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THE YEAR OF THE EGGPLANT

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

I’m so excited! Did you know that 2008 is the Year of the Eggplant? Every year the National Garden Bureau selects one vegetable and one flower to be showcased by this recognition. Plants selected for this honor must be “easy to grow from seed, widely adaptable, genetically diverse, and versatile.” Eggplants fit those criteria quite well. Even though it doesn’t share in the culinary popularity of its cousin the tomato, eggplant certainly is an interesting veggie and one that I think should be grown… and eaten more.

I’m willing to bet that a small part of the eggplant’s lack of popularity is due to very old fears about the safety of eating the fruit. It has been a food crop in the Middle East and Asia for centuries. The origins of eggplant are believed to be India. Eggplant was grown in China by 500 B.C. From those locations it traveled to Africa during the Middle Ages and then to Italy in the 14th century. Apparently many Europeans didn’t trust the eggplant… perhaps for good reason. They feared it was poisonous like several of its other similar looking cousins, deadly nightshade and jimsonweed.

Louis XIV, apparently a epicurean daredevil, introduced the eggplant as a food in France, but even his lofty title couldn’t allay the fears of Europeans that eggplant caused a variety of maladies including fever, epilepsy, and even insanity. No wonder Louis XIV wasn’t successful! Even Thomas Jefferson couldn’t change peoples’ perception of the eggplant’s unsuitability as food when he introduced it to the U.S. in the early 1800

s. It wasn’t until Asian and Italian immigrants came to this country bringing their cuisine with them that Americans learned that eggplants were safe and enjoyable to eat.

American gardeners are most familiar with the large pear-shaped purple eggplant varieties ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Dusky,’ but there are other types available. Eggplants are grouped by their shape… globe, cylindrical, egg-shaped, specialty, and pea. Dark purple isn’t the only eggplant color. There are also eggplant varieties with green, white, black, yellow, orange, red, pink, lavender and even striped or shaded skin.

Those who have only tried the large purple fruit varieties of eggplant might find other varieties more to their liking. The Japanese varieties are generally small fruited in various shapes or long and cylindrical. These varieties tend to have tender skin that doesn’t need to be peeled off. The National Garden Bureau notes that the Japanese varieties are quite tasty and great for “stir-frying, grilling, sautéing and pickling.” The pea eggplants with fruit the size of a marble and borne in grape-like clusters aren’t yet a common item in the U.S. Traditionally used in spicy Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian foods, they have a bitter flavor. The pea eggplants are also prepared in pickled form.

Some gardeners grow eggplants as a decorative plant since some are very ornamental. For example, ‘Bambino’ is a dwarf foot-tall plant that produces little one inch purple fruit and can be used as an interesting edging plant or in containers. In 2005, ‘Fairy Tale’ eggplant won distinction as an All-American Selection for it white fruit striped with violet and purple.. not just ornamental, the fruit has good flavor and texture, plus the plant is very productive and compact enough for planters. This year ‘Hansel’ eggplant was recognized with an All-America Selections Award for its prolific production of shiny purple fruit.

Eggplants are easy to grow just like their cousin the tomato. They like warm weather and shouldn’t be planted outdoors until the soil warms up and after the danger of frost is past. They grow best in rich fertile soil that’s kept evenly moist. Space plants about 18 inches apart and give long or heavy-fruited varieties support by caging or staking them.

To keep plants productive, harvest the fruit by snipping them off the plant with sheers as soon as they’re mature. Fruit should be the size indicated on the seed packet or in the seed catalog. The skin should still be glossy and the fruit firm. A ripe fruit will give a little when pressed with the fingertips, but should spring back immediately. One big reason that many folks don’t like eggplant is because they’ve only eaten over-mature fruit that has turned spongy, bitter and seedy. Eggplants must be harvested as soon as they’re ripe and stored in the refrigerator vegetable bin within a perforated plastic bag.

There are many tips on cooking eggplants, such as soaking slices in water for fifteen minutes prior to cooking to reduce bitterness and breading slices before frying so the flesh doesn’t soak up a lot of oil. Check out a good cookbook for preparing and cooking eggplant the right way.

So celebrate the Year of the Eggplant and give this veggie another try. After all, it won’t kill you or make you go crazy!

Published: 2/19/2008 2:08 PM

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