Three Summery Dishes With Delectable Japanese Eggplant

Japanese eggplant is different from the kind that’s more common here, and can be used in a variety of tasty spreads, stews and antipasti

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Japanese eggplant.
Japanese eggplant.Credit: Matan Choufan

The eggplant is a somewhat controversial vegetable, because of its family – It belongs to the dubious nightshade family, along with the pepper and the tomato. Why dubious? Matan the gardener from the Yarok organic farm in Bnei Tzion offers an explanation: “Nature is egocentric; all it cares about is reproduction and the next generation. Before ripening, the seeds of the nightshade fruit are still not ready for insemination, and so the fruit is toxic. As soon as the seeds are ready, the fruit receives an order to ripen: Its color turns bold (the tomato goes from green to red, for example), drastically reduces its level of toxin and becomes tastier. Basically, it signals to creatures to come and eat it.”

A ripe eggplant also changes color, to yellow. But it also becomes very bitter, which is why we eat it before it has totally ripened, and when it still has a certain amount of toxins in it. Matan believes these toxins must contribute somehow to our nutrition. Otherwise, he says, the eggplant would not be such a common ingredient in so many different cuisines.

Naturally, there are numerous varieties of eggplant. One of them is the Japanese eggplant – a long, slender version compared to the local type we’re familiar with. “Like many other ingredients in Japanese cuisine, the Japanese eggplant was often pickled. Here in Israel we put it on the fire when it is raw and fresh,” says Matan. But whether you’re roasting, baking or boiling it, because of its very delicate taste and very thin skin, cooking time for the Japanese eggplant is shorter than for the local variety.

Like other plants with small fruits, this is a very strong plant, hardy and less susceptible to disease. The eggplant originated in tropical regions, and so is considered a perennial. In Israel, it is a summer crop, at least the ones that are grown naturally, rather than in hothouses, because the eggplant does not do well in winter.

Japanese eggplant.
Japanese eggplant.Credit: Matan Choufan

Creamed Japanese eggplant

This long, slender eggplant is less fleshy than the type that is more common here. With this in mind, I toasted the Japanese eggplants over the fire to obtain a more dominant smoky flavor.

Ingredients (makes 250 ml):

3 Japanese eggplants (450 gr)

½ cup blanched almonds

2 peeled garlic cloves

½ tsp miso

1 tsp black pepper

4 tbsp olive oil

Rinse the eggplants and pat dry. Puncture them all over with a fork (to keep them from bursting during roasting). Hold them over a gas burner or place on the grill (or in the oven using the grill setting) and toast until nicely browned on all sides. Meanwhile, in a food processor, grind the almonds very fine. Add the peeled garlic cloves and keep processing until a very coarse, moist paste is obtained. When the eggplants are toasted, put them, unpeeled, into a food processor along with the miso and black pepper. Process until smooth and gradually add the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings. You can add a little salt or miso if needed. If you like tart flavors, you can also gradually add some freshly squeezed lemon juice or – even better – lime juice. Transfer to a jar, top off with olive oil and seal well. It’s delicious in sandwiches, to accompany vegetables, or just spread on bread.

Antipasti with 
oregano pesto.
Antipasti with 
oregano pesto.Credit: Matan Choufan

Antipasti with oregano pesto

At some farms around the country, you can find special species of potatoes and pumpkins that are also at the peak of their season. Ratte potatoes, which are small and very dry, have become quite well known here. The Japanese pumpkin is also gaining popularity, and is just wonderful when baked in the oven: It comes out soft and creamy and can be eaten together with the skin. Combined with the Japanese eggplant, it makes a hearty, delicious dish.

Ingredients (serves four):

1/3 cup olive oil

4-5 Japanese eggplants

1 Japanese pumpkin

5 Ratte potatoes

3 garlic cloves

2-3 sprigs sage

a pinch of sea salt 

coarsely ground black pepper

For the pesto:

½ cup oregano leaves

10 sprigs parsley

½ cup pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, peeled

a pinch of salt and pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius. Pour the olive oil into a baking pan. Rinse the eggplant, trim the tops, slice lengthwise and place in the pan. Rinse the Japanese pumpkin (without peeling). Cut in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Cut into slices and place in the pan. Rinse the potatoes well (also without peeling), cut in half lengthwise and place in the pan. Gently mix the vegetables in the pan so that they are all coated with the olive oil. It’s best to arrange the potatoes and eggplant with the cut sides face down. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, the sage and the garlic cloves (unpeeled, to keep them from burning and turning bitter). Cover the pan with tin foil and bake for about an hour, or until the pumpkin and potatoes have softened. Remove the tin foil, turn the oven to the grill setting, raise the temperature to 200 degrees Celsius, and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Since the eggplants take less time to soften, another option is to sear them separately in a grill pan with olive oil, salt and pepper, and only cook the pumpkin and potatoes in the oven.

To make the pesto: Rinse the oregano and parsley well. Place in a food processor with the other ingredients, except for the olive oil. Process till fine and then gradually add the olive oil. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Transfer to a jar, top off with a layer of olive oil and seal well.

Serve the roasted vegetables with the pesto oregano on the side. Other dips like tahini can also be added.

Chicken with mangold, Japanese eggplant 
and mushrooms
Chicken with mangold, Japanese eggplant 
and mushroomsCredit: Matan Choufan

Chicken with mangold, Japanese eggplant and mushrooms

This dish is inspired by the Tunisian pkaila or the Libyan tabcha b’selek, in which before the main part of the dish (which includes beef and beans), you make a confit from spinach or beet greens. Here I combine mangold with chicken and Japanese eggplant. The long, slow cooking causes the eggplant to nearly dissolve into the sauce, and at the end you add king oyster mushrooms, which turn golden.

Ingredients (serves four):

About a dozen mangold leaves

½ cup olive oil

3 Japanese eggplants

a pinch of salt and black pepper

5 chicken legs (divided into

thighs and drumsticks)

½ cup water

3 garlic cloves, peeled

½ red chili pepper

4-5 king oyster mushrooms

Rinse mangold well and chop fine. Place in a wide, shallow oven-proof pan and pour in the oil. You want the oil to almost cover the chopped mangold, so add some more olive or canola oil if needed. (Not to worry, not all the oil is used in the dish.) Place the pan on low heat and simmer until the confit dries and darkens a little (at least 15 minutes). Meanwhile, rinse the eggplants, trim the tops and cut into 1-2 cm slices.

Drain and set aside the excess oil and put the mangold back in the pan over medium heat. Add 4-5 tbsp of the drained oil and the eggplant slices. (Store the remaining nicely seasoned oil for future use.) Sear the eggplant, stirring occasionally. After five minutes, add the chicken parts, skin side down. Brown for about five minutes, season with salt and pepper and then pour in the water.

Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer for at least an hour. Turn the chicken over so the skin faces up. Mince garlic and chili pepper, thinly slice the mushrooms lengthwise and add to the pan (between the chicken pieces). Simmer for another half an hour. Heat oven to 200 degrees Celsius on the grill setting. Place the pan in the oven and cook until the chicken and mushrooms are golden brown. Place the pan in the center of the table and serve.