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Published September 03, 2013, 10:00 PM

Embracing Eggplant: Versatile vegetable does double duty in tasty Caponata, Parmigiana dishes

We have successfully grown eggplants for many summers in Fargo and never cease to marvel at how this medium-sized, leafy plant can produce such a hearty vegetable.

By: Sarah and Tony Nasello, INFORUM

We have successfully grown eggplants for many summers in Fargo and never cease to marvel at how this medium-sized, leafy plant can produce such a hearty vegetable.

Eggplant is a staple ingredient in many dishes in Sicily, where it is regarded as the “meat of the earth.” Sicilians appreciate this vegetable not only for its gorgeous, deep purple color, but also for its flavor, versatility and substantial, meaty texture.

Eggplants are available year-round at our local grocery stores, but they are at their peak between August and October. If you don’t have eggplants in your garden, our local farmers markets have had a great variety from which to choose. You can find the common, larger egg-shaped plants, but we have also seen Japanese eggplants, which are thin and long, similar in shape to a banana. Some markets have also had the round variety, as well as white eggplants.

When buying or picking eggplant, it’s important to know that bigger doesn’t always mean better. Look for a medium-sized fruit that is free of scars and bruises, with a shiny, vivid color and bright green stem. The texture should be firm and smooth. To test, gently press your thumb against the skin. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe and ready to use. If an indentation remains, the eggplant is not done ripening and will have a bland, bitter taste.

One of Tony’s favorite ways to feature eggplant is his family’s recipe for Caponata, a sweet and sour blend of cooked vegetables, with a texture like a hearty relish. This traditional Sicilian dish is rich with color and is often served with seafood. We also use it as a topping over crusty bread, served either plain or toasted bruschetta-style.

Caponata is easy to make and can be served warm or cold. I think it’s an ideal side dish to prepare a day in advance, as this allows the flavors to meld together, resulting in a more flavorful dish.

Eggplant isn’t as common in our American diets, and if your palate isn’t yet familiar with this vegetable, preparing it Parmigiana-style is a great way to introduce it into your repertoire.

We slice the eggplant into quarter-inch-thick rounds, leaving the peel on for added nutrition and flavor. Feel free, however, to remove the peel if you desire.

We dredge each slice in flour, a simple egg wash and breadcrumbs, making sure that each piece is evenly coated. For today’s preparation Tony used Panko breadcrumbs, which have a wonderful, golden color and crispy texture.

Tony’s mother prefers to use Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs – the kind you find in a can at the supermarket – and this is how I have always prepared it in our home. After trying this dish with both styles of breadcrumbs, I’m still a fan of Marianna’s method, as I find the panko almost too crispy for the eggplant.

Food purists will tell you to salt the eggplant slices first before using, and press them down with a weight for an hour to remove excess water from the fruit. We have done this many times and included this step in our recipe, but we hardly notice any difference in flavor or texture when we don’t. If this step is a deal-breaker, skip it and just enjoy the eggplant.

We hope you try either or both of these recipes, and if you do (or any others), please stop by our blog and let us know at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

Sicilian Caponata

Serves 6

Ingredients

1 tablespoon minced garlic

½ large yellow onion, diced

3 large tomatoes, diced

1 large eggplant, peeled and diced

2 stalks celery, cut into ¼-inch half-moon pieces

2 tablespoons capers

½ large red pepper, diced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat for about five minutes. Add all remaining ingredients, and cook over low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring frequently until the vegetables are cooked all the way through but not mushy.

Taste the mixture and season with salt and pepper if desired. This dish can be served either warm or cold over crostini or toasted bruschetta.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Simple Eggplant Parmigiana

Serves 2 to 4

Ingredients

1 eggplant, medium size, sliced into ¼-inch rounds or lengthwise

3 extra-large eggs, beaten well (for egg wash)

2 to 3 cups breadcrumbs (use seasoned-Italian or Panko breadcrumbs)

1 to 2 cups olive oil for frying

Tomato sauce

Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Directions

Cut the eggplant into ¼-inch thick slices. Pour six cups of cold water into a large bowl with one teaspoon of salt. Add the eggplant slices and soak for 30 minutes until water turns brown. This will help to remove the bitterness from the eggplant. Drain the eggplant and rinse with cold water, laying each slice over paper towels to dry. Pat each slice well with paper towel to dry.

Dip each eggplant slice in the egg wash, then dredge in breadcrumb mixture and pat to evenly coat. Place a cookie cooling rack over a baking sheet lined with paper towels and set to side of stovetop.

Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant slices and fry until golden brown on each side. You will need to work in several batches. Transfer the golden brown slices to the cooling rack to drain off any excess oil.

Transfer fried eggplant to serving plate, spoon a layer of tomato sauce on top, and finish with a healthy sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

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