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Original Issue

Purple perfection

In many countries there are magical ways to prepare eggplant. Here's one of the best

One glance at the purple harvest at the right is enough to set me to scheming of marvelous dishes that, in the next few days, I shall either cook for myself or prevail upon Judith to alchemize into being. For eggplant rates so high with us that we have had to stake out separate claims; there are just too many ways to prepare it for a single person to assume responsibility for them all.

This handsome vegetable, now in full supply in the summer markets, is one of extraordinary versatility. Since remote antiquity there have been garden plots in India in which the bushy, scurfy plants have brought forth their delicate violet flowers. The fruit has developed through recent centuries from large white ovate berries that gave it its English name to the larger, magnificently purple forms we know today. Its cultivation has spread throughout the world, but it is along the shores of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean that good cooks have made the most of it.

My first taste of egg-and-eggplant curry was in a village south of Saigon, and the chef was a half-French, half-Indo-Chinese soldier. His skill was such that I couldn't accept immediately his assertion that he had used eggplant as a substitute for meat. Since then I've found Italian specialists who perform the same deception by using this miraculous vegetable in spaghetti sauce—or sautéing it as a cutlet sandwiched within succulent layers of tomato and Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

Eggplant is equally good served hot or cold. When Judith makes ratatouille, that ambrosiac vegetable ragout evolved from the sun-drenched gardens of the south of France, she doubles the recipe to insure there being enough for a salad course the following day. My specialty on the cold-dish side is a mélange of cooked eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oil and vinegar that is everyday fare in such places as Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon and is sometimes known as imam bayildi (the swooning priest). Eggplant has a wonderful capacity for combining with other vegetables, especially tomatoes, pimientos and green peppers.

There are a few tricks helpful to the preparation of eggplant in any fashion. Because it contains a high percentage of water, unwary cooks frequently find that sautéing or deep-fat frying results in sogginess. One way to avoid this is to draw out the water before cooking by salting the slices and putting them under a weight for at least 30 minutes. Another secret is to use oil instead of butter or drippings. Have the oil spitting hot when sautéing; in deep frying, bring the temperature up to 390°.

It is impossible to be fair in singling out recipes that best represent eggplant. At a dinner party in May a Rumanian couple converted us to a Balkan dish called ghiveciu in which are combined carrots, eggplant, peas, lima beans, green beans, green peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, summer squash, celery root, tomatoes, seedless grapes, onions and stock. It is—to say the least—memorable. A visitor to Sicily brought us back a recipe for eggplant relish called caponata alla siciliana, a gallimaufry of eggplant, celery, tomatoes, capers, olives and wine vinegar. There is a fine Indian eggplant chutney, too, and a Middle Eastern purée to be served as an hors d'oeuvre on bread. But because we have to begin somewhere, here is a Turkish invention called moussaka, which combines eggplant with ground lamb. The recipe given below is a particularly delectable version of a staple dish found in many variants throughout the eastern Mediterranean world.

MOUSSAKA (serves six)

2 pounds lamb, ground (leftover meat will do)
2 medium-sized eggplants
3 medium onions, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup water
1 cup milk
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt, black pepper

Peel the eggplants; cut them in slices about ¼ inch thick, and press out the water as explained above.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy skillet and add the ground lamb. Season with salt and cayenne pepper. Brown slowly over a low flame. Mix in the chopped onions and cook slowly for 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook for another 5 minutes; then add parsley, garlic and 1 cup water. Cover and simmer for 1 hour (40 minutes if leftover lamb is used).

Make a white sauce by melting 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan, adding the flour and stirring until well blended. Heat the milk and pour in slowly, stirring constantly. Bring to boiling point and boil for 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper and cook for 15 minutes in a double boiler. Set aside to cool.

Sauté the eggplant slices in olive oil until they are golden. Oil a baking dish and put in three layers of eggplant slices. Sprinkle them with 1 tablespoon of grated cheese. Cover with the cooked lamb, then the rest of the eggplant slices and cheese. Pour the white sauce over the mixture and cook at 350° for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow the dish to "set" for about 20 minutes before serving.