Is eggplant looking a little scrawny to you this season? Don’t worry, it’s supposed to look like that.
That’s because it’s Japanese eggplant, which is becoming increasingly common at farmers’ markets and is typically longer, thinner and a bit more corkscrew-shaped than the eggplant you may be used to. And while it may look strange, it still shares the same nutritional benefits that have made the purple plant a popular mealtime choice.
The food: It’s cooked like a vegetable, but eggplant is actually a fruit (it’s part of the same nightshade family that includes the other confusing is-it-a-fruit-or-a-vegetable plant, the tomato). In the U.S., eggplant tends to appear mostly in Italian or Mediterranean dishes, but Southern and Southeast Asian cuisines have long incorporated the fruit as well. Japanese eggplant is noticeably less plump than its more familiar pear-shaped cousin, and it’s in season from July to October.
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The trend: Eggplant is valued for the variety of ways it can be cooked, and Japanese eggplant is even more versatile because it has a much thinner skin and is practically seedless. The sponginess of its fleshy inside drinks in seasonings like soy sauce, miso and ginger.
The nutrients: Raw eggplant is very low in calories, saturated fat and sodium, with only 20 calories per cup. It’s a high source of dietary fiber and is packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, folate, potassium and manganese. “Leave the skin on this vegetable because it will add fiber to your diet, causing you to remain full for longer periods of time while regulating your digestive system,” says Tracy Lockwood, a registered dietitian at F-Factor Nutrition.
Along with other nightshade plants like bell peppers and potatoes, Japanese eggplants also contain antioxidants like nasunin, which is thought to protect cell membranes in the brain.
The preparation: When it comes to picking the right Japanese eggplant — and storing it correctly — there are a couple of things to keep in mind. If you’re grabbing a few from a farmers’ market, it’s likely that they were picked In the past 24 hours, so the stems should be firm and rough. But be careful: any leaves remaining on the stems are covered in small thorns. Japanese eggplant doesn’t have the same shelf life as other eggplant varieties, so use it soon after purchasing. If it feels firm when you buy it, you can keep it in your fridge for about a week.
And here’s an advantage of the Japanese variety: its thin skin doesn’t need to be peeled. There are many ways to cook it — try grilling, sautéing or baking thin slices. But the way you cook eggplant — and what you add to give it flavor — can change its nutritional profile. (See recipe below.) “Obviously, fried would not be my first choice,” says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet. “And if cooked with a lot of soy sauce, the sodium content will increase greatly.”
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The taste: Japanese eggplant is milder and less bitter than other varieties. Since it’s extra spongy, don’t overdo the marinades — a little goes a long way. “Because it’s very absorbent, sautéing with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar instead of olive oil can save your nearly 200 calories,” advises Lockwood.
The takeaway: While it’s in season, Japanese eggplant can be a tasty and versatile addition to a light summer meal, and its smaller size makes it easier to experiment with different cooking and seasoning techniques. We’re already big fans of eggplant — we named it one of the healthiest foods to eat. Don’t believe us? Try the recipe below for eggplant pizza from Janet Brill, a registered dietitian and fitness and nutrition expert.
Recipe: Mia’s Whole-Grain Pizza With Arugula, Eggplant and Caramelized Onion
Yield: 16 slices
This recipe makes two 12-in. pizzas. One pound of store-bought whole-wheat pizza dough made with olive oil can be substituted for homemade dough if desired. If King Arthur Flour is not available in your area, substitute 1 cup whole-wheat flour mixed with 1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour.
2¾ cups King Arthur white whole-wheat flour
2 tbsp. quick-rise yeast
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup warm water (105°–115°F)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp. honey
In a food processor fitted with plastic blade, blend the flour, yeast and salt. In a 2-cup measuring cup, combine the water, olive oil and honey. With the food processor running, add the water-oil mixture and blend until the flour forms a ball of dough. Process for one minute to knead the dough. The dough will be a bit sticky; if it’s too wet, add up to ½ cup more flour. Spray a bowl with nonstick cooking spray. Put the dough into the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about one hour, until the dough doubles in size.
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1¼ tsp. kosher salt, divided
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 8-oz. eggplant, cut into 1-in. cubes
5 oz. (about 4 cups) baby arugula
2 tsp. cornmeal, divided
2 tbsp. olive oil for brushing the crust, divided
¼ cup finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tbsp. olive oil. Add the onion, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl. In the same skillet, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil. Add the eggplant and salt and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes to soften the eggplant. Uncover and cook for two to three more minutes to remove any excess moisture. Remove to a bowl. In the same skillet, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil. Add arugula and cook, tossing the arugula until it is wilted. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
To assemble the pizzas, preheat the oven (and a baking stone if desired) to 425°F. Punch down the dough and divide into two pieces. Set on a lightly floured surface and cover with a towel to rest for five minutes. For each pizza, sprinkle a baking sheet with 1 tsp. cornmeal. Roll one piece of dough into a 12-in. circle and place on the prepared baking sheet. Brush dough with 1 tbsp. olive oil. Distribute ½ cup caramelized onions, ½ cup cooked eggplant and ¼ cup arugula on the dough. Sprinkle each with 2 tbsp. shredded cheese. Repeat with other piece of dough. Bake the pizzas for about 15 minutes until the crust is lightly browned. Cut each pizza into eight slices.
Nutrition per serving (1 slice of pizza):
Fat: 9 g (EPA 0 g, DHA 0 g, ALA <1 g)
Sodium: 335 mg
Carbohydrates: 18 g
Dietary fiber: 4 g
Sugars: 1 g
Protein: 4 g
Recipe excerpted from Prevent a Second Heart Attack by Janet Bond Brill (Three Rivers Press, February 2011). To learn more about this book, visit drjanet.com or preventasecondheartattack.com.