Foodie: The beauty of eggplant

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Foodie: The beauty of eggplant
Eggplant parmigiana Italian style (Courtesy Photo)
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By Elizabeth Holm

I have a husband who hates parmesan cheese. So, I was thrilled to discover that traditional Italian dishes, like eggplant parmigiana, taste fabulous without it. Eggplants, like tomatoes, are actually fruits that grow hanging from a vine. They are available fresh from Virginia farms and gardens through September, so this is the perfect month for a dish we associate with cooler weather. A simple combination of eggplant, mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce creates a meal that is both healthy and delicious.

Let’s first talk about what makes it healthy. Eggplant is a good source of fiber, B vitamins, and copper. It also contains numerous antioxidants that naturally protect the plants from disease and bacterial infection. When we eat eggplant, these antioxidants scavenge free radicals and protect our cells from damage that can lead to cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In particular, they prevent the oxidation of lipids or fats.
One antioxidant, nasunin, is found in the skin of dark purple eggplants. It has been shown in studies to protect the brain cells of rats. Our brains are made up primarily of lipids or fat. In fact, one reason we need an adequate intake of dietary fat is to nourish our brains.

The lipids in our brains are involved in transmitting messages via neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. However, these lipids are easily damaged by chemical reactions in the brain that involve oxygen. Nasunin appears to protect the membranes of brain cells, which may help prevent disease and allow our brains to
function optimally.

Eggplant is most delectable when in season. Storebought eggplant needs to be salted, allowed to sweat and then rinsed before cooking
to extract its bitter juices, but that is unnecessary with young eggplant fresh from the farmer’s market or picked from the garden.

I use a variety of eggplants including purple, lavender, egg-shaped and elongated. All are slightly different in taste and texture. Their mildly pungent flavors are perfect when combined with a sweet, freshly made basil tomato sauce.

The meaty consistency of eggplant along with the gooey texture of fresh mozzarella creates a dish that is substantial, hearty and warms the soul. Serve it with fresh pasta, a green salad and a bowl of grated, fresh parmesan cheese — for those who like it.

Recipe – Italian style eggplant parmigiana

Ingredients

1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
4 cups skinned, chopped fresh
tomatoes
6 ounces tomato paste
Fresh basil leaves, chopped
Olive oil
2 pounds eggplant, sliced ¼ inch
thick
1 pound shredded fresh mozzarella
Fresh oregano leaves, chopped

Directions

1. Sauté chopped onion and garlic in 2 T olive oil. Add chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and ¼ cup chopped basil. Simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Fill a cast iron skillet with ½ inch olive oil and heat over high heat. Fry the eggplant slices until browned on both sides. Add additional oil if necessary.
Place the fried eggplant on paper towels.
3. Place a layer of eggplant slices in a 6-cup baking dish. Add tomato sauce, followed by shredded mozzarella, oregano leaves and basil leaves 4. Repeat the layers of the eggplant, tomato sauce, cheese, oregano and basil.
Leave the oregano and basil off the final layer.
5. Bake the eggplant parmigiana at 400 degrees F until bubbling, about 20 minutes.
Let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle the top with oregano leaves and serve.

Elizabeth Holm is a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice in Alexandria. She can be reached at
[email protected].

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