Summer Food Series: Eggplant
Eggplants have always had an aura of mystery. Once nicknamed the “mad apple” in Europe (Europeans have always been suspicious of nightshade vegetables), eggplants cause neither insanity nor inflammation. In fact, they’re a delicious and versatile food that can fit into a wide variety of meals and recipes.
Eggplant likely originated in India, where it still grows wild. China also has a long history with eggplant, with written references to it dating back to 500 AD. Early uses of the vegetable (which is technically a fruit, but who’s counting) weren’t always related to consumption. For a time, it was popular to use the dark-colored skin of the eggplant to create dyes to stain women’s teeth. Obviously, changing perceptions of dental appearance eradicated this trend long ago.
Commonly referred to as an aubergine in Europe and Canada, an eggplant can come in a variety of shapes and colors. Although a deep-purple, teardrop-shaped eggplant is the most common variety, they can also be speckled with white or completely white, green, or red. Smaller varieties of eggplant, especially white ones, closely resemble eggs – hence, their name.
Eggplants are low in calories at less than 20 per cup. This amount also offers around three grams of fiber. Although eggplant isn’t a substantial source of most vitamins and minerals, it is high in manganese and its deep-purple anthocyanin pigments are powerful antioxidants.
It’s best to grow eggplant in hot weather, above 60 but below 95 °F. It loves sunlight and takes 4-5 months to mature. In the Midwest this likely means starting plants inside for 10-12 weeks, until the risk of frost has completely passed. You should avoid planting eggplant near other nightshades like peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, as these plants tend to share common pests that could jump from one plant to the next. Ripe eggplant will have bright, smooth skin and will feel firm but not hard. If the eggplant skin is wrinkled or yellow, it’s become overripe.
Eggplant doesn’t store particularly well and should be used shortly after buying or harvesting. The ideal temperature for storage is around 50 °F, which, it’s worth acknowledging, is about halfway between refrigerator and countertop temperature. If you’re fortunate enough to have something like a root cellar for storage, that may be the optimal spot for eggplant. In the meantime, avoid slicing eggplant before storing as the flesh of the eggplant will rapidly oxidize and brown. Also avoid storing it with ethylene-producing items like apples, bananas, melons, and tomatoes – this may cause the eggplant to overripen too quickly and spoil prematurely.
China is the world’s leading producer of eggplant, but New Jersey is the number one state in the US for growing them.
When cooking and preparing eggplant for the dinner table, it’s best to think of it as a blank slate. Eggplant itself has a slightly bitter flavor that becomes more savory when cooked, but its true talent is its ability to absorb the flavors of other foods, sauces, and seasonings. If you’re confident with tofu, eggplant can be used similarly. The seeds are soft and edible and do not need to be removed for consumption. The purple skin is also completely edible, but be sure to avoid eating any of the green parts of the plant such as the stems, leaves, and calyx. Many suggest salting or soaking eggplant prior to cooking to reduce bitterness, but opinions on this differ from one eggplant aficionado to the next. If you ask this dietitian, simply cooking the eggplant does more than enough to neutralize the natural bitter flavors.
Now, the recipes! These are all great ideas, but the eggplant Parmesan and Indian eggplant are my personal favorites.