Brussels sprouts, squash and sweet potatoes might get all the Thanksgiving side dish attention this time of year, but in Southern California we're lucky enough to have eggplant season continue throughout the month of November. There are a number of unusual varieties that can make for creative additions to your holiday table, particularly if you've got vegetarians to feed.
We discovered several types of eggplants this week at Mr. Thao's Farm stand at the Encino Farmers Market. The Fresno farmer grows what most Americans think of as the traditional oblong and dark purple fruit, as well as the slender and sweet Japanese eggplant, an even thinner variety sometimes known by the decidedly unappetizing moniker "little fingers." Thao also has a green and ivory apple-sized version known as Thai eggplant, and a similarly shaped version, sometimes called an Indian eggplant, with a hue that may only be described as grape-drink-colored.
At John Givens Farm in Goleta, there is a lavender- and white-striped fruit known in some parts as a graffiti eggplant. (NB: for every variety of eggplant -- and there are many -- there exist many competing names, depending on location, language, cuisine, etc.)
It is these smaller varieties to which the English term "eggplant" likely owes its name. When Europeans of the eighteenth century encountered the small white fruit in south Asia, they called it "egg-plant" because it resembled goose or chicken eggs.
Of course by the time the English had come up with this name, the fruit was already a staple of many Asian diets, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. In the west, something resembling the beloved staple of Italian (and Italian-American) cuisine, eggplant parmesan -- or Parmigiana di melanzane -- was first mentioned in print in the 14th century.
So this year we suggest that besides stuffing and roasting a turkey, try one of the smaller
eggplant varieties available locally as a 'stuffed' vegetarian alternative. The mid-size rounder versions can stand upright (more or less); Simply cut off the top of the eggplant, reserving the usable meat from the tip, carve out most of the inside of the fruit and sauté all of that eggplant "meat" in olive oil while roasting the eggplant "shells" in a casserole dish in a hot oven (you may need to cut a small slice off the bottom of each eggplant so they sit flat). Add tomato sauce, fresh cut basil, seasonings, breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and mozzarella to the eggplant mixture and use this to refill the cooked eggplant before topping with extra breadcrumbs, grated cheese, and minced Italian parsley. Bake in a moderate oven until a crust forms, about 12-15 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplants. Your Thanksgiving side dishes will never be the same, and the carnivores at your table might even get jealous.