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Flavor Injection

Taming the tricky eggplant

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Of the seemingly infinite possibilities at summer produce stands, the eggplant is among the trickiest. She's a real looker all right, showing off her shiny, buxom bosom that comes in shades of majestic purple, light green or ecru. "It's so gorgeous I just have to get one," is a line I've heard at the farmer's market countless times about the eggplant.

The problem with this culinary eye candy is what to do with her once you get her home. Her skin? As alluring and antioxidant-rich as it may be, it can also be thick and tough to chew.

The inner workings of the eggplant pose kitchen conundrums as well. Its seed-laden, fibrous flesh should never be eaten raw, but when cooked, it acts like a sponge on steroids, absorbing more oil than imaginable. And then there's the legendary debate over salting eggplant as an antidote to its rumored bitterness. (Don't bother, in my humble opinion.)

Even when it's time to cook, eggplant continues to frustrate, as it absolutely must be fork-tender (or beyond) to be palatable. Anything less, and it tastes like cardboard.

With so many hurdles to jump through, I had nearly given up on eggplant, and then I found a recipe that brought about a change in heart. The key is a marinade flavor injection and a heady Mediterranean-style salad of feta, olives and roasted red pepper that marries beautifully with our new pal, the ever-cantankerous eggplant.

Grilled Eggplant Steak with Feta Salad

Adapted from Nora Pouillon's recipe, as it appears in Hope's Edge by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe

Tamari-Balsamic Marinade

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce (a low-wheat Japanese soy sauce; if unavailable, other kinds of soy sauce are acceptable)

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Salad

1 medium red bell pepper

1 large eggplant or 3 smaller Italian or Japanese eggplants (about 1 pound)

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup black olives, pitted and roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves or flat leaf parsley

4 slices pita bread

• Prepare grill (or broiler). In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar with tamari, garlic and oil. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed.

• With a knife, remove the top of bell pepper and the inside seeds. Grill until skin blisters and chars. Place in a closed paper or plastic bag for 10 minutes, allowing the steam to loosen skin. Remove skin (you can place pepper under running water to assist in removal, if needed). Cut into dice and set aside.

• Cut eggplant lengthwise into 4 slices about 1/2-inch thick, resembling steaks. Place in a 9-by-13-inch glass dish. Pour marinade over eggplant and marinate for about 15 minutes, turning occasionally.

• With tongs, remove eggplant from marinade and grill 2-5 minutes on each side, until fork-tender.

• In a mixing bowl, place diced pepper, feta, olives and oregano, stirring to combine. Pour leftover eggplant marinade into mixture and stir.

• Toast or grill pita bread and slice into wedges.

• To assemble, place pita bread on plate, topping it with an eggplant steak. Spoon feta salad on top of eggplant.

• Makes 4 servings.

Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com.

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