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When my niece Liora told her mother she had made eggplant soup, the response was "What a crazy idea!" It's true that making soup is not a common way to utilize eggplant. But I make eggplant soup often, as I'm always looking for easy, low-fat ways to use this satisfying vegetable.
Usually I start my soup like a typical Mediterranean eggplant stew, with the vegetable's usual partners: sauteed onions, garlic, tomatoes and herbs. Sometimes I add zucchini, peppers or green beans. I simply pour in a little more liquid than usual and my stew becomes soup. Often I want the soup to play the role of vegetarian main course, and so I add chickpeas, tofu or both. Occasionally I add chunks of a meatless soy sausage; you could use a beef sausage the same way. If I want my soup to be even more satisfying, I add diced potatoes, or I serve the soup with rice or crusty bread.
For an even easier vegetable soup, I skip the sauteing and add the eggplant along with the other soup vegetables.
With eggplant soup, unlike many other eggplant dishes, you can use little or no oil, and it will still be tasty. And eggplant soup doesn't need much attention. If it cooks for a long time and the eggplant cubes disintegrate, that's fine; they simply thicken the soup.
Actually, eggplant soup appears wherever people cook lots of eggplant. You can find variations of it from India, where eggplant is said to have originated, to the Mediterranean to southeast Asia. Yamuna Devi, the author of The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Bala, 1987), prepares a thick eggplant and mung bean soup from West Bengal flavored with ginger, ghee (clarified butter), turmeric, chiles and whole cumin seeds. She recommends it as perfect for persons new to cooking with eggplant.
Persian cooks prepare a hearty eggplant soup with lamb, potatoes, yellow split peas, tomato paste and lemon juice. Cambodians cook eggplant in their chicken soup, relates Elizabeth Schneider in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (Morrow, 2001), and flavor it with semi-hot chiles, lemon grass, garlic and coconut milk. Pascal Perez, the author of North African Cooking (Hebrew; Bayit Va-Gan, 1983), feels that eggplant gives an unusual taste to Tunisian fava bean and eggplant soup accented with hot red peppers, tomatoes and sauteed onions.
After years of making eggplant soup at home, I realized that it has become a specialty of some American chefs - and these are chefs who have been praised by critics for their innovation. In the 1980s I encountered eggplant soup at a celebrated California restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley. Chef/owner Alice Waters, author of Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (Random House, 1982), begins her soup with the technique used for Israeli eggplant salad - grilling whole eggplants. Then she peels, dices and stews the eggplant with onions, garlic, olive oil and broth, and garnishes the soup with a creamy puree of grilled red peppers.
Eggplant soup also appears on the menu of Boulevard, considered by many to be the best restaurant in San Francisco. In Boulevard: The Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), featuring specialties of the restaurant, chefs Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola use eggplant to make roasted ratatouille soup. They roast eggplant and other ratatouille vegetables (tomatoes, onions, peppers and zucchini), then puree them and garnish the soup with giant white beans.
Inventive Israeli chefs are not to be outdone. Chef Itamar Davidov of Pitango restaurant in Tel Aviv proudly presents his roasted eggplant soup, cooked with sauteed onions and chicken stock and garnished with fresh basil, in Eggplant by Yakov Lishensky (Hebrew; Ma'ariv, 1991), a book in which all the recipes are devoted to the popular purple vegetable.
Eggplant Soup with Beans
Make this hearty Mediterranean soup a vegetarian entree by including the tofu, or turn it into a meaty soup by adding sliced beef franks. Use a small or large can of tomatoes, depending on how fond your family is of them in vegetable soups. I like this soup with crusty, country style bread.
a 450- to 550-gram eggplant
1 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion
chopped salt and freshly ground pepper
350 grams pale-green skinned squash, cut in 2-cm dice
4 garlic cloves, chopped
a 400- or 800- gram can tomatoes, drained (juice reserved), coarsely chopped
1 small yellow or green bell pepper, diced (optional)
1 to 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup frozen green beans
a 425-gram can white beans in tomato sauce or chickpeas, not drained
11â„2 teaspoons dried leaf thyme, crumbled
1â„4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
350 to 450 grams regular or firm tofu, or 170 to 350 grams meatless or beef franks, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped green onion or parsley
If eggplant skin is not tough, you can leave eggplant unpeeled. Cut eggplant in small dice of about 2 cm.
Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons oil in a saute pan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until beginning to turn golden; if using a small amount of oil, cover pan and add 1 tablespoon water if necessary to prevent burning. Add eggplant, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add squash, cover and cook for 3 minutes.
Added garlic, tomatoes, diced pepper and 1 cup broth. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 25 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Add frozen green beans, white beans, thyme, red pepper flakes and juice from the canned tomatoes. Add more broth if soup is too thick. Return to a boil. Add tofu. Simmer for 5 minutes or until green beans are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. If you like, add 1 tablespoon oil to enrich the soup. Serve hot, sprinkled with green onion.
Makes 3 or 4 main-course servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast(HarperCollins).