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In coastal Italy, I rediscovered my appreciation for the versatility of melanzana in all its splendid variety.
During the four weeks I was living and shooting Giada in Italy in the seaside town of Positano, I made a conscious decision to eat like a native, forgoing my usual workweek fare for bottomless bowls of pasta, fresh-from-the-ocean fish, and very little (if any) red meat. And you know what? I've never felt better. Maybe it was the more relaxed lifestyle—we sometimes sat down to dinner at 9:00 or later, and there was usually a carafe of great, unpretentious local wine on the table, too—or maybe it was just the fact that almost everything we ate was simple, unprocessed (except for the pasta, of course), and straightforwardly cooked to make the most of its natural flavors and textures.
The local way with eggplant is a great example. In Positano it was on every menu in every restaurant we went to, served pickled, fried, roasted, pureed, or sometimes just as a vessel for a sauce or soup (almost nothing goes to waste in European kitchens!). Depending on how it was prepared, the eggplant was meaty, silky, crunchy, or pungent, and I never got tired of it. It really reminded me how much I enjoy this humble, wallet-friendly vegetable and how underappreciated it is back home.
I grew up eating eggplant, so it's never seemed exotic to me, but it's one of those veggies like fennel or okra for which people often need to acquire a taste. Somehow eggplant just doesn't seem sexy, having a reputation for tasting bland and greasy, and it's true that if prepared incorrectly it can soak up a lot of oil during the cooking process. But if the only way you've ever eaten it is breaded, fried, and doused with cheese and marinara sauce, you've never really tasted eggplant.
There's no better time than right now to remedy that situation. The farmers' markets are brimming with eggplants of different varieties that range in color from pure white (the earliest variety and the one that inspired its name) to nearly black and brightly striped in fuchsia. My favorites are the slender Japanese eggplants, which tend to be less bitter and are not as spongy and seedy at the center as the bigger specimens can be. But even a regular purple eggplant can make for very good eating if it's young and fresh, cooked properly, and seasoned assertively. To my palate the best way to appreciate the flavor of eggplant is diced small and fried (no breading required), then tossed with cheese and pasta. Cleanly fried in olive oil until deep golden brown, it has a rich, almost nutty flavor, and adds substance to a meatless entrée without being heavy. I also like to include thick slabs of eggplant on grilled vegetable platters. My mother (who doesn't eat meat) served us eggplant often, frying thin slices and then rolling each up with a slice of mozzarella and securing it with a toothpick.
Not up for deep-frying or grilling? Eggplant roasts beautifully. You can roast them whole for 45 minutes at 350°F to create a soft, pulpy puree for dips and spreads, or halve the eggplants, score the cut surface, and rub with olive oil, salt, and garlic, and bake them at 450°F for about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size; they will have a delicious, caramelized crust on the outside and be creamy on the inside. Serve them as is, as a side dish, or scoop out the cooked flesh, mix it with ssautéed ground meat, onions, and herbs, and pile the mixture back into the shells to reheat in the manner of twice-baked potatoes.