(Nov. 5, 2015) – In my spare time I like to write about vegetables. Here’s my ode to eggplant – and the business of eggplant – which can also be seen in the current issue of Produce Business magazine.
“I lived on eggplant, the stove top cook’s strongest ally. I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crisp and sludgy, hot and cold. It was cheap and filling and was delicious in all manner of strange combinations. If any was left over, I ate it cold the next day on bread.” – Food writer Laurie Colwin
Cracking the ‘egg’
Rising demand for meatless, health-focused fare sparks a foodservice rediscovery of eggplant
By John Lehndorff
Eggplant is one of the most broadly used produce items across the globe. It’s the essential ingredient in comfort classics from smoky Mediterranean baba ghanoush and moussaka casserole to Chinese eggplant in garlic sauce and Indian baingan bharta. Ratatouille, the French eggplant and squash dish, melted a cranky critic’s heart in the famous animated film. It’s not exaggerating to say that eggplant is beloved in many cuisines.
In the U.S., not so much.
“Eggplant is only consumed by about 25 percent of the U.S. population,” said Veronica Kraushaar of Viva International Partners. She is a marketing consultant for Rio Rico AZ-based Malena Produce, the largest distributor of eggplant in the United States. In the past much of that crop involved variations on one dish: Italian-American eggplant Parmesan.
The mysterious berry that is cooked like a vegetable seems to spark anxiety in many American kitchens. Is it because eggplant can be spongey or bitter if prepared improperly, or that it’s the rare ingredient that may have to be salted and drained in order to be cooked?
The leading eggplant indicators
Malena Produce, the category king in eggplant for decades, commissioned Kraushaar to study available data on eggplant uses and users in the U.S. “We took Nielsen data for three years and defined the core consumers and new opportunities for fresh eggplant,” she said.
If you looking for the folks who eat the most eggplant, start with families with kids at home, have a higher education level, are 40 to 49 years old and have a household income of about $100,000, according to the study. While consumption of eggplant in the U.S. remained flat for the three years, other regions of the country gained a larger share from the traditionally dominant Northeast.
While the majority of the fresh harvest is the familiar large, dark purple American and Italian eggplant, chefs and consumers are discovering other varieties, just as they learned that not all mushrooms were white and not all onions were yellow.
“Those specialty eggplant (including Chinese, Japanese and Indian varieties) are the fastest growing part of the category. We think one reason is that they cook so much faster and are easier to use because the skin is eaten. The texture is much creamier and the skin adds some crunch when you fry it,” Kraushaar said.
Finding eggplant a place on the menu
Responding to the rising demand for good-for-me fare, foodservice establishments from fast food to fine dining are rediscovering eggplant. Nutritionally, eggplant is low in fat, protein, calories and carbohydrates but one cup of skin and flesh provides 10 percent of daily fiber needs.
Fast food giant Panda Express of Rosemead CA features Eggplant Tofu on its regional specialties menu with tofu, eggplant and red bell peppers wok-fried in a sweet and spicy sauce. Colorado-based Garbanzo Fresh Mediterranean has 24 locations that dish salads and wraps with baba ganoush and many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
“Eggplant was considered to be a lower class food in the past. They called it ‘poor people’s meat,” said Eugenia Bone, James Beard Award-nominated author of “The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals” (Clarkson Potter). The recently published volume encourages cooks to buy and use whole produce items.
“The lowly eggplant is having something of a renaissance. Elegant restaurants are serving more vegetarian dishes and I’ve seen eggplant dishes on more menus than ever in New York,” Bone said, noting that some of the hottest restaurants are dishing eggplant-centric southern Italian and Sicilian fare.
“We have absolutely seen more demand for eggplant from customers in the last four or five years,” said chef Fabio Trabocchi, owner of three busy Washington D.C. eateries: Fiola, Casa Luca and Fiola Mare. “For Italians it is second nature to have eggplant on the menu. I grew up with eggplant marinated in olive oil, garlic, basil and salt and cooked on a wood-fired grill,” he said.
