It’s a kissing cousin to the tomato because they are both fruits — actually berries — that are commonly mistaken for vegetables. And, they are both related to the nightshade family but, lucky for us, not toxic. Well, not in normal amounts!

In Japan, there’s even a proverb about eggplant: “The happiest omen for a New Year is first Mount Fuji, then the falcon and, lastly, eggplant.”

Eggplant is believed to have originated in India, where it is considered king of the vegetables. (Again, with that fruit and veggie confusion!) Eggplant is called “aubergine” in the United Kingdom, a word that goes back to the ancient Indian language Sanskrit. The word “eggplant” that we use here in the United States comes from British-colonized India where, at the time, a small white egg-shaped variety was trendy.

While most people are familiar with the widely cultivated purple eggplant, there are many different cultivars that have been making their way to the United States in the past few years. These vary in size, shape and color. Some are as large as 2-plus pounds while smaller ones may be less than a pound. Colors vary from white to yellow or green, as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a color gradient — white at the stem, to bright pink, deep purple or even black. Green or purple cultivars with white striping also exist.

Eggplant is a high-fiber, low-calorie food that is rich in nutrients and comes with many potential health benefits. From reducing the risk of heart disease to helping with blood sugar control and weight loss, eggplants are a simple and delicious addition to a healthy diet.

Eggplants contain a good amount of vitamins, minerals and fiber in few calories. They are high in antioxidants which can help protect the body from damage caused by harmful free radicals and could help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. They can also help keep blood sugar in check because of their high fiber and polyphenols content.

For many of us, eggplant belongs in one dish — eggplant parmigiana — but it is much more versatile than most people realize and can go from appetizer to main course in some easy and tasty recipes. Plenty of chefs are serving the smaller varieties quickly grilled and sprinkled with herbs and a little salt these days.

It’s important to understand how to cook and prepare eggplant. As a raw fruit, it can have a somewhat bitter taste. When cooked to tender, however, it develops a rich and complex flavor. Eggplant is capable of absorbing large amounts of cooking fats and sauces, making for some rich dishes. But, salting it before cooking reduces the amount of oil it will absorb.

Many recipes call for salting, rinsing and draining the sliced fruit to soften it, reduce the amount of fat absorbed during cooking and remove the bitterness. Note here that some modern cultivars do not need this treatment.

Popular in many Asian and European cuisines, it can be used as a meat substitute thanks to its texture and bulk. The flesh is smooth and its numerous seeds are soft and edible, as is the soft, thin skin.

Eggplant is at its best when it’s combined with strong-flavored vegetables and seasonings. That gives you plenty of options for playing around with the vegetable which is now in season.

This recipe for Eggplant Ricotta Bites offers a fried-green tomato take on eggplant for an appetizer. Coated and fried with a Parmesan bread crust, these are served with fresh tomato, herbs and ricotta cheese. Nothing says you couldn’t gild the lily with some crispy prosciutto crumbles as well.

The Grilled Eggplant with Garlic and Herbs is a versatile recipe. It can stand alone as an appetizer and would be a great lunch dish served with a salad. For dinner, it would pair well with grilled lamb chops, shrimp or salmon.

For a simple family meal, we offer a vegetarian dish with Nona’s Stuffed Eggplant and a skillet recipe that allows you to choose the meat of your choice in the Eggplant and Ground Meat Skillet. Both are simple, with few ingredients and give you a good opportunity to introduce eggplant at your family table.

We haven’t included a recipe for Eggplant Parmigiana in this column, but with so many fresh vegetables and herbs available at this time of year, we are offering a Ratatouille recipe that we think you’ll enjoy. While it has a long list of ingredients, it’s easy to assemble and makes a beautiful presentation. Best of all, it can be served hot or at room temperature so it’s a great picnic choice.

Farm2Fork: Eggplant deserves a chance | Food & Dining

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