Finally! The Summer of Sizzle is on its last sputter.

And while we've been sweating and fretting over spray cheese and its effect on global warming - basically whining about the changes in weather since we were kids - our backyard gardens have been furtively, steadily growing. Pushing out baby zucchini. Laying eggplant.

Yes, eggplant . . . that lesser-loved purple garden's majesty.

OK, so I'm trying to romanticize eggplant. It hasn't been on the veggie hit parade until recently. However, Mediterranean cuisine has featured the delicate fleshy fruit for centuries.

Yes, we said FRUIT. (Peel me an eggplant, Beulah!) The eggplant comes from an interesting family called the nightshades, which are related to the tomato and potato.

There's been a bit of confusion regarding folk names for the eggplant and its cousin, the tomato. Researching the topic, we found that although the tomato has been called the love apple, the eggplant has been known as the apple of love.

The eggplant has been loved all around the world. It has a dual origin - cultivated in both India and China, brought to Europe via the Middle East along the silk route from China.

And from China to Centerville. Eggplant has made a home here in the West, the most common being the familiar plump, purple-skinned variety.

Eggplant is a truly strange name for purple produce that's puffed up like a big-bottomed bowling pin. But there exists a namesake . . . a small, white egg-shaped variety.

We purchased three varieties of eggplant recently at Liberty Heights Fresh (1242 S. 1100 East), the specialized market where just about any kind of fresh fruit or vegetable is shipped in from all over the world.

We bought the bloated bowling pin Utah version, a Japanese eggplant, and a couple of a Dutch variety imported from the Netherlands.

Although all eggplant varieties are interchangeable, each has unique attributes. For instance, Japanese eggplants have a thinner skin, so they are a good choice for recipes where you want a very delicate skin. White eggplants have thick, tough skins that benefit from peeling. Personal preferences determine whether you peel our local eggplants or keep the skin on.

Personally, call me a peeler (except in recipes where the skin is used as a "boat" or serving piece for the contents).

There's more on the apple of love. A culinary controversy is swirling around the eggplant. Some chefs say that eggplant should be salted to extract any bitterness. People say it helps, others say not. It's certainly not required, but salting does help reduce the amount of oil needed for cooking.

When salting, allow the cut eggplant to stand about 30 minutes in a colander, weighted down (a bowling ball would be a compatible item), pressing out the moisture with paper towels.

Eggplant should be prepared in glass, enamel or stainless steel cookware, say the official eggplant guys - the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. Avoid cook-ware that causes the flesh to darken.

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream than ever before in this country. People looking for meat substitutes often choose eggplant because of its fleshy texture. The fruit adapts well to most preparations with baked being particularly popular. Its subtle flavor is well-complemented with onions, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and cheese.

Nutritionally, a half cup of cooked eggplant contains about 13 calories, is sodium-free and provides dietary fiber.

But what about the taste?

Eggplant used to be one of those "search and destroy" garden enemies that my brother and I would seek out in the dark of night - bludgeoning them and every squash in sight with army surplus machetes.

It would be an understatement to say I didn't like eggplant. But then . . .

With 2,000 or so cookbooks at the office and at home, I began to bravely go where no one in my house had gone before. Then came another trip to Bountiful - and my mother's eggplant patch. I was hooked! Egged for evermore!

Give it a try.

- Top pasta and pizza with diced cooked eggplant

- Add eggplant to soups and stews. Saute first for a more pronounced flavor.

- When a recipe calls for breading, dip eggplant into slightly beaten egg whites instead of a whole egg.

- Dip slices into a combination of seasoned bread crumbs and parmesan cheese; then saute, bake or broil.

Open your mind, then open your mouth. We think you'll like those nice nightshade folks.

