In season: Eggplant soaks up spices from India to Spain
The warm June sun has called forth the first of the summer’s eggplants. They have a tang and just a hint of desirable bitterness to their mild and earthy flavor. That edgy tang adds snap to the stronger Provencal flavors of onion, tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, basil, olives and roasted sweet peppers with which they are often combined.
Eggplant adds texture and bulk to dishes along with its sappy flavors. But “eggplant” isn’t a single vegetable. Besides the raven-dark, purple-black common eggplants seen in supermarkets, eggplants vary in size from pingpong balls to 2-foot ropes, and in color from orange-red to pinkish lavender to celadon green to ivory white. These you’ll most likely find at Oliver’s, Whole Foods or our farmers markets.
They’re also relatively easy to grow — even in a large pot filled with rich compost — and having your own varieties fresh from the garden will give you a benchmark for quality that you can use when buying them from a producer. Besides, eggplant is a very ornamental plant, with pretty purplish and yellow flowers and showy fruits that dangle under the wide leaves.
Look for eggplants about two-thirds of their full, mature size. At full size, they have a tendency to turn overly bitter and their seeds become ripe, hard and bothersome. They soften and turn watery and puffy. The bright gloss of their skin dulls to a matte finish. When pressed with a thumb, the indentation remains.
When they’re perfect, their skins will have a high gloss, and when pressed with a thumb, they have a little “give” that rebounds when pressure is lifted. Their green cap and stem are bright and fresh-looking. And the best eggplants will feel heavy in the hand — like citrus fruit.
They’re among the edible members of the solanaceae family, related to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, ground cherries and tomatillos. Other members of that family are poisonous and addictive: tobacco, jimsonweed and deadly nightshade. Of the edibles, eggplant is the only one native to the Old World.
Scientists believe it originated in either India or Burma, was carried east to China and west to Arabia. The Moors introduced it into Spain and Europe in the 8th century. Before the introduction of its New World relatives after Columbus, eggplant was as much a staple crop in southern Europe as the potato later became.
In Italy, it was originally thought to be poisonous and was called mala insana in Latin, or apples of insanity. Today the Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, is a worn-down version of the Latin. In the rest of Europe, it’s known as aubergine, a term that has come down a convoluted path from its original Sanskrit. With good old American bluntness, we know it as eggplant, and if you have ever seen the variety called ‘Osterei,’ which means Easter Egg, you’d think you were looking at a white egg.
‘Black Beauty’ is probably the most common variety of large black eggplant, with ‘Dusky’a close second, and the 2-inch-long by 1-inch-and-a-half wide ‘Baby Bell’ gaining in popularity.
You’ll find the choicest eggplants at farmers markets in August and September in most of the country, because this plant is tropical in nature, where it’s perennial — although it’s grown as an annual in the temperate United States. Because of its tropical nature and its short shelf life, don’t store it in the fridge. Just set it on a cool counter space and use it within a day or two after you buy it.