|By Patty Glenn Leander
Exotic. Striking. Voluptuous. Mystical. Fleshy. Bold. Attention-grabbing. Each of these descriptives I have encountered in various references to a vegetable that I have always considered rather mundane and one which resides fairly low on my list of favorites. But considering its ancient history and worldwide prominence, perhaps I owe eggplant (Solanum melongena) a more privileged spot in my garden and my kitchen.
A truly global and well-traveled vegetable, this relative of tomatoes, potatoes and peppers has origins in ancient India, where it was favored for both culinary and medicinal properties. By way of empires and dynasties, conquests and trade routes, it spread throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Though now a popular vegetable of the Mediterranean region, at one time it suffered from an unsavory reputation as an insanity-inducing ‘mad apple,’ a result of its familial ties to the poisonous nightshades. The Italian word for eggplant, melanzane, is a derivation of the phrase mela insane, the aforementioned ‘mad apple.’ Tomatoes, as you may know, suffered a similar fate, and were initially feared and shunned by suspicious Europeans due to their supposed toxic properties.
By the time eggplant arrived in America, probably late in the 18th century, it had outgrown its troubling European reputation. Thomas Jefferson was likely exposed to eggplant during his ambassador-related travels to France, where it is known as aubergine, and he later experimented with growing it in the gardens at Monticello.
Today eggplant is at home in the long, warm growing seasons of the South, giving gardeners plenty of opportunity to experience its culinary versatility and international flair. You may already be familiar with some of the ethnic dishes that feature eggplant’s versatility as a key ingredient: stewed in French ratatouille, grilled and puréed for Lebanese baba ghanoush, sauced and baked in Italian melanzane alla parmigiana, battered and fried for Japanese tempura or stuffed with fragrant spices for Indian-style brinjal. Never quite reaching stellar status in the nutritional stratosphere, eggplant contributes nonetheless to a well-balanced diet with a range of vitamins and minerals as well as dietary fiber. And that silken purple skin contains powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins, which current research suggests may enhance memory function and prevent cognitive decline.
There are a few guidelines to remember when growing eggplant: always start with transplants, wait until the weather has warmed before setting in the garden, and for best eating quality harvest the fruit while a bit immature, before it turns dull and seedy.
Transplants start showing up in nurseries in early spring, but if you want to experiment with and enjoy the diversity of the eggplant world grow your own seedlings from varieties that excite your taste buds and suit your culinary needs. Start seeds indoors about 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost (about the same time you start tomato seeds). Place the seed flat in the coziest part of your house or on top of a heat mat and seeds will germinate in about a week. As soon as they sprout, place them under grow lights.
Though grown as an annual, eggplant is a tropical perennial that does not tolerate cold weather and should not be planted in the garden until after the first frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 65° F, maybe a week or two after you set out tomato transplants. Give plants a good start by amending the planting area with compost, aged manure or other organic matter and mix in a slow release garden fertilizer, following package instructions. Space plants 2 to 2-1/2 feet apart and mulch well to help conserve soil moisture. Water new transplants every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer, then sidedress each plant with a small handful of granular fertilizer when the first fruit begins to form and again after the first harvest. It’s a good idea to support large fruited varieties with a stake or tomato cage. Most varieties will need at least two months to produce a crop.
Like most tropicals, eggplant thrives with warm days, warm nights and plenty of sunshine; it can take our Texas heat as long as it receives sufficient water. Fruit production may stall during summer’s peak, but plants will revive and produce like mad once the hottest temperatures have passed. Fall rains, if we are lucky enough to get them, seem to stimulate fruit-set practically overnight.
It is beneficial to cover young transplants with lightweight row cover to shield from both strong winds and hungry pests. Flea beetles are especially enamored of eggplant. They chew small, round holes in the leaves, but like fleas they move so fast you rarely see them. Their damage is mostly aesthetic, but if you feel that flea beetles are getting the upper hand, the application of a pesticide will help bring them under control. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service recommends products containing neem oil, pyrethrin or diatomaceous earth as organic controls for flea beetles.
As previously mentioned, the taste and texture of eggplant is best when harvested before it reaches full maturity. The skin should be glossy and the fruit should feel slightly firm. Fruit that is dull and soft on the outside will be bitter and seedy on the inside. Use shears to cut the fruit from the plant and be aware that some varieties have small, sharp thorns that blend right into the stem or calyx — you may not see them, but if you get pricked you will know it. Eggplant does not like the chill of a refrigerator, so I store it in the coolest part of my house or in my mini “vegetables only” refrigerator set at 50°F. If eggplant is stored in the refrigerator try to use it within a few days to avoid off flavors.
