Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Summerís the season to savor a good eggplantóif you can find one

Well, summer is officially in full swing, isnít it? I donít know about you, but this heat is beating me down ó why do we live here again? (Oh, right: October.)

If summer in the Valley of the Sun has redeeming factors, and thatís a pretty big ďif,Ē  one of them is the abundance of great summer produce--not only imported from more reasonable climates, but some of it even grown right here, in the inferno.

Lately, Iíve been getting terrific summer tomatoes, zucchinis, cucumbers and melons from Victory Farms in Phoenix. Iíve also been getting a real treat: small, perfectly fresh, in-season eggplants.

I adore eggplant, but for nine months out of 12 I mostly avoid it. Like men, good eggplants are hard to find, and bad ones are regrettable.

If you dislike eggplant, youíve probably only ever had the bad ones. Not that these veggies are inherently flawed; just that too much time between farm and table turns them spongy and bitter.

A good eggplant is sweet and creamy (once itís cooked, I mean). And summer is your best time to find one, because aubergines, as theyíre also known, love the heat.

What are you looking for in an eggplant? Weight, for one thing.

Whether youíre shopping for the voluptuous purple ďglobeĒ variety (the one youíre probably familiar with), the slender Japanese or Chinese eggplants, or another variety entirely (and many kinds exist), a good eggplant feels heavy for its size.

The explanation is simple: the longer an eggplant sits around, the more its water weight evaporates.

Good, fresh eggplants are plump and firm, and their skins are unblemished and shiny. If the eggplants youíre looking at donít fit this description, do yourself a favor and find another vegetable.

If you luck out, however, buy as many as youíll be able to eat and cook them as soon as you can.

Nominally, eggplants will keep a few days, even a week, in the refrigerator. But I treat them as being as perishable as fresh fish, and besides, most eggplant preparations are better the next day.

Should you salt your eggplant before cooking it? That depends. Salting the cut vegetable will make a bitter eggplant less so, so many recipes recommend it.

If you know that your eggplants came straight from the farm ó or if, better yet, you grew them yourself ó donít bother salting them.

But if your eggplants are of dubious origin, or if they seem to have a lot of dark seeds, salting wonít hurt.

To salt, chop or slice the eggplants as your recipe directs, then sprinkle the cut surfaces lightly with salt. Let the pieces stand in a colander for 30 minutes, then quickly rinse and blot them dry.

When eggplants are in season, as they are now, they donít need a lot of complicated preparation to be delicious.

Hereís what Iíve been doing with mine. First, I sautť two finely chopped garlic cloves in olive oil for one or two minutes, just long enough to turn the garlic golden.

Then I add about four cups of cubed eggplant (one large or two medium globe eggplants) and toss quickly to distribute the oil as evenly as possible.

The eggplant absorbs the oil almost instantly, but thatís OK; it releases it as it cooks. I add a quarter cup of water to prevent scorching, cover my pan and set the heat to medium-low.

I cook the eggplant, covered, for about 30 minutes, stirring every few minutes and adding more water as necessary.

Patience is key here. If you donít cook your eggplant until it starts to break down, it wonít be suitably creamy. (If you have time, you can even cook the eggplant until it dissolves into a jam ó delicious.)

Towards the end of the cooking time, I might add a seeded, chopped tomato, a handful of torn fresh basil leaves and (always) salt to taste.

Cheese is good with eggplant: try this mixture topped with feta cheese, or spread a good, crusty bread with goat cheese and mound this mixture on top.

But enjoy eggplant while you can, because ó as I keep reminding myself ó summer wonít last forever.