*****

RECIPES

EGGPLANT LASAGNA

1 medium eggplant, peeled and Cut into very thin rounds

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

9 wide lasagna noodles

1 15 1/2-ounce jar spaghetti sauce

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1 cup part-skim mozzarella cheese

3 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated

In large non-stick skillet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, brown eggplant slices; set aside in separate bowl. In same hot skillet, add olive oil and cook onion about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms; cook about 5-7 minutes or until mushrooms are tender, stirring frequently. Set aside. Cook lasagna noodles as label directs, omitting salt. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In 7-X-11-inch baking dish sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, spoon 1/4 cup of the spaghetti sauce. Arrange three alternate layers: noodles, ricotta, mushroom mixture, mozzarella cheese, eggplant slices, spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese. Cover and bake about 35-40 minutes until heated through. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Makes 8 servings.

- Each serving contains 290 calories, 11g fat, 36g carb, 400mg sodium, 45mg cholesterol.

- From Low Fat Recipes

SZECHUAN EGGPLANT

1 large eggplant

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 tablespoon Hot Szechuan sauce (or to taste)

2 tablespoons reduced sodium teriyaki sauce

1/4 cup cold water

1/4 to 1/2 cup water or broth

Peel eggplant. Cut into 2-inch thick rounds, then slice the rounds into wedges (like a pizza is cut). In a non stick pan, saute eggplant in some water or broth (chicken, beef, vegetable), turning to cook the wedges evenly. Cook for about 3-5 minutes per side, or until the slices are done to your liking. Add the scallions. Mix the sauces and 1/4 cup cold water; pour into the pan. Stir to coat. Serve over plain rice. Makes 4 servings.

- Each serving contains 39 calories, 1g fat, 9g carb, 294mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol.

- From Veggies Unite! Web

STUFFED EGGPLANT

1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup finely grated fresh Romano cheese, divided

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

Vegetable cooking spray

1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup no-salt-added tomato sauce

1/4 teaspoon dried basil

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Parsley sprigs, optional

Cut eggplant lengthwise into quarters, and cut each quarter crosswise into 4 pieces. Combine the eggplant and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large saucepan; add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or just until pulp can be removed from peel. Carefully remove pulp, reserving peels. Mash pulp; set aside. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a non stick skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant pulp and onion; saute for 7 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat; stir in bread crumbs, 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Romano cheese, parsley, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1 minced garlic clove. Arrange reserved eggplant peels in a single layer in a 7-X-11-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Spoon about 2 tablespoons eggplant mixture onto each peel. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 20 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Place a saucepan coated with cooking spray over medium heat. Add 1 minced garlic clove; saute 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce, basil, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and cook 3 minutes or until heated. Spoon sauce over eggplant; sprinkle with remaining cheese, and garnish with parsley, if desired. Serve warm. Makes 8 servings.

- Each serving contains 98 calories, 4g fat, 13g carb, 247mg sodium, 8mg cholesterol.

- From Cooking Light

EGGPLANT ITALIANO

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1/4 cup chopped green pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed

1 medium tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon basil leaves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine oil, onion, green pepper and garlic in 11/2-quart microwave-safe casserole. Cover with casserole lid. Microwave (HIGH) 11/2 to 2 minutes or until just tender. Stir in eggplant; cover. Microwave (HIGH) 7 to 8 minutes or until just tender, stirring once. Add tomatoes, sugar, basil, salt and pepper; mix lightly. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese; cover. Microwave (HIGH) 11/2 to 2 minutes or until heated through. Serve over cooked rice. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 90 calories, 4g fat, 13g carb, 299mg sodium, 1mg cholesterol.

- From The Microwave Times

RISSA'S CHILLED GRILLED EGGPLANT

1 cup miso paste*

1 cup soba sauce**

1 cup brown sugar

11/2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

2 medium eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick strips

1 tablespoon canola oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine the miso, soba, brown sugar and pepper flakes. Add the eggplant slices and marinate for at least 30 minutes in refrigerator. Oil a cookie sheet with 11/2 teaspoons of the oil. Drain eggplant and place on cookie sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn the slices and brush lightly with the remaining oil. Broil for 2 minutes on the first side, 1 minute on the second. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 483 calories, 8g fat, 94g carb, 2669mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol.

- From Molly O'Neill

- *Found in Asian markets

- **Found in Asian markets