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Purple passion

Wednesday, August 27 2008

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Melongenes have a unique taste and texture...
Melongenes have a unique taste and texture...

THE MELONGENE has long been prized for its deeply purple, glossy beauty as well as its unique taste and texture.

Melongenes, or eggplants as they are known in other parts of the world, belong to the nightshade family of vegetables, which also include tomatoes, sweet peppers and potatoes. They grow in a manner much like tomatoes, hanging from the vines of a plant that grows several feet in height.

The skin is glossy and deep purple in colour, while the flesh is cream coloured and spongy in consistency. Contained within the flesh are seeds arranged in a conical pattern. In many recipes, melongene fulfills the role of being a complementary ingredient that balances the surrounding flavours of the other more pronounced ingredients.

The ancient ancestors of melongene grew wild in India and were first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. Melongene was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then into Italy, the country with which it has long been associated, in the 14th century. It subsequently spread throughout Europe and the Middle East and, centuries later, was brought to the Western Hemisphere by European explorers.

Although it has a long and rich history, melongene did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines. As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties, it seems that people also felt that it had a bitter disposition—melongene held the undeserved and inauspicious reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer.

For centuries after its introduction into Europe, melongene was used more as a decorative garden plant than as a food. Not until new varieties were developed in the 18th century, did melongene lose its bitter taste and bitter reputation, and take its now esteemed place in the cuisines of many European countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey and France.

When shopping for melongene, choose the ones that are firm and heavy for their size. Their skin should be smooth and shiny, and their colour should be vivid. They should be free of discolouration, scars, and bruises, which usually indicate that the flesh beneath has become damaged and possibly decayed.

The stem and cap, on either end of the melongene, should be bright green in colour. To test for the ripeness of a melongene, gently press the skin with the pad of your thumb. If it springs back, the melongene is ripe, while if an indentation remains, it is not.

Although they look hardy, melongenes are actually very perishable and care should be taken in their storage. Melongenes are sensitive to both heat and cold and should ideally be stored at around 50 degrees Farenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Do not cut melongene before you store it as it perishes quickly once its skin has been punctured or its inner flesh exposed.

Place uncut and unwashed melongene in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator crisper where it will keep for a few days. If it is too large for the crisper, do not try to force it in; this will damage the skin and cause the melongene to spoil and decay. Instead, place it on a shelf within the refrigerator. If you purchase melongene that is wrapped in plastic film, remove it as soon as possible since it will inhibit the melongene from breathing and degrade its freshness.

When cutting a melongenes, use a stainless steel knife as carbon steel will react with its phytonutrients and cause it to turn black. Wash the melongene first and then cut off the ends.

Most melongene can be eaten either with or without their skin. To remove skin, you can peel it before cutting or if you are baking it, you can scoop out the flesh once it is cooked.

To tenderise the flesh's texture and reduce some of its naturally occurring bitter taste, you can sweat the melongene by salting it. After cutting the melongene into the desired size and shape, sprinkle it with salt and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes. This process will pull out some of its water content and make it less permeable to absorbing any oil used in cooking. Rinsing the melongene after “sweating” will remove most of the salt.

Melongene can be baked, roasted in the oven, or steamed. If baking it whole, pierce the melogene several times with a fork to make small holes for the steam to escape. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (about 177 degrees Celsius) for 15 to 25 minutes, depending upon size. You can test for its readiness by gently inserting a knife or fork to see if it passes through easily.

There are many ways to prepare this vegetable, including purée roasted melongene, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. Use it as a dip for vegetables or as a sandwich filling.

Mix cubed baked melongene with grilled peppers, lentils, onions and garlic and top with balsamic vinaigrette. Stuff miniature melongene with a mixture of feta cheese, pine nuts and roasted peppers.

Add melongene to your next curry stir-fry.

Here are sone other delicious ways to prepare melongene

Melongene Lasagna

1 1/2 pounds melongene, thinly sliced

vegetable spray

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

16 ounces sliced mushrooms

9 lasagna noodles

1 jar (16 ounces) spaghetti sauce with vegetables

8 ounces ricotta cheese, part-skim

4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In large nonstick skillet sprayed with vegetable spray, quickly brown melongene slices; set aside. In the same skillet in hot olive oil, cook onion for about 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until tender. Add mushrooms; cook, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes or until mushrooms are tender. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling salted water according to package directions. Into an 11x7-inch baking dish, spoon about 1/4 of the sauce. Arrange three alternate layers of lasagna noodles, ricotta, mushroom mixture, mozzarella cheese, melongene slices, sauce and Parmesan cheese. Bake melongene lasagna at 350 for 30 to 40 minutes.

Creole Melongene

1 large melongene, peeled and sliced

3 tablespoons bacon grease or butter, divided

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup diced tomatoes

2 teaspoons salt

black pepper -- to taste

1 cup Cheddar cheese -- grated

1 cup bread crumbs, divided

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Boil melongene in water until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes; drain and mash. Put 2 tablespoons of bacon grease or butter into a large skillet; add chopped onion. Sauté onion until tender; add tomatoes, salt, and pepper; simmer for 5 minutes. Combine tomato mixture with melongene, cheese, 3/4 cup bread crumbs. Add baking powder to mixture. Spoon mixture into greased casserole. Sprinkle with remaining tablespoon of bacon grease or butter and remaining bread crumbs. Bake at 325 for 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 8.

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