Gardening with the Masters: For source of fiber, minerals, grow eggplant
by Patricia Bowen
April 18, 2014 12:21 AM | 1148 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Patricia Bowen<br>Cherokee County Master Gardener
Patricia Bowen
Cherokee County Master Gardener
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Eggplant is an ancient food that grew wild in Eurasia and was first cultivated in China in the 5th century B.C. It was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages and then to Italy in the 14th century. The Italians’ creative eggplant recipes may have helped the spread of the plant throughout Europe, the Middle East and eventually into the Western Hemisphere. Even with this rich history, diners of early varieties were cautious of the plant’s bitter taste, and some societies gave it a reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer. Not so much today. Despite those early fears, we now know that eggplant features a host of vitamins and minerals and antioxidants (don’t peel it; there is brain food in the lovely purple skin), and putting eggplant regularly in your diet has been shown to reduce cholesterol, add fiber and build bones. However, eggplant belongs to the nightshade family of vegetables, which also includes tomatoes, bell and sweet peppers, potatoes, tobacco, and more than 2,800 species of plants with very different properties. What nightshades have in common is a group of compounds in them called alkaloids, which have medical use in drugs and may cause different reactions in different persons. If you’re interested in or suspect potential reactions to nightshades go to www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=62 for a descriptive overview.

Eggplant cultivars grow much like tomatoes, hanging from vines of a plant that grows several feet in height. Varieties range in taste and texture, and most can be described as having a pleasant but slightly bitter taste and spongy texture. Today’s most popular eggplant, ‘Black Beauty,’ looks like a pear-shaped egg with glossy purple skin and spongy, cream-colored flesh containing seeds arranged in a conical pattern. Other varieties include such colors as lavender, jade green, orange and yellow-white, with sizes and shapes that range from that of a small tomato to a large zucchini. They vary slightly in taste and texture, and in many recipes they fulfill the role of complementing other more flavorful ingredients.

Whether you call them eggplant, aubergine, or brinjals, unless your recipe calls for a specific eggplant variety you may want to stay with the most common purple one. Many smaller or exotic varieties don’t complement standard recipes like eggplant parmesan and moussaka and may alter the taste and texture.

If purchasing at the market, regardless of type, choose eggplants that are firm and heavy for their size. Regardless of color, look for smooth, shiny skin that is free of scars and bruises, and a fresh green stem. Run your fingernail along the skin, and if the skin is waxed, don’t buy the vegetable. To test for ripeness, gently press the skin with your thumb; if it springs back, the eggplant is ripe; if it doesn’t, leave it on the shelf. Though they look hardy, eggplants are really quite perishable and are sensitive to both heat and cold, especially once they’ve been pierced, peeled or cut. Store in a loose plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to several days, but remove any plastic film that may be on the eggplant as this will inhibit “breathing.”

If growing your own eggplant, you can set seeds or plants in clay pots or directly in the garden once soil temps are 55 degrees or higher. They need full sun (four-plus hours daily), at least one square foot of ground, moist soil and fertilizer every couple of weeks. Dwarf plants might be more suitable for smaller gardens, but they may produce eggplants that are smaller than you prefer. To promote upward growth, loosely tie the plants to stakes as the vines begin to climb, but not too tightly as you may cut into stems and choke them.

I have many favorite recipes for eggplant parmesan, and I’ve learned an altered technique which does not affect the taste and makes it even easier to prepare. After breading the eggplant slices, instead of frying them in oil, I bake them on a cookie sheet, which has been sprayed lightly with cooking spray, in a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes on each side; then I proceed with the rest of the recipe instructions. Much less mess, fewer calories. Eggplant can also be stuffed with feta cheese, pine nuts and roasted peppers. Cubed baked eggplant can be mixed with other vegetables in salads or hot dishes, whipped into dips, layered into lasagna. Go online or to your cookbook shelf and learn how to get even more creative with eggplant.

Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the UGA extension website, www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee ; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the UGA extension. Follow Cherokee County Master Gardeners on facebook at www.facebook.com/cherokeemastergardeners for gardening tips as well as upcoming seminars.
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