Recipes and Stories

11 August 2018: Stuffed Eggplant

August 11, 2018

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Seafood, Shrimp, Crab, Eggplant, Stuffed Eggplant, Seafood Stuffed Eggplant

Classic Seafood-Stuffed Eggplant
Eggplant, one of the great defining elements of the cuisines of the Mediterranean basin, has also been a staple in Southern kitchens at least since the late eighteenth century. Believed to be native to the Far East, this exotic vegetable with the odd-sounding name found its way to the Mediterranean and Africa long before the Americas were colonized, but its exact migration has been lost to time. Likewise, no one is sure how it found its way into the South.

In some parts of our region, it used to be known as “Guinea melons” or “Guinea squash,” after the West African nation, which, while by no means proof of the route it took getting to our shores, is certainly suggestive.

At any rate, for at least a generation before Mary Randolph’s landmark work The Virginia House-Wife was published in 1824, Southerners have been loving eggplant. And a favorite way of preparing it has been to stuff it. The filling might be as simple as its own inner pulp chopped and mixed with breadcrumbs, onion, herbs and spices, or it might be an elaborate one composed of chopped meat, poultry, or, as in this recipe, seafood.

Either way, it’s a lovely thing to do with this vegetable, but it does have two drawbacks. The eggplant has to be precooked before it can be hollowed out and filled, and after it’s stuffed, it’s baked, which means firing up the oven on a hot day.

Still, The first bite confirms that it’s well worth the extra trouble and heat. And, after all, once they’re in the oven, the cook can do what Southerners have been doing to cope with summer’s heat for centuries: retire to the porch with a cold drink and a fan.

Surely we can handle that.

Seafood Stuffed Eggplant
Seafood is an especially nice filling for stuffed eggplant, and accompanied by a salad, makes a very handsome luncheon or supper. It can also be served as a first course for a company dinner: for six appetizer portions, use 3 small eggplants weighing about 6-to-8 ounces each.

Speaking of size, when you’re choosing eggplants for stuffing, it may seem like the perfect thing for overgrown ones, but eggplants often develops a bitter edge when allowed to get too big. The best ones for stuffing are those that are medium-sized (weighing no more than 12 ounces) or smaller. They should be firm to the touch with clear, taut skins and bright green stems.

Serves 4 as a main dish

2 medium eggplants, each no more than 12 ounces (1½ pounds or less altogether)
Salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced small
2 ribs celery, strung and diced small
1 red or green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and diced
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
4 ½-inch-thick slices firm white bread, crust removed, crumbled
½ pound (1 cup) crabmeat, picked over for bits of shell
½ pound small shrimp (or medium-to-large shrimp cut into 2-3 pieces), peeled
Ground cayenne and whole black pepper in a mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
¾ cup dry bread or cracker crumbs

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Half fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Wash the eggplant under cold running water. Stir a small handful of salt into the pot, and add the eggplant. Cover and let it return to boil, uncover, and cook until the eggplant is softened, about 15 minutes. Drain and let cool enough to handle. Split eggplant lengthwise and scoop out its pulp, leaving a ½-inch-thick shell. Chop the pulp.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper and raise the heat to medium high. Sauté, tossing often, until they’re wilted but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and toss until fragrant, about half a minute. Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley, eggplant pulp, soft bread crumbs, and crabmeat. Season well with salt, cayenne, pepper and nutmeg; taste and adjust seasoning, then stir in the shrimp.

3. Butter a casserole that will hold the eggplant shells in one layer without touching. Divide the filling among them, mounding it on top. Wipe out the skillet and return it to medium heat. Add the remaining butter and let it melt. Turn off heat, add the dry crumbs, and toss until evenly coated. Sprinkle them evenly over the eggplant filling. Transfer the eggplant to the prepared casserole and bake until the shrimp are cooked, about 30-40 minutes.