Q: How can I tell what is a good eggplant? Sometimes they're bitter; sometimes they're tough. I was told that male eggplants are the bitter ones, but I've forgotten how to tell by looking at them which ones those are. Will salting remove the bitterness if I get a male?
A: It seems to be a common tale that "male" eggplants are different from "female" eggplants. But there is no such thing as a "male" eggplant. Eggplants, as are all fruits, are the enlarged ovaries holding the seeds of the plant. So don't worry about trying to tell a male from a female — they're all "girls."
The shape of the fruit is determined by the variety of eggplant and its maturity. Some varieties will always be rounder, others more oval, others long and thin.
What is true is that sometimes the seeds are bitter. That is usually because the eggplant is overmature, and there's no way to get rid of the bitterness short of removing the center with all the seeds.
Tough skins are also a sign that an eggplant is overmature. Young fruits will have tender skins. The skin doesn't need to be removed because it's so tender in the young fruits. If the plant did not get enough water while the fruit was developing, that also can affect the flavor. There's no way to tell by looking.
The best we can do to choose a good eggplant is to look for one that is heavy for its size. The skin should be firm, shiny and smooth — no dull spots, no soft spots, no spots that look sort of puckered or dry.
Salting won't remove any bitterness, unfortunately. What salting and pressing or draining will do is remove some of the moisture. That means the eggplant will absorb more of the sauce you put over it, instead of leaking juice into the sauce.
Q: How can I tell on a restaurant menu if an item has MSG in it? Don't they have to label them if they do?
A: There's no way to tell in a restaurant, short of asking the server, or asking the server to ask the cook or chef. Although packaged foods in a grocery have to list all the ingredients, including MSG, restaurants do not. The interest in MSG has led restaurants to advertise that they do not use MSG. But it sometimes leads a restaurant to advertise "No MSG in our food," as if it were a new thing, when in reality they never did use it. It becomes more of an advertising ploy.
On the other hand, while a restaurant or a home cook might never add the white powder that is purified MSG, it's a rare person who never, ever eats MSG. That's because it is so common, naturally, in so many foods.
Its highest concentrations are in seaweed, which is where the Japanese originally found and isolated it. But there's naturally a lot of it in tomatoes and tomato sauce: Ever wonder why Italian food and anything made with tomatoes tastes so good?
It's also present naturally in large quantities in cheese — especially aged cheese, such as Parmesan — soy sauce and fermented soy products, clams, oysters, mushrooms, peas and corn.
Glutamate or glutamic acid — the "G" of "MSG" — is an amino acid, part of the protein in almost every living plant and animal. So almost anything we eat will have some — maybe more, maybe less — but some MSG is there because Mother Nature put it there.