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Midsummer mania: It's time for the eggplant's turn in the spotlight

By Wolfgang Puck, Tribune Content Agency on

Among summertime's signature vegetables, eggplant sometimes seems like it doesn't get its fair share of attention. Tomatoes are the seasonal superstars, filling farmers' market stalls with all their many-shaped, multicolored variety. Zucchini can dominate through sheer numbers, especially if you grow them yourself. And then there's sweet corn, the outdoor favorite at picnics and barbecues.

But eggplant? With its glossy, purple-black skin and a texture and flavor that are unpalatable when raw, it seems to hang back while its more popular summer companions make friends so easily. Eggplant needs more coaxing to showcase how wonderful it can actually be. When sauteed, grilled, roasted or broiled, its flavor turns amazingly rich and satisfying, almost meaty, and the texture becomes luxuriously soft, smooth and silky.

There are so many ways to showcase those delicious qualities:

--Combine eggplant with chunks of tomato, zucchini and onion, along with garlic and fresh herbs in the signature French vegetable stew called ratatouille.

--Slice the eggplant, slick with oil, and grill it as an easy side for summertime cookouts.

--Grill or broil eggplant whole until the skin blackens and the inside turns tender; then, scoop out the smoky-tasting pulp and whip it with tahini (sesame paste), garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, salt and parsley to make the superb Middle Eastern dip known as baba ganoush.

--Give the vegetable a try in a Southeast Asian main dish like my sauteed shrimp with Thai-spiced eggplant and Thai red curry sauce.

Having originated in Asia, eggplant is a staple in Thai kitchens, and in the following recipe it's combined with aromatic seasonings to form a luxurious backdrop for quickly cooked seafood.

With the widespread popularity of Thai cooking today, you may be surprised by how easy it is to find all the ingredients. Many produce departments now include fresh lemongrass, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal -- a cousin to ginger; and Asian food aisles often feature bottles of Thai red curry paste and the salty, fermented seasoning called fish sauce. Even more conveniently, you can also buy them all online.

Once you've assembled all the ingredients, the recipe proceeds very quickly, with each of the three main elements -- the sauce, the eggplant and the sauteed shrimp -- fairly simple to prepare.

Since the shrimp cooks the quickest of all the ingredients, I save their preparation until the very end. You could also substitute another protein of your choice; pork tenderloins or boneless and skinless chicken breasts, quickly grilled or sauteed and then cut diagonally into strips, would work beautifully with the other ingredients.

Whichever of these combinations sounds good to you, I encourage you to give my recipe a try soon -- and let eggplant finally win its share of the spotlight.


Serves 4

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons peanut oil

4-inch (10-cm) piece ginger root, sliced and smashed

4-inch (10-cm) piece lemongrass, white part only, smashed, or zest of 1/2 lemon, cut into strips

2-inch (5-cm) piece galangal, or a little extra ginger, peeled and chopped

2 dried red Thai chiles or other small dried chiles

2 teaspoons cumin powder

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

2 teaspoons bottled Thai red curry paste

1/4 cup (60 mL) peeled, seeded and diced fresh tomato

2 cups (500 mL) canned unsweetened coconut milk

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 to 3 tablespoons fish sauce, or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste

1/2 cup (125 mL) Kaffir lime leaves, or 2 tablespoons shredded lime zest

1 cup (250 mL) loosely packed Thai basil leaves, or regular basil leaves

Kosher salt


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For the eggplant mixture:

1 large globe eggplant, or 4 Chinese eggplants

2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon minced jalapeno

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced white onion

1/2 cup (60 mL) peeled, seeded and diced fresh tomato

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 tablespoon cumin powder

1/2 tablespoon coriander powder

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon Thai basil leaves, or regular basil leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips

For the shrimp:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh basil leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips, for garnish

First, make the sauce: In a medium saucepan over high heat, heat the oil. Add the ginger, lemongrass and galangal; stir-fry until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Add the chiles and stir-fry another 30 seconds. Add the cumin, paprika, curry paste and tomato. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping to deglaze the pan deposits.

Reduce the heat; stir in the lime juice, fish sauce, lime leaves and basil. Simmer gently for 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Remove from the heat and leave to steep for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the eggplant: Preheat a grill or broiler. With a fork, poke the eggplant several times all over. Rub with 1 tablespoon peanut oil. Grill or broil, turning regularly, until completely tender. Remove from the heat and set aside until cool enough to handle. Cut in half and scoop out the pulp onto a cutting board; coarsely chop the pulp, transferring to a bowl, and discard the skin.

In a medium saute pan, heat the remaining peanut oil and the butter over medium heat; saute the jalapeno, garlic, ginger and onion until aromatic, about 2 minutes. Stir in the eggplant, tomato, sugar, cumin and coriander. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro and basil. Cover and keep warm.

Strain the sauce and gently rewarm it over medium heat.

For the shrimp, in a large saute pan over high heat, combine the oil and butter. Saute the shrimp until just pink, 3 to 4 minutes; season with salt and pepper.

To serve, divide the eggplant among four serving plates. Arrange the shrimp on top and drizzle with the sauce. Garnish with basil and serve immediately.



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