India offers spicy recipe for eggplant

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- Farm stands are overflowing with eggplants, and while cooking them up parmigiana-style can be delicious, don't limit your aubergine experiences to just that.

As autumn brings cooler temperatures, try adding a little heat to your eggplant. For guidance there, it is best to turn to India, where the berry (bet you thought it was a vegetable) originated.

In "The Food of India," Priya Wickramasinghe and Carol Selva Rajah weave together a collection of hundreds of authentic Indian dishes that are accompanied by sumptuous photography.

Though many of the recipes call for lamb, poultry or seafood, just as many are naturally vegetarian, as so much of Indian cuisine is. Those that aren't often are easily adapted.

One can imagine, for example, a simple conversion of their cardamom chicken -- a dish laced with chilies, yogurt and ginger, as well as 25 cardamom pods -- using tofu or seitan for an aromatic and pungent dish anyone could enjoy.

First, some aubergine advice. Eggplants should be firm and heavy. The skin should be smooth, shiny and evenly colored. Shriveled skin means the eggplant is old, and likely bitter.

To check whether an eggplant is ripe, press gently against the skin with your thumb. If the imprint remains, the eggplant is ready. Also, you don't have to peel it: The skin is edible and can add a nice color to many dishes.

If you must stick with eggplant parmigiana, at least spice it up a bit. Add paprika and red pepper flakes, or cumin and curry powder, to the bread crumbs before dredging the slices.

Also, to reduce the fat, bake instead of frying. Eggplant is thirsty and will absorb about as much oil as it is given. As an alternative, lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil and bake the slices at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, or until crisp. Turn once during baking.

For a more authentic dish, try Wickramasinghe and Rajah's spicy eggplant. It is wonderful with bread, or served as a main dish with rice and yogurt.

Most of the ingredients are easy to find, or are available at ethnic markets.

If you can't find kalonji (also called nigella seeds), substitute an equivalent mix of dry-roasted and ground brown mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds and cumin.

Spicy Eggplant

(Preparation 1 hour)

1 3/4 pounds eggplant, cut into wedges about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long

13-ounce can diced tomatoes

1-inch piece of ginger, grated

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1 1/4 cups vegetable oil (olive oil is nice)

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon kalonji

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Place the eggplant pieces in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let sit for 30 minutes to drain. Rinse the eggplant pieces with cool water and squeeze gently to remove any excess liquid. Pat them dry with paper towels and set aside.

In a food processor, combine one-third of the tomatoes with the ginger and garlic in a food processor. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed frying pan. When hot add as many eggplant pieces as will fit in one layer.

Cook over a medium flame until brown on both sides, about 12 minutes, turning as needed. Transfer cooked pieces to a strainer set over a bowl to let excess oil drip away. Add the remaining oil to the pan as needed to cook the rest of the eggplant in batches.

Combine the fennel seeds and kalonji with any oil remaining in the pan. Cover and heat over a medium flame for about 30 seconds, or just until the seeds begin to pop.

Add the tomato and ginger mixture, as well as all remaining ingredients except the eggplant. Cook over a medium flame, stirring regularly, for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the sauce becomes thick and fairly smooth.

Carefully add the eggplant so that the pieces stay whole. Cover the pan and simmer over a low flame for about 10 minutes. Serve either warm or cold.

Makes 6 servings.

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