University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Summer News Article


THE MANY USES OF EGGPLANT

 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
This vegetable is quite diverse and more versatile, both in the garden and in the kitchen, than you might think.  It has been around for many centuries, used in cuisine of many countries.  Harvesting at the correct time, and preparing properly, ensures the best flavor.
             
Eggplant is thought to have originally come from India, with records of it cultivated in China in 500 B.C.  It was eaten in Asia and the Middle East for centuries, with the Arabs and Persians taking it to Africa in the Middle Ages.  Eggplant reached Italy in the 14th century, but it was not eaten much in Europe until at least the 1700’s.  Grown in Europe for its purple, star-shaped flowers and colorful fruits, Europeans didn’t eat it for several reasons.  In addition to the bitter fruit being unappealing, they considered them dangerous.  Being a relative of the nightshade family, they believed eggplant to cause fever, epilepsy, and even insanity! 
           
Thomas Jefferson brought the eggplant to America in the early 1800’s, but they were only used ornamentally here too until the early 1900’s.  Chinese and Italian immigrants during that period, with their long traditions of using eggplant in their cooking, popularized this use.

Today you’ll find eggplant used in cuisines of the world including Greek moussaka, Middle Eastern baba ganoush, Italian eggplant parmigiana, French ratatouille, and Asian stir-fries and curries. In addition to vegetable gardens, they make colorful additions to ornamental borders with their diversity of fruits.  They come in a range of sizes from small to large; a range of shapes from pea-like to egg-shaped to long and slender; and a range of colors from the traditional royal purple to shades of rose, green, yellow, and white.
           
As eggplants vary, so do their harvest times.  In general, harvest large-fruited eggplants about three months from transplanting and small-fruited ones about two months from setting out.  Ideal harvest time is when fruits feel firm, have a glossy appearance, and the skin springs back when lightly pressed.  If the skin doesn’t spring back when pressed, fruits are overripe and may be bitter.  Unfortunately, many eggplants you find in stores are overripe, supporting their bitter reputation.  Fresh eggplants, and many newer varieties, have little bitterness.
           
Harvest fruits by cutting, not twisting which can damage the plants.  Once harvested, eggplants will keep about a week wrapped in perforated plastic in the refrigerator.  Fruits can be sliced or cubed, then blanched or steamed, and frozen up to eight months for later use.
           
Eggplant has chemicals that can cause digestive upset if eaten raw, so is usually cooked.  It can be grilled, stuffed, roasted, served in soups and stews and on kabobs, and used in curries and stir-fries.         Eggplant is nutritious, being low in calories, fat, and sodium.  It is high in fiber, and provides additional nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin B6 and A. 
           
Follow several tips on preparation and cooking to maximize your enjoyment of eggplant.  To prepare eggplants, if you want to keep the calories and fat low, cook in broth, wine, or vegetable juice instead of oil or butter.  Since the flesh discolors quickly, use right away after cutting.  Lightly sprinkle slices with lemon juice to help prevent browning.  Cut slices with a stainless steel knife since carbon blades will cause discoloration.  Cooking in an aluminum pan also will cause blackening.

Since eggplant is over 90 percent water, some recommend salting slices or cubes for a couple hours before cooking.  Then rinse well to wash off the salt, drain, and pat dry before cooking.   If cooking in oil, coat slices first with breadcrumbs or a flour and egg mix to keep them from absorbing so much oil.
           
You may want to soak large eggplants in water for 15 minutes for using, or peeling the skin that contains most of the bitter compounds.  Keep in mind that many newer varieties have good flavor without bitterness, and harvesting on time helps prevent bitterness.  
           
You can learn more about the eggplant and its culture in a fact sheet from the National Garden Bureau (www.ngb.org).  This site has fact sheets on other vegetables too that you may find of interest.
           

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