Eggplants come in a staggering array of shapes and sizes, some with flamboyant skin colors like pink and white, jade green, orange and pale lavender — but if you’ve run across the white, egg-shaped variety, you’ll know where this vegetable got its name.
The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, related to potatoes and tomatoes, but it’s not a vegetable — botanically, it’s actually a berry! Eggplant has been known in China since the 5th century, and it spread gradually throughout Asia, the Near East and the Middle East, reaching Europe with Arab traders in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the Spaniards and Italians first developed an appreciation for it. In Northern Europe and England, eating eggplant was thought to induce insanity, and it was grown there only for ornamental purposes until the 1800s.
The flesh of an eggplant is greenish-white and heavily seeded. Raw, it’s flavorless and bland; once cooked, however, its sponge-like flesh soaks up the flavors of other ingredients, turning it supple, silky and rich. Good eggplant has a melting texture and a meaty quality. It’s incredibly versatile and can be baked, grilled, braised, stuffed, fried, boiled, steamed or sautéed to delicious effect.
The pendulous dark purple Globe eggplant is the most familiar and widely available variety in the US. It’s available year-round, but because it needs a long, hot growing season, eggplant is at its peak in late summer and early fall. At their best, Globe eggplants have pale flesh with few visible seeds. Peeling is optional, though older specimens can have tough, bitter skins that are best removed. Japanese eggplants are long, slim, and usually purple-skinned, although they can be pale mauve. They’re lightly seeded, with mild, sweet-tasting flesh — they don’t need peeling and their flesh holds its shape well when cooked, so they’re perfect for grilling and stir-frying. White eggplants have firm, moist flesh and less bitterness than the darker color varieties, but their skins are tough, which makes them perfect for stuffing.
Eggplant figures prominently in Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisine, and there are literally tens of thousands of recipes for this most adaptable vegetable (Turkey is thought to have more than 1,000 alone). Its meatlike texture makes it a vegetarian’s delight, and it combines beautifully with a wide array of ingredients. Use it in dips and spreads, soups, curries, pasta dishes, gratins, salads and stir-frys — its versatility seems limited only by your imagination.
How to select and store eggplant
An eggplant’s taste and quality suffers if it’s kept too cold; the ideal temperature for storage is 50 degrees F. If possible, use your eggplant within a day of purchase. Otherwise, store it whole and unwashed in aplastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Tips for using eggplant
Eggplants are very perishable, so it’s important to select them at their prime. Look for firm specimens with taut, smooth, and shiny skins. Once the skin starts to wrinkle or have soft spots, the quality of the eggplant has been compromised and its flesh turns bitter.
Choose a medium-size eggplant, about 3-6 inches in diameter, that feels heavy for its size and sports a fresh, bright green calyx (the cap of leaves at the stem end). When you press into the skin of a Globe eggplant, a slight dent should appear for only a moment.
In the past, chefs salted eggplant to reduce its bitterness, but modern commercial varieties generally aren’t bitter unless they’re past their prime. If your eggplant is fresh and hasn’t been stored too long, salting isn’t necessary for taste — but it’s still commonly advised in many recipes to remove excess moisture. Salting also condenses the flesh so it absorbs less oil in cooking.
There are several methods for salting eggplant, but one of the easiest is to cut the eggplant according to the recipe, then place slices or chunks on a baking tray lined with several thicknesses of paper towels. Salt evenly and cover the eggplant with more paper towels. Place another baking sheet atop the eggplant, weigh it down with a heavy can, and let it drain for 30 minutes at room temperature. Then wipe off the excess salt and use more paper towels to pat the eggplant dry. If sodium is a concern, you can also rinse the eggplant under cold, running water and thoroughly pat dry. Note that Asian eggplants do not need to be salted.
Why choose organic eggplant?
Choose organic whenever you can to help keep the residues of conventional agricultural pesticides and fertilizers out of your food. Organic produce is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think it tastes better, too!