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With its unique color and shape, eggplant is easy to recognize on supermarket shelves. This spongy fruit is a good source of fiber and works well as a meat substitute. (Republican Eagle photos by Michael Brun)

Hard to miss, easy to pass

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Hard to miss, easy to pass
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 For years experts have extolled the benefits of green, leafy vegetables as part of a balanced diet. But if healthy eating is the goal, there is another kind of fresh produce often avoided on supermarket shelves: the purple and bulbous variety.

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With its unique shape and striking color, eggplant is certainly recognizable in any produce department or farmers market. But it can also be intimidating to try for the first time.

Eggplant, also known as aubergine, is naturally low in calories, fat and cholesterol, while providing a good source of dietary fiber, according to the health initiative Fruits & Veggies More Matters.

The Minnesota Department of Health says getting enough fiber has been linked to a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease and certain cancers.

A member of the nightshade family -- along with tomatoes and potatoes -- eggplant was once considered poisonous by people in Europe and North America.

Although it has been a staple ingredient in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Asian dishes for centuries, eggplant wasn't introduced in the U.S. until the 1700s when Thomas Jefferson began growing it in his garden, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Eggplant, which is technically a fruit, comes in a range of shapes, sizes and colors. Beyond the large, glossy kind common in North America, there are also thinner Japanese eggplants and a rounder, white variety that more resembles an egg.

The versatile eggplant can be added to many different recipes, from simply slicing one up and grilling it with vegetables to fine cuisine like ratatouille. Properly cooked and seasoned, eggplant's spongy texture makes it a great substitute for red meat in vegetarian dishes.

When picking the perfect eggplant, General Mills' Live Better America website suggests looking for a bulb with a bright green cap and brightly colored skin free of blemishes. The best eggplants will seem heavy for their size when picked up.

Preparing an eggplant to eat is as easy as cutting it into slices or cubes. The thick skin may first need to be peeled on bigger eggplants, but it is perfectly fine to eat.

Also, the bigger the bulb, the more bitter an eggplant is likely to taste, according to Live Better America.

The optimal growing season for eggplant in the U.S. is July through October, making now one of the best times to give it a shot.

Here are just a few ways to integrate this underutilized ingredient into your cooking repertoire:

Easy eggplant Parmesan

Minnesota WIC Program

Ingredients:

1 large eggplant, unpeeled

nonstick cooking spray

1/2 cup spaghetti sauce

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place whole eggplant in a large pot of boiling water and reduce heat to just below boiling for 10 minutes. Drain eggplant and let cool. Cut it into half-inch slices and place in a baking dish that has been coated with nonstick spray. Pour spaghetti sauce over eggplant slices. Mix together with bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle on top of spaghetti sauce. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes.

Serves four to six.

Easy eggplant stir fry

Connecticut Food Policy Council

Ingredients:

2 eggplants (peeled and cubed)

1 zucchini (thinly sliced)

1 cup green bell pepper (cut into strips)

2 onions (sliced)

3 tablespoons Italian salad dressing (low fat)

2 cups cherry tomatoes

2 cups brown rice (cooked)

Instructions:

Place eggplant, zucchini, green bell pepper, onions and salad dressing into a skillet. Stir lightly to combine and cook over low heat until tender. Stir in cherry tomatoes and cook for three to five minutes. Serve over cooked brown rice.

Serves four.

Chicken ratatouille

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 chicken breast halves (medium, skinned, fat removed, boned, and cut into 1-inch pieces)

2 zucchini (7 inches long, unpeeled and thinly sliced)

1 eggplant (small, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes)

1 onion (medium, thinly sliced)

1 green pepper (medium, cut into 1-inch pieces)

1/2 pound mushroom (fresh, sliced)

1 can tomatoes (16 oz, whole, cut up)

1 garlic clove (minced)

1 1/2 teaspoons basil (dried, crushed)

1 tablespoon parsley (fresh, minced) black pepper (to taste)

Directions:

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet. Add chicken and sauté about three minutes, or until lightly browned. Add zucchini, eggplant, onion, green pepper and mushrooms. Cook about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes, garlic, basil, parsley and pepper; stir and continue cooking about five minutes, or until chicken is tender.

Serves four.

Baba ghanoush

CDC's Fruits and Veggies Matter

Ingredients:

2 large eggplants

2 tablespoons of tahini

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice or more to taste

4 tablespoons of cold water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon olive oil

1 cup chopped tomato

1/2 cup diced onion

Parsley sprigs to garnish (optional)

Directions:

Pierce the eggplants in several places with a toothpick or fork. Wrap each eggplant in aluminum foil and place on a gas grill or in the oven at 500 degrees. Cook until the eggplants collapse and begin to release a lot of steam, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the foil and place the eggplants into a bowl of cold water. Peel while eggplants are still hot and allow them to drain in a colander until cool. Squeeze pulp to remove any bitter juices and mash the eggplant to a puree. In a food processor, mix tahini with garlic, onion, tomato, lemon juice and water until mixture is concentrated. With the blender running, add the peeled eggplant, salt, pepper, and olive oil. Serve in a shallow dish and garnish with black pepper, tomatoes and parsley.

Serves eight.

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Michael Brun
Michael Brun is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program. He has worked for the Republican Eagle since March 2013, covering county government, health and local events. 
(651) 301-7875
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