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Eggplant

Baba Ghanoush

By Barbara Beltrami

Actually, eggplant comes in many more shapes and sizes than the large purple global variety with which we are all familiar. A member of the nightshade family, its flowers, not the eggplant itself, can be female or male. So the preference for one or the other is based on myth. What you should concentrate on when choosing an eggplant is the skin, the weight and the hardness or softness of it. A fresh, ripe eggplant has glossy, taut skin, feels somewhat heavy and can be depressed with the thumb with just a little resistance and then return to its form.

While most people think of eggplant as one of the basic ingredients in the popular Italian American dish, eggplant parmigiana, it is, in fact, a staple of many diets, particularly in the Near and Far East. From the Syrian baba ghanoush to the Indian bhurtha to the Thai pud makua yow, eggplant crosses most ethnic boundaries to remind us that we’re not very much different from one another. I don’t often feature Asian recipes in this column simply because I have little experience with them. However, research among some acquaintances for whom the following recipes are traditional has expanded my repertoire.

Bhurtha

Bhurtha

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

1 medium eggplant

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 large tomato, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped

DIRECTIONS: Preheat broiler. Rub eggplant skin with oil. Place under broiler and turn frequently until skin is charred and inside pulp is soft and mushy. Cut eggplant in half, scoop out flesh, cut into cubes and set aside. In a medium-large skillet, heat the oil, then add the onion, ginger, tomato, garlic, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cayenne, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, just until onion turns opaque. Add eggplant and cook another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until most of the moisture is evaporated. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with naan (oven-baked flatbread), jasmine rice and peas.

Baba Ghanoush

Baba Ghanoush

YIELD: Makes 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 large eggplants

Juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons tahini

One large clove garlic, finely minced

Coarse salt, to taste

¹/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

DIRECTIONS: Wash eggplants and grill whole on gas grill over medium-low heat. Turn frequently until eggplant is cooked on all sides, skin is charred and pulp is soft. Remove from heat, place on a platter and let cool for one hour. Do not be alarmed if it collapses. Peel the eggplant, scrape any flesh that adheres to the skin and put that plus the remaining flesh into a bowl; immediately add lemon juice and mash it in with the eggplant. Add tahini, garlic and salt and mix well. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill. Transfer mixture to a shallow bowl, sprinkle with parsley, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with pita bread and black olives.

Pud Makua Yow

Pud Makua Yow

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 serrano chiles, stemmed and minced

2 to 3 medium eggplants (preferably the long Japanese ones), cut into one-inch cubes

1 cup water

2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1½ cups Thai sweet basil leaves, packed

DIRECTIONS: Pour oil into a wok or large skillet; add garlic and chiles. Over medium heat, cook, stirring constantly, until garlic releases its aroma. Add eggplant and one cup water; stir, cover and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary, until eggplant is tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. If too much liquid remains, uncover and continue cooking until it is evaporated. Add soy and fish sauces and stir; then add basil and stir again. Serve immediately with rice, tofu or chicken.

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Eggplants come in many different shapes, sizes and colors. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Growing an eggplant is relatively easy on Long Island. Eggplants are in the Solanaceae (that is, nightshade) family. Cultivation of the eggplant is very similar to that of the tomato. It is a perennial in tropical regions but in our climate is grown as an annual. Like tomatoes, night temperature must be warm enough (65 degrees or more) in order for eggplant blossoms to set fruit. The plant will stop fruiting when the air temperature drops below 65.

Generally, the fruit is large and a deep purple or aubergine color. In fact, in some parts of the world, it is called aubergine, rather than eggplant. Size and color of the fruit, however, vary depending on the cultivar. Some eggplants produce a cream-colored fruit, making it really look like an egg, hence its name.

There are dozens of varieties of eggplant. ‘Jade Sweet’  is smaller in size and has a pale green-colored skin. ‘Black Stem’ eggplant is an ornamental with black stems and looks more like a tomato than an eggplant.  ‘Cookstown Orange’ also resembles a tomato. It has yellow, nonbitter flesh. ‘Casper’ is long and slim with ivory-white fruit. ‘Clara’ has a medium-sized white fruit. There are even varieties with long, slim fruits such as ‘Mackinaw’ and ‘Orient Express.’ Eggplant flowers in general are light to dark purple with yellow centers, but some cultivars have white flowers.

Eggplants grow best in a soil pH of 6.3 to 6.8, which is only mildly acidic. Test your soil first, but generally, on Long Island you will need to raise the pH by adding lime. If you grow the plant in a large container with potting soil, this will be less of a problem since most potting soil is closer to being neutral.

Eggplant grows best in a sunny location with well-drained soil. Make sure you water sufficiently, several times a week, especially when Long Island is going through its periodic droughts. Fertilize as you choose: compost, composted manure, compost tea or commercial fertilizer. Remember that you are going to be eating the fruit, so don’t put anything on the plants that is not rated for human consumption. Some chemicals tell the gardener to stop a certain number of days before harvest.

Mulch to keep the soil cool and conserve moisture. Space each plant two to three feet apart as these can be large plants. Like tomato plants, which usually need some support, large eggplants need support as well. Use stakes or a tomato cage.

If you decide to grow them from seed, it is recommended that you start the seeds indoors two months before you will move them outdoors. Harden the plants off before moving them permanently into the garden, in late May. That means start them in March. Since so many houses on Long Island do not have enough indoor light (plants get very leggy without enough sun), you might want to consider buying several plants from a nursery instead.

Because the raw fruit can be somewhat bitter, eggplant is usually cooked. Eggplant parmigiana is made basically the same way as veal parmigiana. Remove the skin first, slice, bread and fry. Serve with tomato sauce and mozzarella. A favorite recipe of mine is a turkey and eggplant casserole. Eggplant can also be grilled — season and coat with olive oil.

Other plants in the nightshade family include tomatoes and potatoes as well as bell peppers. Tobacco and petunias are also in the nightshade family. Atropia belladonna (also a nightshade) is toxic so pull it out if you see it growing wild in your garden. While tomatoes and potatoes are completely edible (unless you’re allergic to one or both), the leaves are not. Never, I repeat, never eat potato or tomato leaves.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.