. [Ed. note: Eggplants aren’t easy for Nigel Slater to grow either.] We start them from seed in a greenhouse, plant the baby starts out into the garden in June and then cover them with a portable hoop house until they get some height.

They generally bear fruit in early August -- when they do, it’s usually a heavy harvest. I pick all the ripe ones, char them over a grill or on the stovetop until soft, peel off the black skin and store the smoked eggplant pulp in the freezer. Then in the depths of winter, I use it to make a dip, or add it to rice pilaf or soup, or whenever I want to add a bump of smoky richness. 

JR: How should they be cooked? Do you have a favorite technique?

Heartland Table The New Midwestern Table

AT: Most often, I grill them, but I also love them smoked and even steamed.

Smoking eggplant is probably the most fun. I like to either char it in the coals of the campfire or blister it on top of the stove and finish it in the oven. The art of smoking an eggplant is identical to the art of toasting a marshmallow; if you consider yourself masterful with s’mores, you’ve got this.

JR: To salt or not to salt?

AT: I never pre-salt my eggplant. In theory, the salting removes the bitterness. But I take care to always cook fresh eggplant, which are never bitter. Salting also removes a little moisture, and I hear that’s valuable when deep-frying them for fritters, but I think it’s a negligible benefit, not to mention a space-hogging extra step.  

JR: Can you (should you) eat the skin?

AT: I leave it on most of the time. The skin is thin but springy if not cooked right, not unlike the casing of a sausage. The skin benefits from direct cooking, so if you sauté, grill or fry your eggplant, then yes, you should eat the skin. I’d even say that with fried or braised eggplant, the skin is the best part.

Very occasionally, if I don’t use much oil to cook it (this is rare), the eggplant skin will contract around the disk; then it gets a little rubber-bandy, and I remove it.

JR: Can eggplant be eaten raw?

Tomato and Eggplant Compote Thielen's recipe: Tomato and Eggplant Compote

AT: I once ran across an Italian recipe for salted, pressed, marinated, raw eggplant. It was good, but it had a ridiculous amount of olive oil in it to counteract the foam-like texture of raw eggplant.

In my opinion, I’d put marinated raw eggplant in the category with raw marinated mushroom salads, meaning that they’re delicious on the condition that copious amounts of olive oil and plenty of shaved Parmesan cheese are both used. If you like one, you’d probably like the other.

JR: Can you share your take on cooking with different varieties of eggplant?

AT: I grow both a small Italian globe variety and a long Asian eggplant in my garden so that I can take advantage of these wide-ranging global methods.

The globes are good for smoking and turning into babaghanous, which I make the way a fellow line cook taught me when I worked at Bouley in New York: mixing the chopped eggplant pulp with lemon juice and plenty of homemade garlic aioli. Talk about decadent. Lately I’ve taken to topping it with a mince of oil-cured black olives, which gives this pale beige dip some presence.

The year I spent working in a Chinese restaurant (66 in New York City, R.I.P.) taught me to steam planks of eggplant until just soft (4-5 minutes, tops), and then cover them with a thin sauce that leaned heavily on the toban djan (chile-garlic sauce). That dish made a huge impact on me, and I’ve never forgotten it.

JR: What’s your favorite way to eat eggplant? What are your go-to eggplant dishes?

Babaghanous with Aioli and Oil-cured Olives Thielen's recipe: Babaghanous with Aioli and Oil-cured Olives

AT: I’m absolutely addicted to the aforementioned Israeli babaghanous with aioli, and I also love to make an olive oil-rich eggplant and tomato salad. For a simple meal it could be a side dish, but I first saw it in an Uzbek restaurant where it was served with pita before the meal. It blew me away how just a few components that I’d combined in the past to different effect -- eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic -- could be used to make something so magical.

It boils down to the technique, which involves covering the mixture until the eggplant turns very soft, then removing the lid and simmering to evaporate the excess juices, concentrating the chunks of eggplant and tomato, and basically nearly forcing them to swap essences with each other. The key is to jostle the pan to baste the soft vegetables with the juices, and when done, to let the entire mixture sit undisturbed until cool, which is when it tastes best. I know of no other eggplant recipe that calls to be "shaken, not stirred."

Jennifer Russell
Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.