The idea of dedicating an entire feature article to a food product with very little flavour or texture might seem like a strange decision – and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s actually taken me awhile to fall in love with the spongy oblong purple pleasure of this late summer bounty. But with that said, in recent years I have come to adore the various shapes and sizes of eggplant for their ability to play a supporting role in a vast number of international dishes; a sort of vehicle for spices and seasonings from practically any corner of the earth. Eggplant is also an ingredient we ought to consider more often for it’s versatility in terms of cooking methods – a delicious inclusion in everything from stir fry to grilled antipasto to braises and sauces. Last – and certainly not least – eggplant is extremely low maintenance, easy to grow and a worthwhile addition to your own backyard garden.
Test Your Purple Thumb
The eggplant is a cousin to tomatoes and peppers – and thrives in growing conditions similar to these other crops. Once established, the eggplant vine is relative low maintenance, usually only requiring a small nitrogen boost partway through the growing season to help maximize your yield and crop ripeness. A couple of keys to keep in mind: (i) don’t plant your young eggplant vines too early, as they are quite sensitive to frost and cool soil conditions actually tends to stunt root growth and development, and (ii) make sure to give each plant plenty of space to grow – a distance of 17-20 inches between plants and about two and half feet between rows is ideal. Otherwise, eggplants prefer warm and well-drained soils – and the only other hurdle you’ll face is harvesting at perfect ripeness, since eggplant is unpleasantly bitter if picked either too early, or too late. You’ll want to harvest your eggplant once the exterior has developed a shiny even appearance and seems to have stopped increasing in size.
Shapes, Sizes & Colours
The most common eggplants found at most markets and grocery stores is (somewhat predictably) called the “Classic Eggplant”. It is oblong and deep dark purple in colour, but in recent years it’s become easier to get our hands on both seedlings and harvested eggplants in a variety of other shapes, sizes and colours. Indian and Sicilian varieties of eggplant tend to be somewhat smaller and round, much like a large tomato. Conversely, Chinese and Japanese varieties tend to be long and narrow, shaped more like an English cucumber. Finally, we also see varying colours of eggplant – some bright perfect white in colour, and others with pink steaks marking a white base. A few general observations… Smaller varieties tend be sweeter vs. larger varieties which have a more savoury, almost meaty flavour. This same relationship seems to exist between lighter and darker skinned varieties, with the lighter eggplant having sweeter more delicate flavours vs darker varieties, which have thicker skins and are very well suited to stuffing and baking, when it comes time to look at cooking methods.
Off the top I shared my view that eggplant all on its own can be a bit boring. That said, the increased diversity in terms of shapes, sizes and colours available both at your local market and in nurseries as seedlings has certainly helped to raise the aesthetic value and diversity of flavour and texture available to us when cooking with eggplant. My favourite recipes featuring eggplant use one of two ideas to elevate this humble ingredient: (i) addition of bold and assertive flavours like blue cheese, aromatic spices or fresh herbs, or (ii) employing cooking methods that enhance flavours and textures, like grilling, deep frying and slow cooking and braising. Regardless of what corner of the earth we look to for culinary inspiration, these two ideas tend to play a central role in many of the greatest recipes and dishes featuring eggplant.
[ Recipes ]
Grilled Eggplant, Arugula & Blue Cheese Salad: RECIPE
Wine Match: Riesling or Chenin Blanc
Rigatoni w/ Eggplant, Tomato & Spicy Italian Sausage: RECIPE
Wine Match: Dry Rose, Pinot Noir or Barbera
Sriracha + Thai Basil Spiced Eggplant, Tofu + Bell Pepper : RECIPE
Wine Match: Aromatic off-dry whites like Gewurztraminer or Riesling
Eggplant Stuffed w/ Middle Eastern Spiced Lamb & Pine Nuts: RECIPE
Wine Match: Mid-weight reds like Merlot, Sangiovese or Carmenere
Grilled Striploin w/ Eggplant Caponata: RECIPE
Wine Match: Robust reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Malbec