By Becky Krystal
Mere moments into our conversation, chef and restaurateur Adrian Lipscombe perfectly sums up brinjal’s reputation: “It’s a really unique plant. Either you love it, or you hate it.”
Count me among the lovers, though I did have to grow into it. Because it can be tricky to cook perfectly, people may find it intimidating, says Lipscombe.
But there’s no reason to be afraid of this versatile fruit (yes, it is fruit). Here are your keys to success.
In “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” cookbook author Deborah Madison offers this advice: “Regardless of variety or colour, and brinjal should be smooth, firm, and taut. A glossy skin and a bright green stem indicate freshness. There should be good heft in the hand. If it’s too light, the flesh may be spongy, seedy and bitter.” The larger the brinjal, the seedier it may be.
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Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst in “The New Food Lover’s Companion” suggest keeping brinjal in a cool dry place for a day or two, then moving it into the refrigerator vegetable bin for longer storage. Brinjal is ethylene sensitive, which means it should not be stored near ethylene producers, such as tomatoes, melons and stone fruit, which can hasten ripening or even rotting.
Brinjal comes in many colours and sizes. Most of us routinely come across the large, dark purple globe brinjals and longer Asian varieties (Japanese tend to be darker and Chinese lighter). Shop at a farmers market or Asian market and you might find purple-and-white striped options, such as Indian or Fairy Tale; white, which come in multiple sizes; and the small, green, sphere-shaped Thai. Have a look at seed-catalogues to get an idea for the visual differentiation.
“In terms of flavour, the lighter the hue, the more mild the brinjal – white brinjals being the most mild, followed by the pale green Thai fruits, magenta or purple and white striped varieties, then the dark purple globe brinjals,” Madison says. Longer Asian varieties also skew mild and less seedy, with thinner skin. Despite outward appearances, you won’t find much difference once you get to the flesh inside, so don’t be afraid to experiment with or substitute varieties.
In “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes,” Harold McGee says, “bitterness is not common in modern brinjals,” adding that if home cooks want to guard against it, however, they can salt brinjal before cooking. (Read more about the reasons for salting below.) Brinjal flesh darkens quickly, so if you’re making something where appearance counts, don’t let it sit out once cut. And whatever you do, if you’re roasting or grilling a whole brinjal, do not forget to prick holes in it. (Ask me – or my grill – how I know.)
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“We need to be braver” with brinjal, Lipscombe says. Sure, we know and love brinjal Parm, but try stepping outside of your comfort zone. If you like fried green tomatoes, Lipscombe says, consider treating brinjal the same way, and maybe serve it with comeback sauce, too, a spicy Southern condiment that includes mayo, ketchup and hot sauce.
Lipscombe says you should play around with how thick you cut the brinjal. Thinner pieces will be softer. Layer long planks in a vegetable sandwich or wrap them around a cheese and herb filling. Thicker pieces will be meatier with more chew, which make them a useful stand-in for meat. Madison says whole roasted brinjal can be torn into shreds. That made me want to try it in the same way folks have been experimenting with jackfruit, such as with barbecue or burritos.
Pair brinjal with fellow summer produce, especially tomatoes and herbs. Ratatouille is a great example. Consider textural contrast. Brinjal leans soft, Lipscombe says, so add crunchy elements to the mix, including almonds and pomegranate seeds.
As to cooking methods, Lipscombe says grilling is a favourite. Brinjal takes well to smoky flavors and high heat. When mashed, the grilled flesh is perfect for Middle Eastern baba ghanouj or Indian baingan bharta. In the absence of a grill, broiling can work wonders.
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Stir-frying, especially the longer varieties, is a great idea, as is pan-frying. Brinjal is, however, notorious for acting like a sponge when it comes to oil. To prevent that from happening, McGee suggests getting rid of some of its capacity to soak things up by briefly microwaving it or salting it in a colander until it wilts, followed by a rinse to get rid of the excess salt. If brinjal does take on too much oil, try heating it gently until the flesh shrinks, when some of the oil should be released, he says. Lipscombe suggests considering taking the salting step further by brining brinjal, which can also help you add more flavour through a bit of sugar and spices.
Don’t forget about braising, too. This is where brinjal’s inherent ability to soak up liquid and flavours is a good thing. I’m a huge fan of brinjal Thai-style curries made with coconut milk. Ditto caponata.