Egg-Gregiously Overlooked Eggplant
By Renee Pottle
This healthful, but often disdained vegetable, deserves a prominent place in your kitchen and garden
I taught an adult education vegetable cooking class for several years, and the one thing everyone agreed on was that they didn’t like eggplant. Most students had never even eaten eggplant, yet they were convinced they wouldn’t like it. Preparing a delicious eggplant dish isn’t difficult; see my advice on Pages 15 and 16. But even if you’ve never eaten eggplant and aren’t willing to try it, I highly recommend that you grow this beautiful crop. Eggplant’s lobed leaves and star-shaped purple blossoms make it pretty enough to use as an ornamental plant.
Although we consider eggplant a vegetable, it’s technically a fruit. Solanum melongena is a member of the nightshade family. Potatoes are a sibling, and both eggplants and potatoes are kissing cousins to peppers, tomatoes, and tomatillos. Eggplant originated in northeastern Africa about 2 million years ago, and spread to Asia, where it eventually was domesticated. To grow this heat-loving plant, start seeds indoors 8 to 12 weeks before your area’s last frost. The seeds will germinate best when provided with bottom heat via a seedling heat mat or another warm environment, such as the top of your refrigerator. Repot eggplant seedlings when the second full set of leaves appears. Be sure to handle the seedlings carefully, as they’re notoriously delicate.
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Plant the seedlings in fertile, well-composted, and well-drained soil in full sun after nighttime temperatures are regularly above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Space them 12 to 18 inches apart, because some cultivars grow quite large. The plants need wind protection and support for the weight of the ripening fruit. I use tomato cages in my garden; staking each plant individually also works well. Mulch the bed to keep the roots warm, and water the plants regularly.
Eggplants are self-pollinating; if you plan to save seeds, space cultivars 50 feet apart to prevent cross-pollination. To save seeds, let the fruits grow over-ripe. The skin will become hard and the fruit may start to rot. When this happens, separate the seeds from the flesh, dry them, and store them in a cool, dark place. Seeds will maintain about 50 percent germination rate for up to seven years; in my experience, the plant quality from saved seeds decreases dramatically after five years.
While heat-loving eggplants grow best in Zones 5 and up, avid gardener Larry Miller has successfully grown them in Zone 4. His keys to achieving a fruitful harvest are to “start with a high-quality plant, avoid cold nighttime temperatures, and provide nutrition and regular water.” Although Zone 4’s short growing season and extreme temperature fluctuations aren’t suited to growing eggplants, Miller coaxes them into setting fruit by growing the plants in containers inside a greenhouse. In warmer Zones, where the season may be shortened by cold springs or early autumns, Miller recommends using water-filled plant protectors or hoop houses. Dwarf cultivars have been developed for smaller containers, but most eggplants will provide a harvest when grown in large containers – and you can move the containers into the greenhouse or to a sheltered location when the temperature takes a cold turn.
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Although some gardeners find their eggplants don’t suffer from pests, others have to deal with aphids or flea beetles. A plant rotation schedule can help keep pests under control.
Researchers are finding that reflective mulch, also sold as “silver mulch,” is effective against flea beetles, which can turn eggplant leaves into lace overnight. When reflective mulch is deployed, plants become taller and more vigorous, and yields increase.
Most eggplant cultivars produce ready-to-harvest fruit in 65 to 90 days. The fruit is ripe when it’s plump and feels heavy for its size, and its skin is smooth and shiny.
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Cultivars to Try in Your Garden
Eggplant is available in numerous colors, shapes, and sizes. Besides the common purple eggplant, you can grow plants that will produce white, green, red, yellow, and even pink fruit. Shapes and sizes include long and skinny, short and round, tiny egg-shaped and large ovals, and bite-sized eggplants that look like grapes. The fruit of some cultivars resembles banana peppers.
Many seed companies carry globe-shaped ‘Black Beauty,’ and ‘Long Purple,’ shaped like its name. A new cultivar for me is ‘Prosperosa,’ a short, fat, Italian heirloom with a pleated top. Be sure to read the seed company’s description and choose a cultivar that will thrive in your particular growing conditions. Eggplants aren’t particularly prolific plants, even under the best of circumstances. Their production period is rather short, usually with only one harvest. One plant will most likely provide enough fruit for a small family, but I always plant two or more if I want extra to give away.
All eggplants have a delicate flavor, but the globe types are often considered more bitter than the long cultivars. (Note that freshly picked eggplant from your garden will probably not be bitter.) Many cooks salt eggplant before cooking to reduce perceived bitterness and to remove some of the fruit’s excess liquid. Chop or slice the fruit into large pieces (either peeled or unpeeled), place in a strainer, and toss with a couple of tablespoons of salt. Let sit for 15 minutes and rinse thoroughly before using in a recipe.
All types of eggplant can be used interchangeably. Eggplant’s flavor melds well with basil, mint, garlic, or peanuts, and it’s traditionally served with mutton or white meat. You’ll also find eggplant paired with Parmesan, ricotta, and other cheeses, as well as lemon, tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar.
Eggplant can be served in several ways, each providing a different texture to suit different preferences. Here are my favorite ways to prepare eggplant.
Roasted. Toss eggplant pieces with olive oil and herbs, and roast them in the oven as you would cauliflower, broccoli, or winter squash.
Stewed. My granddaughter asks for garden-fresh homemade ratatouille every summer. To make this traditional French dish, cut eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers into chunks or slices, combine, and cook in a tomato broth. Potatoes are an optional addition.
Stuffed and baked. Stuff eggplant and then bake in the same way you’d handle zucchini or winter squash. I especially like to stuff eggplant with a mixture of rice, sunflower seeds, and feta cheese.
Image Liudmyla – stock.adobe.com
Grilled. Slice a globe-shaped eggplant into ½-inch-thick pieces. Brush them with olive oil, and grill on both sides until soft. Smoky grilled eggplant can be served as a meat substitute.
Renee Pottle writes about food preservation and gardening from her home in Kennewick, Washington. She’s the author of Creative Jams and Preserves and The Confident Canner.
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