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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 01:02 am

Taming the tricky eggplant

SheÂ’s a real looker, but be careful or sheÂ’ll taste like cardboard

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Of the seemingly infinite possibilities at summer produce stands, the eggplant is among the trickiest. She’s a real looker, all right, showing off her shiny, buxom bosom that comes in shades of majestic purple, light green, or ecru. “It’s so gorgeous, I just have to get one,” is a line I’ve heard at the farmers’ market countless times about the eggplant.

The problem with this culinary eye candy is what to do with her once you get her home. Her skin? As alluring and antioxidant-rich as it may be, it can also be thick and tough to chew.

The inner workings of the eggplant pose kitchen conundrums as well. Its seed-laden, fibrous flesh should never be eaten raw, but, when cooked, it acts like a sponge on steroids, absorbing more oil than imaginable. And then there’s the legendary debate over salting eggplant as an antidote to its rumored bitterness. (Don’t bother, in my humble opinion.)

Even when it’s time to cook, eggplant continues to frustrate; it absolutely must be fork-tender (or beyond) to be palatable. Anything less, and it tastes like cardboard.

With so many hurdles to jump, I had nearly given up on eggplant, and then I found a recipe that brought about a change in heart. The key is a marinade flavor injection and a heady Mediterranean-style salad of feta, olives, and roasted red pepper that marries beautifully with our new pal, the ever-cantankerous eggplant.

Grilled Eggplant Steak with Feta Salad

Adapted from Nora Pouillon’s recipe as it appears in Hope’s Edge,
by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé

Ingredients for the tamari-balsamic marinade
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce (a low-wheat Japanese soy sauce; if unavailable, another kind of soy sauce is acceptable)
Three cloves of garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil

Ingredients for the salad
One medium red bell pepper
One large eggplant or three smaller Italian or Japanese eggplants (about 1 pound)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves or flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Four slices of pita bread

Instructions
Prepare grill (or broiler). In a small bowl, whisk vinegar together with tamari, garlic, and oil. Taste, then add salt and pepper, if needed.

With a knife, remove the top of the bell pepper and the inside seeds. Grill until the skin blisters and chars. Place in a closed paper or plastic bag for 10 minutes, allowing the steam to loosen the skin. Remove the skin (you can place the pepper under running water to assist in removal, if needed). Cut into dice and set aside.

Cut eggplant lengthwise into four slices about a half-inch thick, resembling steaks. Place in a 9-by-13-inch glass dish. Pour marinade over eggplant and marinate for about 15 minutes, turning occasionally. With tongs, remove the eggplant from the marinade and grill for two to five minutes on each side, until fork-tender.

In a mixing bowl, place diced pepper, feta, olives, and oregano, stirring to combine. Pour leftover eggplant marinade into mixture and stir.

Toast or grill pita bread and slice it into wedges.

To assemble, place the pita bread on a plate, topping it with an eggplant steak. Spoon the feta salad on top of the eggplant.

Makes four servings.

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