Love it or hate it, call it a fruit or a vegetable, few foods inspire as much culinary controversy as the deep purple nightshade known as the eggplant. Or as the aubergine. Like its cousin the tomato, the eggplant is the seed–containing, flowering ovary of a plant, so it is technically a fruit—a berry, to be more precise. While the most familiar eggplant-based dishes are from Italy—most notably the sliced, fried and topped-with-cheese classic, Eggplant Parmigiana—it is also popular in many traditional Asian cuisines, cut into thin strips, sautéed and seasoned with something like a sweet and spicy garlic sauce. The eggplant was first domesticated in India, but it quickly spread across Southeast Asia, the region that is still the primary source for eggplants. It also spread to Arabia, and in the Middle Ages, it was introduced to Spain and Greece, and then Italy and the rest of Europe.
If you are thinking about growing your own eggplant, your first consideration should be warm soil, according to farmer Ryan Witmer. This month Witmer and gardener Molly Devinney share their tips on how to produce a healthy yield, followed by a recipe from Le Virtu head chef Joe Cicala that will help you put that harvest to use.
For as large as it often grows, eggplant is surprisingly low in calories, with just over 30 per cup. It is considered to be a very good source of fiber, and a significant source of Vitamin K, Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Potassium and Manganese. Hiding within its deep purple skin are significant amounts of phenolic flavonoid phyto-chemicals called anthocyanins, antioxidants that research has shown to fight cancer and inflammation.
What to look for
Choose eggplant with smooth and shiny exteriors and smaller bright green caps. Jumbo eggplants might look impressive, but they tend to be tougher and more bitter.
For the Gardener
Of the 20 to 30 varieties of plants in the South Philadelphia High School (SPHS) garden, garden coordinator Molly Devinney says eggplant are among the easiest. “Tomatoes and peppers can be pretty high–maintenance,” she says. “But with eggplants, consistent watering and a nice, sunny spot should give you a pretty easy yield.”
The key is to wait until mid-May, when the soil is warm, before planting. Devinney also recommends adding crushed eggshells to the soil. “The plants will slowly absorb calcium throughout the season,” she explains.
The only pest she worries about are cutworms, but even they aren’t much trouble. Her students make a game of picking off the greenish-brown caterpillar-like pests. “Before you think about using chemicals, you should just think about trying to pick them off in the morning, when the bugs are the slowest, especially if you only have a few plants.”
According to Devinney, eggplant is popular with the school’s large Italian-American population. “A large percentage of our student population is also of Asian decent,” she adds, “so we try to grow an Asian variety.” The long and thin Asian eggplant will be used to make bite-sized Eggplant Parmigiana, a familiar food that teaches the teenagers the farm-to-table connection.
For Devinney, growing a successful crop of eggplant is rewarding in more ways than one. “It’s incredible when these kids begin to really like cooking with their own foods and see how they could choose that over McDonald’s,” she says. “They’re just teenagers, so they really don’t see how much power they have in the food system.”
From the Farm
“People either really like it or they just don’t,” Ryan Witmer says about eggplant. He is the head farmer at West Philly’s Neighborhood Foods Farm. Although it lags far behind summer favorites, Witmer believes its popularity will eventually grow, especially as customers get familiar with some of the heirloom and more colorful varieties.
Eggplant is far from delicate and doesn’t require the washing, packing and cooling process necessary for leafy greens and some other vegetables, but Witmer agrees on the importance of waiting for the soil to warm up. “If the night drops below 55 degrees, it really sucks the plant,” he explains. “You’ll see the eggplant go into a mode of shock, and it will stop producing.” In addition to cold nights, Witmer’s other concern is a certain furry eggplant fan. “If you don’t have squirrels as a major pest,” he says, “then it’s a pretty easy crop to grow.”
Witmer recommends starting with transplants as opposed to seeds, and tying them to stakes once the plants start growing. He uses a method called the Florida Weave, using one stake for every other plant and weaving twine between the plants to create a support system. Otherwise, as the fruit becomes heavier, the plant may lean over to the point where the fruit ends up on the ground, where it’s more susceptible to rot and pests. For the home gardener just growing a few plants, Witmer suggest simply attaching one stake to each plant.
As for how to beat the squirrels? “Your best bet is to just choose a site where there aren’t as many of the little punks,” says Witmer. If you are not trying to sell the nibbled on eggplant, the scarring can simply be cut off prior to using.
For the Kitchen
At Le Virtu, a Passyunk restaurant dedicated to Abruzzo cuisine, eggplant is a staple of the menu. Abruzzo is a region in south central Italy, 50 miles east of Rome. Executive Chef Joe Cicala says the restaurant gets most of its influence from Southern Italy, which is why eggplant makes a frequent appearance in its cuisine. This specific recipe has been on the Le Virtu menu since it opened, and as Cicala explains, is a very traditional recipe typical to the region.
“We pickle our eggplant in the summer so it lasts all year,” says Cicala, who sources all of the restaurant’s eggplant from Lancaster’s Green Meadows Farm. He typically serves the pickled eggplant with cured meats since its acidity pairs well with fattier meats. Cicala also suggests turning it into bruschetta or pairing it with cheese.
This pickled variation is one of Cicala’s favorite eggplant dishes, but he’s also a devotee of Eggplant Parmigiana—although you won’t see that on the menu of Le Virtu. Instead, a dish of fried eggplant with cherry tomatoes, penne and shaved ricotta silatti is likely to make this summer’s menu.
“Ultimately, it’s a traditional ingredient that has a lot of untapped potential,” says Cicala. “It’s versatile in the way that it fries well, it roasts well. I’ve even seen it dehydrated and crisped for use as a garnish. So, it’ll always have a place on our menu.”
Melanzane Oreganata (Pickled Eggplant) from the kitchen of chef Cicala
- 1 lb. eggplant (Sicilian or standard variety is fine)
- Kosher salt, enough to liberally salt the eggplant
- ½ cup white wine vinegar
- ½ cup water
- 4-6 garlic cloves, whole or cut in half
- 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. salt
- red bell pepper, sliced
- green long hot pepper, sliced
- whole bay leaf, optional
- Extra virgin olive oil, enough to cover contents within 24 oz. glass jar
Use a peeler to peel strips of the eggplant skin so that the eggplant is only partially peeled, making a striped pattern between skin and non-skin areas. Cut into ½-inch discs.
Place the eggplant discs in a large metal colander and sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt. Place a weight on top of the eggplant and let the moisture draw out.
Remove the eggplant from the colander, rinse and squeeze any remaining liquid out of the eggplant by hand.
In a large pot, bring the vinegar and water to a rolling boil and add the eggplant. Cook for one minute, then drain in a colander and let cool.
Squeeze out any excess water/moisture by hand. In a very clean, 24 oz. glass jar, fill with the remaining ingredients in layers of eggplant, garlic, hot pepper, bell pepper, salt and oregano. Repeat until glass is full. Add bay leaf, if using, and fill glass jar with olive oil. Let sit overnight and serve.
For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan
The eggplant is a warm-weather vegetable that comes in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. It typically ripens in mid-summer with its cousin, the tomato. It keeps best at approximately 50°F, so prolonged refrigerator storage should be avoided.
Eggplant dips freeze beautifully. Peel, slice and roast with a handful of garlic cloves, then purée with lemon juice and olive oil.
Marinated eggplant will keep for weeks in the fridge. Simmer, drain and suspend in a light vinaigrette.
Simmer tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and garlic together until soupy. Press through a food mill and garnish with parmesan cheese for an easy summer soup.
Learn more about food preservation at McClellan’s blog foodinjars.com
Grace Dickinson is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.