As you can imagine from its worldly ancestry, eggplant varieties are abundant and diverse; what follows is a brief description of four main types for the vegetable garden with representative varieties from each category. An extensive offering of Asian, heirloom and specialty eggplants, along with eye-popping photographs, can be found in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog (see seed sources).
Globe. These glossy, deep-purple, bell-shaped types represent the traditional eggplant we might find in the supermarket. ‘Black Beauty,’ a large, meaty eggplant introduced by the W. Atlee Burpee Company in 1902, is one of the oldest varieties around and remains a dependable classic. Tall, sturdy plants produce large fruit that can weigh in at over a pound. ‘Traviata’ and ‘Nadia’ are improved hybrid varieties with higher yields, better disease resistance and smaller, more uniform fruit. ‘Casper’ produces shiny, 6-inch, white-skinned fruit with creamy white flesh on compact plants.
Asian/Elongated. Easily distinguished by their long, slender fruit, varieties from Japan and China are very popular in Texas gardens. They tend to have a thin, delicate skin, fewer seeds and less bitterness than large-fruited eggplant and are ideal on the grill or in a stir-fry. ‘Pingtung Long’ is a productive, disease resistant heirloom from Taiwan. The violet-hued, slender fruit can grow more than 15 inches in length, but pick it around 10 inches for the best taste and texture. ‘Machiaw,’ a hybrid variety with mild flesh and pale lavender skin, produces abundantly through the season. ‘Millionaire’ is a Japanese hybrid with a succulent texture and purple skin that is so dark it almost appears black. It is prized for its earliness, productivity and high-quality fruit. Also on the early side is long and thin ‘Orient Express,’ a delicately flavored Asian variety that performs well in the heat. ‘Louisiana Long Green’ is a beloved heirloom from Cajun Country, prized by many for its sweet, buttery flesh and highly productive plants. Especially good on the grill, this variety has proven time and again that it can handle the heat and humidity of the Deep South.
Round/Oval. These beautiful eggplants, mostly Italian heirlooms, are smaller than the classic globe type. Plump and mild-flavored, ‘Rosa Bianca’ is one of the prettiest, with a rosy blush over porcelain-white skin. Drought- and heat-tolerant ‘Listada de Gandia’ produces beautiful creamy white fruit with purple streaks and tender flesh (but watch out — this one has prickly thorns). Sweet-tasting ‘Calliope’ is one of my favorites — a productive hybrid with clusters of diminutive purple-and-white striped fruit on attractive, bushy plants.
Miniature/Specialty. Petite fruit on petite plants add a bit of whimsy to the garden with the bonus of a sweet-tasting harvest. All-America Selections winners ‘Hansel’ (purple), ‘Gretel’ (white) and ‘Fairy Tale’ (purple-and-white striped) produce clusters of 3–4 inch, elongated fruit. Compact plants grow less than three feet tall and are suitable for container cultivation. Be sure to pick young; once this fruit starts to turn yellow it will quickly turn tough and bitter. ‘Kermit’ is a hybrid version of the green-and-white variegated Thai eggplant. The golf-ball-sized fruit has firm, almost crunchy flesh that is great in curry recipes, or try them raw, sliced thinly and tossed in salads.
Two words often associated with eggplant are spongy and bitter, but depending on your perspective and how you handle eggplant in the kitchen these do not have to be negative qualities. First and foremost, embrace the bitterness — it is inherent in many of the health-promoting phytochemical compounds found in vegetables. Roasting, braising or grilling will mellow the bitterness for those with sensitive taste buds. Take advantage of eggplant’s spongy texture and neutral flavor with savory marinades and spices, allowing it to absorb the flavors before cooking. Salting eggplant or pre-cooking it in the microwave is a common practice to prevent eggplant from absorbing excess oil when sautéing or frying, but this is not usually necessary when using fresh-from-the-garden specimens picked in their prime. Whether infused with spices, charred on the grill or stuffed to the gill, eggplant harmonizes well with other flavors and lends itself to a variety of cooking methods. So welcome its versatility to your kitchen. And if you just want to expose yourself or your family to eggplant but have doubts about its acceptance, start with a recipe that combines eggplant with other vegetables, and if all else fails, add cheese!