Eggplant appears in many guises at Trabocchi’s restaurants. “Of course, there is the classic eggplant Parmigiana, and we also serve simply grilled slices rolled with smoked mozzarella,” he said. Other favorites include a smooth eggplant gazpacho and confit eggplant: that’s diced, cooked and preserved in olive oil with garlic and basil.
‘Take a look at Chinese eggs’
For growers and distributors there has been a significant change in the availability of eggplant. “Eggplant used to be a very seasonal crop but now, with crops coming from Mexico and California, it’s available 52 weeks a year,” said Chris Ciruli of Ciruli Bros., a produce distributor based in Tubac AZ.
“Overall our sales of eggplant are up a little in the past year. Sales of Italian and American ‘eggs’ have been stagnant or decreasing, but sales of Asian varieties are up,” Ciruli said.
Besides addressing dietary and environmental concerns, the “meatless Monday” movement also has an economic motivation given price jumps for beef and other proteins, Ciruli said. That also helps to explain increasing sales of the Asian varieties.
“Take a look at Chinese ‘eggs.’ Pound for pound they are cheaper than Italian eggplant,” Ciruli said, adding that they are an attractive product for both smaller households and restaurants for fast-cooking meals.
“When you cut into one of the larger eggplants you need to prepare and cook the whole thing fairly quickly before it browns. The little ones can be used as is,” he said.
Ciruli said he had seen many more heirloom varieties of various sizes and colors available at farmers markets in California this year with evocative varietal names such as Brazilian Oval Orange, Italian White, Striped Toga and Rosita. In foodservice, heirlooms are mainly served at white tablecloth places.
Circuli said fresh eggplant is on the rise in foodservice, especially in Asian eateries. “In the past a lot of foodservice has used frozen, processed entrees or dips,” he said. Among the dishes he found on menus recently was a Caprese-style salad with grilled eggplant replacing the tomato slices plus fresh mozzarella, olive oil and basil.
“I’ve also seen ratatouille using whole Indian or Japanese eggs with the calex on which makes a nice presentation,” Ciruli said.
Most of the eggplant that Bay Area Produce in Rio Rico, AZ ships is the Italian variety which is favored by cooks who need evenly sized rounds. “I see a whole lot more eggplant getting grilled at restaurants now than 10 years ago,” said John Meek, general manager of Bay Area Produce.
“Over the last few years we’ve seen a definite increase in eggplant demand. The heaviest is still on the East Coast, not so much in the Midwest. In the Western U.S., Japanese eggplant has taken off pretty good,” he said. Meek noted that increasing appeal of the smaller sized varieties. “I’m shipping a lot of 24s (number per box) and more 36s, the baby eggplants,” he said.
How to cook an ‘egg’
Education and awareness are essential in order to introduce the other 75 percent of the dining populace to the pleasures of the eggplant.
“A lot of cooks just don’t know what to do with an eggplant because they didn’t grow up with it,” said Chris Ciruli. A few years ago eggplant growers launched the ILoveEggplant.com website with information and chefs’ recipes, he said.
Cookbook author Eugenia Bone said that the simple secret of working with American and Italian varieties is brining but it’s not necessarily about removing bitterness. “Eggplant can function like a sponge that will absorb oil without actually cooking. Brining or salting beforehand helps prevent that,” Bone said.
D.C. chef Fabio Trabocchi cooks with varieties that range from standard Italian eggplant to heirloom. “Once we get them in the kitchen at the texture and taste to see what they are best for. Some are soft and made into purees. The meaty ones are better grilled,” he said.
Eggplant goes back to school
For those who haven’t dined at a college cafeteria recently, university foodservice operations long ago left the realm of “mystery meat” and are on the cutting edge of produce trends. Given a mandate to serve students and staff healthier and more sustainable menu options, eggplant has become one of the go-to ingredients. One example is the Szechuan eggplant dished in the dining halls at Northeastern University in Boston MA. Asian eggplant is quickly cooked with hoisin sauce, Thai basil, chile paste, garlic and green onions and served with rice noodles.
