Eggplant is not a unanimous crowd pleaser. Even farmers are aware of this! Stokes Farm’s Ron Binaghi III shares: “People aren’t big on eggplant. People don’t want the large black [eggplant]; they want that one small Japanese eggplant that they can dice up and put in their stir fry. When you say anything about baking or cooking, they go ‘oh no, I don’t want to cook!’”
I admit, as a child I hated eggplant. I rarely ate it and when I did, I preferred masking the flavor by smothering it in cheese. It was only after I ate around the cheese that I would try to force down the bitter vegetable. Because my experience was with the common dark purple variety, I was also completely unaware of how many unique varieties of eggplant there are!
Unfortunately, many restaurants continue to perpetuate eggplant’s ‘bad rap’ by offering a bitter Western variety as their one vegetarian option (eggplant sandwich, eggplant Parmesan, you know the drill!). If that was as good as eggplant got, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone either! Luckily, eggplants come in beautiful shapes, sizes, and flavors, ready to stand out on their own or complement a dish.
Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family and native to India. Its name stems from the fact that certain varieties resemble goose or hen’s eggs. This vegetable is popular throughout the world, especially in the Mediterranean: Turkey now has over 1,000 distinct eggplant recipes! China and India are the top two producers of eggplant in the world.
An eggplant’s size depends on its variety. It can be as small as a cherry tomato or as heavy as one pound. Each region of the world has different varieties of eggplant and in fact some local farmers take great pleasure in learning and cultivating these different varieties! Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm grows nine different varieties. Many farmers sell both the small purple Japanese eggplant and the round Thai eggplant.
While an eggplant’s flavor is dependent on which variety it is, all have a slightly bitter taste (though some more than others!) As the vegetable is cooked, this bitterness gives way to sweet rich nuttiness.
In the Kitchen:
Choose eggplants at their peak, making sure their skin is shiny and smooth and their weight is firm. As is usually the case with fresh fruits and vegetables, eat your eggplant within 2-3 days of purchase. Take care not to refrigerate the eggplant—this will reduce its flavor and can result in brown spots.
Because of its density, eggplant is a truly versatile vegetable. You can fry, sauté, bake, roast, steam, or grill eggplant. Some, like the Western variety, have thick skin and require peeling, while others, like the Japanese variety, can be cooked with the skin on.
When I started my farm visits early this summer, the plants were beautiful and healthy, but the actual vegetable hadn’t developed yet. Eggplant is a warm season plant and very susceptible to frost. Most growth happens during the summertime heat, with the process from seedling to Greenmarket-ready-vegetable taking 3-4 months.
You can find eggplant at the Greenmarket from late summer through the Fall.