When we were traveling by train through Perugia Italy on our way to Assisi, the train made a short stop to take on passengers in a small village. Being almost noon, I dashed into the station looking for a quick bite to carry back to the train. In the counter were several sandwiches on fresh rolls. One of the two that I brought back for our lunch was roasted eggplant with cheese. The cheese in Italy like the wine, no matter the type is always a rich flavorful sensation. But the eggplant on this sandwich was a joy to the senses, packed with flavors – garlic, onion, basil and olive oil. Who made the rule on our side of the Atlantic that a sandwich has to have meat?
Eggplant is greatly underutilized in traditional American cuisine. We are all familiar with eggplant parmesan. But this versatile vegetable can do so much more. Like mushrooms or tofu, eggplant absorbs flavors very well. This makes it useful in carrying flavors to the palate. Its fibrous texture softens when grilled or roasted and adds interest and body to a dish. After my Italian experience, eggplant became a staple for any grill. Or, roasting in a 425-degree oven, flavored with olive oil and whatever seasonings you like, eggplant makes an excellent side dish, salad ingredient or spread for crostini.
Eggplants are a summer vegetable. They are best right now when the tomatoes, squash and zucchini are ripening. Add them to a vegetable sauté sprinkled with parmesan on the side of your favorite lean grilled meat. The classic southern French vegetable stew, Ratatouille incorporates these same summer vegetables.
Some people object to the heaviness of eggplant. Recipes that call for frying eggplant include purging them with salt by slicing and laying them out on paper towels. The salt draws out moisture and this reduces the amount of oil they absorb making them less heavy. Roasting them before use in a recipe eliminates the need for purging and will bring out the deep complex flavors of the vegetable.
When I tell someone that I brought an eggplant sandwich for lunch, their expression tells me that they think I just landed from another planet. But when I proceed to explain the process – a little olive oil in the skillet, a dash of garlic, salt and pepper, eggplant cut lengthwise in ¼ inch slices, sautéed just until fork tender, then put on a good crusty bread or on toast with a slice of provolone cheese – I invariably get the same response, “Hmm, that sounds good.” So, I invite you to break out of the meat and mayo rut and explore some interesting new sandwich options.
In this month’s stuffed eggplant recipe, the vegetable of the month serves as both a vessel to hold the ingredients and as part of the filling absorbing and distributing flavors. This dish is a feature entrée for an upscale dinner. Serve it with a fresh garden salad for a complete meal and you will be the talk of the dinner table.
From a health perspective, eggplant is a low-calorie, high fiber food that is rich in potassium and other nutrients including calcium, magnesium and folate. Don’t discard that dark purple skin! It is a concentrated source of anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant and health promoting agent in the body.
If you are ever in a small train station in Italy, make a point to check out their sandwich selections. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.