975 Solanum melongenaCommon Names: eggplant, aubergine Family: Solanaceae (nightshade Family)
The plant that yields our eggplant vegetable is a frost-tender herbaceous perennial, but it is usually grown as an annual. Most eggplants grow 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) tall with many branches and large, rangy leaves. Growing to 9 in (23 cm) long, the leaves are pubescent and sometimes spiny. The flowers are purple and give rise to the fruits (berries, actually) which may be black, purple, green, white, striped, and even red or orange. Eggplants come in many shapes, sizes and colors. The old standard American types (e.g., 'Black Beauty', 'Florida Market', 'Dusky') are shiny purplish black and usually oval or shaped like a big pear. They tend to be a little bitter, have thick tough skins and fibrous flesh. In the home garden they are less productive than the more flavorful Oriental types such as 'Machiaw', 'Agora' and 'Ichiban' (our favorite).
The elongate Oriental types have a mild flavor and sweet, tender skins. The eggplants with white skins tend to be firmer and drier than other kinds, and they are mild tasting and less bitter; but their skins are usually thick and need to be peeled. Gardeners have access to many types of eggplants not found in produce markets. Cornucopia II lists 56 different varieties sold in American seed catalogues. There are several unusual looking eggplants that are spherical in shape and red or orange in color. Some of these actually belong to different species: Solanum aethiopicum and S. macrocarpon. 'Kermit', 'Turkish Orange', and several African types that are flattened and have raised ribs are among these. The African types tend to be bitter - this is a good thing to some palates, but not for most Americans.
Eggplant originated in southeast Asia, probably India. This is unusual, because most of the edible members of the nightshade family (for example tomatoes, potatoes, peppers) originated in the New World. Many poisonous plants in the same botanical family, such as tobacco, nightshade, angel trumpet and Jimson weed, are also of New World origin. Eggplant is cultivated as a food crop in all warm areas of the world, and many different varieties have become associated with different regions, for example Italian eggplants, Japanese eggplants or Middle Eastern eggplants.
CultureEggplant foliage is susceptible to damage from Colorado potato beetles, whose fat soft gray larvae are easily removed by hand. Little shiny black flea beetles can also be a problem, but can be controlled with soap spray. Light: Grow eggplants, like other vegetables, in full sun. Moisture: Eggplants need adequate water during the development of the fruit. One inch of water per week should be enough. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 10. (as an annual in the garden). Eggplants require a long, warm growing season. It takes 70 days or more after setting out the seedlings before fruits are ready to harvest. Propagation: Start eggplant seeds as you would tomato or pepper seeds, 6-10 weeks before setting out. Be sure there is no chance of frost and that the soil is warm before transplanting eggplant seedlings. Eggplants are best set out 2-3 weeks after the average last frost date. They are much more sensitive to cold than are tomato or pepper seedlings. Space eggplants 3-4 ft (0.8-1.2 m) apart and stake or cage to keep them from falling over when they are laden with fruit.
Eggplants can be picked at any stage of development, but are at their best while the skin is glossy before it becomes dull, and before the seeds start to harden and turn brown. Over mature eggplants tend to be bitter, especially the seeds. Eggplants keep only a couple days after picking. They quickly get soft and mushy and begin to spoil, and refrigeration only hastens the process. Leave them on the plant until you are ready to use them - or freeze them. When we get a bumper crop of eggplants we slice them and bake the slices quickly on a cookie sheet to reduce moisture and halt enzymatic activity. Then we freeze the slices for later use in spaghetti sauce (crosscut slices) or eggplant parmesan (lengthwise slices).
Many recipes call for salting eggplant before it is used. This is supposed to reduce bitterness, draw out excess moisture, and reduce oil absorption during cooking. We have found that salting does nothing to improve cooked eggplant. It just adds time and mess to the process, and makes the eggplant too salty. Maybe salting would be useful for excessively bitter eggplants, but for fresh, young eggplants, especially the Oriental types, it is unnecessary. It is true that eggplants, due to their spongy texture, soak up a lot of oil when they are beginning to fry, but after a few minutes in the frying pan, the structure collapses and most of the oil is expelled. Our baking and freezing process also collapses the structure and reduces oil absorption. If the eggplant has a thick skin, peel it before cooking. If the eggplant is a standard American super market type, shiny purplish and shaped like a big pear, discard it.
We use thick slices of Ichiban eggplant in spaghetti sauce. In the rich tomato sauce the eggplant chunks satisfy like meat. We also like to sauté slices of eggplant in olive oil, adding minced fresh garlic in the last couple minutes of cooking. (Regular olive oil, as opposed to extra virgin, has a higher smoking point and is therefore better for cooking; save the extra virgin for salads and marinades.) We also use eggplant in lasagna and eggplant parmesan. (For us, the only real difference between these two dishes is the pasta in the lasagna.) Eggplant can also be baked, stuffed, and broiled, and is especially good when grilled. Greek moussaka, French ratatouille, and Middle Eastern Imam bayildi are world famous vegetable stew dishes that feature eggplant. Sliced eggplant on pizza? You bet!
Eggplant got its name because the first varieties to be cultivated in North America were shaped like hen's eggs. They came in several colors and were grown as ornamentals, not for food. Eggplants are called "aubergines" in Europe, "eggfruit" in Australia, "garden egg" in West Africa, and "brown jolly' in the West Indies. It has been reported that eating eggplant decreases serum cholesterol levels. Some people claim to be able to identify the "sex" of an eggplant; many of these same people have also reported seeing Elvis Presley at their local farmers' market.
Steve Christman 8/13/03; updated 2/1/04