Pity the poor eggplant—saddled with an unappetizing name, the pear-shaped produce has never reached its full potential in American cuisine. Sure, it occasionally pops up as eggplant Parmesan, but this says more about our soft spot for dripping sauce and melted cheese than anything else.
Other countries have made eggplant a focal point. Take France, for example, where the aubergine forms the basis of that national favorite, ratatouille. In India, eggplants are sautéed with tomatoes, turmeric, and cumin or stuffed with spices and fried. And across the Middle East, eggplants reign in baba ghanoush, a dip of mashed roasted eggplant mixed with lemon juice, tahini, onion, olive oil, parsley, tomatoes, and even mayonnaise, depending on the chef, the region, and the country.
Eggplant, while often called a vegetable, is actually a fruit; oddly enough, it's part of the berry family. Though usually purple, there are white, striped, and even orange varieties. At Palizzi Farm in Brighton, co-owner Debora Palizzi grows Black Beauty, a dark purple variety that can be up to 10 inches long and eight inches in diameter, and Ichiban, a slimmer, less seedy Japanese variety. According to Palizzi, fresh eggplants should be firm and smooth with no spots, which can indicate bruising and bitterness. "If they're really ancient, they'll start shriveling," she cautions.
Eggplant varieties can be used interchangeably in this recipe for baba ghanoush from Mahmoud Kassir, owner of Littleton's Damascus Restaurant. Even though it is a family recipe—the one his mother used while he was growing up in Syria—everything is to taste, so you're encouraged to add ingredients little by little and sample along the way.
RECIPE: Baba Ghanoush
Preheat oven to 450°. Puncture eggplants with a knife, and roast whole on a baking sheet for 25 to 30 minutes. When cool, slice off the ends and peel. Add to food processor, along with 2 cloves of garlic, tahini, pomegranate sauce (or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice), salt to taste, walnuts, and yogurt. Purée until smooth and taste, adding more garlic, tahini, lemon juice, salt, or yogurt as desired. Serve with pita.