Eggplant (Solanum Melongena)
People have cultivated eggplant in east Asia for at least 1500 years, but it is a relative newcomer to the European and American diet. Like tomatoes and peppers, eggplant bears a striking resemblance to the toxic “deadly nightshade” plant, the natural source for a drug known as belladonna. Not surprisingly, Europeans found this resemblance a good reason to consume eggplant very cautiously. And consider the source – the Moors first introduced eggplant to the western world when Christian/Muslim relations were at an all time low. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Europeans adopted eggplant very slowly into their menus.
The Arabic name for eggplant, al bergine, mutated into “aubergine”, a lovely sounding word used by the French and by today’s color stylists who apparently prefer its sophisticated sound over “really dark purple. ” The Italians call it “melanzana”, and also use the word as a derogatory racial term. The English named the fruit eggplant because, until the 1800’s, it frequently appeared in its white , roundish form. John Gerard, writing in the 1590’s, observed that “the fruit is similar to a swan’s egg.” If you can imagine seeing plump white ovals peeking out from underneath their heavy leaves, you will understand why the British called this “eggplant.”
History has witnessed several food trends, from the ancient Romans’ stuffed mice to today’s Peruvian quinoa, and eggplant had its own moment in the sun. Louis XIV, France’s illustrious “Sun King”, became quite fond of eggplant, which he grew in the royal potager, igniting a passion for “aubergine” among his young, fashionable courtiers at Versailles in the 1600’s.
Thomas Jefferson represents America’s pre-eminent early adapter when it comes to food. He was always on the lookout for foreign products that could improve the diet of his compatriots. Landscape historian Peter Hatch, author of “ A Rich Spot of Earth:" Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden at Monticello , describes the remarkable terraced space that our third president—with the help of his capable enslaved workers - turned into a combination of botanical lab and gourmet food source at his Virginian home, Monticello . There, Jefferson grew both white and purple eggplants. No recipe for eggplant exists in the Monticello kitchen archives, but contemporaneous cookbooks offer two choices: breaded and fried, or stuffed and baked with seasoned minced meat.
Sarah Rutledge, the well-born author of The Carolina Housewife , lists eggplant with its other, Southern name, “guinea squash”, a label adopted since some sea traders encountered the fruit in the part of Africa known as Guinea. African born slaves introduced ingredients from their homelands into the diet of whites because so many cooks in the South were enslaved laborers.
Mary Randolph, a cousin of the Jefferson family, recommended frying eggplant slices a toasty brown after dipping them first in egg “yelks” and then bread crumbs. “Or slice lengthwise and remove seeds,” she writes, “and fill with a rich force meat.”
Inspired by Mrs Randolph’s instructions, I decided to stuff an eggplant with minced lamb using seasonings from the year 1800. The sliced, breaded option probably was more common, but I found two delectable, round eggplants at the Sag Harbor (NY) farmers market that begged to be filled with an interesting meat mixture. I chose not to use a garlicky tomato sauce, which would introduce an Italian or Greek flavorings. I stayed with the more traditional flavorings that might have been a bit old fashioned even in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Remember that you will need to start soaking the currants an hour or so before hand, or up to three days before in the fridge.
(Pictures: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello, white eggplants in a nest, my little round eggplants with a lime included for scale, parboiled eggplants, and steps)
Recipe: 18th Century Stuffed Eggplant
This recipe can be completed before baking and kept , covered , in the fridge for a day or two. Bring it to room temperature before baking. It is good hot or cold. The addition of the currants, cinnamon, and the nuts in a “made dish” hearken back to early colonial cooking.
5 tablespoons dried currants
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Two medium eggplants, sliced in half
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, plus 1 extra tablespoon if needed. Butter is more authentic thank cooking oil.
1 medium onion, minced
1 pound minced lamb
½ cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dried mint, crumbled
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup toasted sliced almonds, or toasted chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste
4-6 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced in half. You will have 8-12 short strips.
In a small bowl, soak currants in the red wine and vinegar for at least one hour. Par-boil the eggplants in water for about 5 minutes in a large pot . Oddly, this will turn their skin brown but don’t let that bother you. Cook book writers believed that this would reduce their bitterness. Remove from water and pat dry. (Optional: If you have an outdoor grill, preheat on high until it reaches 500. Spray eggplant cut surfaces with cooking spray. Place eggplants cut side down on the grill and sear well – about 3 minutes. Turn eggplants over and sear the skin side. Remove from grill. This will add a nice smoky taste but it’s not necessary.) Let cool.
Place eggplants cut side down on the grill and sear well – about 3 minutes. Turn eggplants over and sear the skin side. Remove from grill. This will add a nice smoky taste but it’s not necessary.) Let cool.
Put oil or butter in large frying pan. Add minced onions and let soften over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Add ground lamb, breaking up the clumps so that it cooks evenly, about 3 more minutes. Do not overcook or the lamb will dry out. Remove meat and onions from the pan and reserve in a medium bowl. Scoop the insides out of the parboiled eggplants, being careful not to break the skin. You want to have whole shells of eggplant skin. Place these shells in a baking pan. They can be very close together.
Chopped the eggplant pieces you have removed from inside of the eggplant. If there are parts that look particularly heavily seeded, discard these. Place eggplant pieces in the frying pan and brown quickly over medium, about 5 minutes, adding extra butter if needed. Add chicken stock. Bring to a boil and cover. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
Pour the lamb, onions, and the red wine and currants into the eggplant mixture and cook for 5 minutes. Add the herbs and other seasonings. Stir in the toasted nuts and mix well. Remove from heat.
Now stuff the eggplant shells with the lamb mixture. Lay one or two slices of raw bacon across the top of each stuffed eggplant. The bacon will add extra flavor in the oven.
Bake at 425 for 30 minutes.