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Making Over the Much-Maligned Eggplant

One day I was in the kitchen rubbing salt onto some slices of fresh eggplant and tossing them in a colander. My husband paused to watch.

"Putting lipstick on a pig, huh?" he said.

Poor eggplant. Is there any produce item so homely and so misunderstood? Whether because of its Mr. Potato Head looks or its befuddling nature, it seems to draw more wrinkled noses than enthusiastic pleas for seconds.

Without a fancy PR campaign ("It's what's for dinner" probably wouldn't sell much eggplant) or marquee status on trendy menus, eggplant is left to struggle for word of mouth in bit parts such as baba ghanouj or caponata. Worse, it gets typecast in obvious roles such as eggplant Parmigiana or roasted vegetable sandwiches, where it gets weighed down by the other players.

When eggplant is bad, it's very, very bad: soggy, bitter and rubbery enough to turn a person off it for good. But when given the right vehicle, eggplant can show off its versatility and velvety texture.

Yes, eggplant is one misunderstood vegetable. For starters, it's not even a vegetable. Like the tomato, it is a stealth fruit that belongs to the nightshade family.

As someone who actually likes eggplant and has prepared it many times for myself, I've held a surprising number of misconceptions about it. For a long time, I got nervous if I saw a dearth of seeds when cutting open an eggplant. Where were those reassuringly familiar seed clusters? "I hope there isn't something wrong with this one," I would think, not realizing that seeds are the source of eggplant's bitterness. Younger fruit with fewer seeds are actually desirable, with a mellower, more pleasant taste than seedy eggplants.

I also assumed that throwing eggplant in the refrigerator and forgetting about it was the obvious, sensible thing to do. Refrigerating eggplant, it turns out, is a subject on which no one agrees. "Eggplants don't like cold, and can brown and alter in flavor if refrigerated," according to The Produce Bible, by Leanne Kitchen and Deborah Madison. However, other cookbooks recommend refrigerator storage, sometimes in tandem with a damp paper towel.

This is a personal issue best left to you and your eggplant. My kitchen has proved too sunny and warm for eggplant to withstand for more than a day without dimpling, so I find refrigeration necessary. The only sure advice is to use them as soon as possible after purchase.

And then: to salt, or not to salt? Again, controversy abounds. In her Food Lover's Companion, Sharon Tyler Herbst recommends salting only for older eggplants, to temper bitterness. Others recommend salting regardless of the eggplant's age, to avoid absorption of too much oil in preparation.

I'm no Cook's Illustrated, but I did conduct my own side-by-side tests. My conclusion is to err on the side of salting, but let the method of preparation be your guide. When roasting 2-inch pieces of eggplant in a small amount of olive oil, for example (one of my favorite ways to eat it), salting didn't seem to make much difference. But in marinating, frying or roasting large chunks, the extra step of coating the sliced eggplant in salt and letting it sit for at least 30 minutes produces a notable improvement in flavor and texture.

Should you peel an eggplant? Herbst recommends it for older ones, but let's just agree to avoid older ones altogether and skip the peeling unless something about the eggplant's deep, glossy skin offends your sensibilities. Personally, I like the way it enrobes the fruit's cooked flesh, and it can add to the smokiness if you do something so daring as char grilling: placing a whole eggplant over an open flame until it collapses, becoming the base for a dip or spread.

There seem to be as many varieties of eggplant as there are ways to enjoy it. Most of us are familiar with the deep purple globe or Japanese eggplants, and the lavender-colored Chinese variety, but it's also fun to experiment with the elegant ivory-colored members of the family, and the tomato-sized, pale-green Thai eggplant. I didn't notice any differences in taste among the eggplants that I used in the recipes below, but it's said that Thai eggplant is a bit more bitter than other varieties.

Though I loved trying out Mediterranean-inspired recipes for globe eggplant, I always felt a bit at sea when it came to other varieties, such as the long, svelte Asian ones. One day at San Francisco's Ferry Building Farmer's Market, I paused in front of the Balakian Farm stand, admiring its eggplant array.

When I mentioned to the woman there that I was on a quest for an Asian eggplant recipe, she paused and then shifted her stance as something came to her. "The Japanese have a dish called nasu," she said. "They use brown sugar, it's very good. Look for that."

"Nasu," I repeated.

"Nasu," she said, nodding solemnly.

Well, it turns out that nasu is just the Japanese word for eggplant. But the mention of brown sugar led me to recipes for nasu dengaku, eggplant that is cut in half lengthwise, fried or grilled, and dressed in a sweet, miso-based sauce. I found a variation on this preparation that retains the sauce, but seems less heavy.

I trotted out the Japanese-style eggplant for my husband one night, and he paused before it with a frown. After some coaxing, he tried a bite. "Hey," he said almost accusatorily, "this is good!"

Eggplant got its moment of triumph with at least one skeptical audience. Take a bow, little guy.

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Christina Nunez