The 2015 Menus of Change conference co-sponsored by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health took place in June at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY. The conference focused on a “plant-forward diet” opened with a slider tasting featuring a Moroccan Lamb-Eggplant Burger with mint yogurt and caramelized peppers and onions, Nation’s Restaurant News reported.
While the eggplant Parm grinder will always be on the menu to fill up college students, change is coming fast to a foodservice outlet near you, said Veronica Kraushaar of Viva International Partners.
“Millennials are the future eggplant consumers. They have been much more exposed to ethnic cooking at home and restaurants and they’re well-travelled and more open-minded flavor-wise than their parents,” she said.
So whether it in the form of eggplant eggs Benedict, caponata croutons or eggplant-flavored yogurt, “the question is: How can you be more creative with eggplant and make it a center of the plate item?” Kraushaar said.
Eggplant dip: The next hummus
Looking to the future, experts said that opportunities exist to grow the size of the eggplant consuming audience.
- Expect organic eggplant’s 25 percent share of the fresh market to grow versus conventional
- Eggplant could be branded to help give it national or regional visibility.
- Improving packaging and display practices pioneered in part by Malena Produce will extend the shelf life of eggplant and prevent waste.
- Eggplant “flour,” pulverized dehydrated eggplant, may replace flour in some gluten-free baking mixes and as a savory coating option for fried chicken and fried eggplant.
- Don’t be too surprised if eggplant-based dips such as eggplant “caviar,” baba ganoush and mirza ghasemi become the next hummus when that bean dip’s novelty appeal wears thin.
Colorado-based John Lehndorff grew up in Massachusetts eating eggplant Parmesan on Friday nights. He writes for food publications including Cheese Connoisseur and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM: news.kgnu.org
EGGPLANT ON THE MENU
- Eggplant fries: Breaded and fried eggplant wedges – Cottage Restaurant (Plainville CT)
- Tofu and Eggplant Sandwich: Among Restaurant Hospitality magazine’s Best Sandwiches in America 2015 – Trentina Restaurant, Cleveland OH
- Banh mi salad: Glazed organic tofu with charred eggplant, pickled carrots, white cabbage, jalapenos, basil and marinated kale – Veggie Grill (Santa Monica CA-based, 26-location fast-casual chain)
- The Bosporus Burger: Angus beef patty on a bun with eggplant salad, haydari (yogurt) sauce and pickles – Hard Rock Café (chain based in Orlando FL)
EGGPLANT: By the numbers
- 98 percent: Amount of eggplant sold fresh. Two percent is used in frozen entrees such as eggplant Parmesan or processed for ready-to-eat dips
- 17 percent: Amount of eggplant acreage decline from 2007 to 2012
- 20,000 pounds: Average eggplant yield per acre
- 156.3 million pounds: Amount of eggplant harvested on more than 3,400 farms in 2012, an increase of over 560 farms since 2007
- .9 pounds: Amount of eggplant consumed per capita in 2012
- Sources: 2012 Census of Agriculture; agmrc.org/commodities__products/vegetables/eggplants/ meatlessmonday.com
Know your solanum melongena: eggplant varieties
- Italian: Smaller and more oval shapes than the regular / classic varieties, it is a deep shade of mauve-purple with some light streaking on the skin and green calyx.
- Japanese: A small, elongated fruit with smooth, thin, light purple skin and a dark purple calyx.
- Heirloom: A wide range of sizes, colors and textures are available among the eggplant varieties. For instance, Violetta di Firenze is dark purple to white, is smaller and has a creamier texture and sweeter flavor than the standard eggplant.
- Chinese: Longer and more cylindrical in shape, with smooth purple skin and calyx.
- Indian (Baby): Each round eggplant is a few inches long with smooth, dark purple skin and a green calyx.
- Regular/Classic: Also called “American,” the most common eggplant comes in a range of varieties including Black Magic, Black Beauty and Black Bell. The skin is a very deep purple hue, and a these large fruit have an elongated oval shape and green calyx.
- Sources: Produce Marketing Association; iloveeggplant.co