When eggplant met mint

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Grilled eggplant with mint (Bill Hogan/Tribune photo)

The summer vegetable can be cruel. It sticks to its clique. The lettuce, tossing its ruffled leaves. The fat-bellied tomato, laughing. The secretive potato club, whispering. All they do is gossip. About eggplant.

What a name! Egg Plant. What a look: shiny, lumpy and purple. Eggplant, they say, is bitter outside and spongy inside. It lacks the winning attitude that can earn a vegetable a state-fair blue ribbon or a heavy-traffic spot in the produce section. Glancing down the aisle, eggplant finds few friends.

It pals around with the pungent. Garlic never cares about popularity. It's eager to get under eggplant's skin and knows it cooks up tender. Easygoing basil warms up to the humble vegetable. The three roam in a pack. Eggplant, garlic and basil. Besties.

But eggplant, like many a shy sort, also attracts the secret admirer. Here's the rumor: mint.

Who would have guessed? Mint is so fresh and outgoing, full of mint-chip-ice-cream optimism. It's spear-edged and sharp-witted. Who would've thought of introducing bright-green mint to deep-purple eggplant?

And yet, opposites attract. Eggplant tethers mint's flighty tendencies. Mint cheers up eggplant's mellow mood. Together they offer tantalizing and soothing, foreground and background, cool and smoky. Chemistry.

The hookup might even inspire the lumpy purple egg to cast off its old label. And go glamorous, as aubergine.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor.

leahreskin@aol.com

Bold eggplant

Makes: 4 servings

Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: Overnight

Cook: 45 minutes

4 small (pear-size) eggplants

1/4 cup olive oil

1 lemon, juiced and zested, zest chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh parsley leaves, chopped

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 ounces feta cheese

1 Roast: Set whole eggplants over a medium-hot grill and roast, turning occasionally, until soft when squeezed, 35 minutes.

2 Marinate: When cool enough to handle, slice eggplants in half the long way. Settle in a serving dish. Whisk together oil, juice, zest, garlic, mint (setting aside 1 teaspoon mint), parsley, salt and pepper. Douse eggplant with sauce. Cover and chill 12-24 hours.

3 Grill: Set eggplant halves, cut side down, over a medium-hot grill (reserve dish and marinade). Tattoo eggplant deep brown, 10 minutes.

4 Serve: Return grilled eggplant to the dish, cut side up. Crumble on cheese. Cast on reserved mint. Serve at room temperature.
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