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Until recently, I always thought of eggplant as a vegetable. Come to find out, it's actually a fruit that originated in the tropics. Unlike most other fruits, eggplant is good fried. It's good with meats such as beef and lamb. And you wouldn't dare consume it in its raw state, I don't imagine. So it's different from just about every other fruit around, save tomatoes.

Fresh eggplants are plentiful summer through fall and come in several varieties. There are the familiar dark — almost black — slender Japanese varieties, but also small, round ones, striped ones and, in this time of heirloom fruits and vegetables, there are several of those varieties, too. All are interchangeable, but what you need to consider is the age of the fruit. Age brings on bitterness, so when selecting, look for young, firm fruit that are almost hard to the touch.

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Anne Braly

There are numerous ways to serve eggplant. One of the easiest is cutting it into cubes, tossing with olive oil and herbs and roasting slowly until tender. Once it has cooled, toss it with some feta cheese and serve it as a salad with greens. Thick wedges can be studded with cloves of garlic and sprinkled with fresh basil and oregano and smoked on the grill. Or puree cooked eggplant, and turn it into hummus and other dips.

As a student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, I dined at Copper Cellar on several special occasions. It was a little too pricey to make frequent visits since I was on a student's budget, but every time I did, I'd order the bathenjan, a meat and eggplant casserole. It's no longer on the menu, but this recipe comes pretty close to what I enjoyed there. You can use ground lamb or ground beef, the latter being more budget-friendly and readily available. Not every meat market in town carries ground lamb.

Bathenjan

2 1/2 pounds eggplants, sliced lengthwise about 1/3-inch thick (3 medium or 2 large)

Salt

1 pound lean ground lamb or lean ground beef

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus additional for greasing

2 medium onions, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced (or pressed)

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained

1 tablespoon tomato paste, heaping

1/2 teaspoon Hungarian paprika, divided

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 whole cloves, ground with a mortar

3 allspice berries, ground with a mortar

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 bay leaf

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

7 eggs, divided

1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup fresh kefalotiri cheese, grated (see note)

Salt the eggplant slices generously, and place them in a bowl or colander for 1 hour. Meanwhile, cook the lamb (or beef) in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring and breaking up the meat until browned and the fat has rendered. Remove the skillet from the heat, and pour off the fat. Set the meat aside in a bowl. Add a couple tablespoons of water to the skillet, and scrape up any browned bits. Add the scrapings to the meat.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the skillet over medium heat, and add the onions. Cook, stirring, 5 minutes or until tender. Add the garlic, and cook, stirring, 1 minute until fragrant. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, the browned meat, paprika, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, sugar, bay leaf, salt and 1/2 to 1 cup hot water (enough to cover the meat). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. The mixture should be thick and fragrant. Cook, uncovered, 5 to 10 minutes until the liquid is almost gone.

Remove the bay leaf, stir in pepper and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust for salt (remember, the eggplant will be salty). Cool the mixture slightly, then stir in one beaten egg and the parsley. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Rinse the eggplant slices, and pat dry with paper towels. Place them on baking sheets brushed with olive oil, and brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned and cooked through. Transfer to a bowl, and reduce the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush a 3-quart baking or gratin dish with the remaining oil. Make an even layer of half the eggplant over the bottom, then spread on all the meat sauce in one layer. Top with a layer of the remaining eggplant.

Bake the moussaka 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the topping: Beat the remaining 6 eggs, and mix them with the yogurt. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste), pepper and a pinch of paprika. Pour over the baked moussaka.

Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the topping, and bake an additional 25 to 30 minutes. Then place under the broiler 1 minute or until light golden brown on top. Watch carefully because it browns quickly. Serve warm.

Note: Kefalotiri is a sharp, hard cheese from Greece. Good substitutes are fresh Romano, pecorino or Parmesan.

Oyster happy hour

Easy Bistro and Bar has added a special on oysters to its weekday afternoon bar menu, as well as its Sunday brunch. From 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, all oysters are $1, and again on the brunch menu served every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you haven't been to Easy lately and love oysters, this is an excellent chance to try it out. Easy is located in the historic Coca-Cola bottling plant at 203 Broad St.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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