Nothing you could buy in the produce section of your grocery store compares to eggplant, a dark purple vegetable prized for its taste, texture and nutritional value. A member of the nightshade variety of vegetables, eggplant is also relatively easy to grow (if started properly) and harvest. Want to put more eggplant on your table this year? Read on.
Growing and Harvesting Eggplant
Master gardeners at the University of Maryland Agricultural Extension Service offer some great tips on planting and cultivating eggplant. Eggplant is a little fussy to grow but once you catch on, it’s a snap. A cold-sensitive vegetable, eggplant requires a long warm growing season for best results. Most experts suggest that you start your eggplant indoors and move it to the garden after the last frost of the season. Small or exotic varieties can be grown in containers with good results. Larger varieties should be grown in the garden, allowing for adequate space between plants. Once planted, keep soil warm around the plants by mulching with black plastic. Given sufficient moisture and organic fertilizer at the appropriate time will ensure healthy plants all summer long.
Eggplant is ready for harvest when it’s still glossy and grows to 6-8 inches. Use shears to cut plant off the stem, leaving the rest of the plant intact. Eggplant that becomes dull or brown has been left on the vine too long. From a large plant, you can expect as many as 4-6 eggplants for harvest. August through October is peak time for eggplant harvest.
A word of caution about this beautiful, purple vegetable. Eggplants do not store well so it’s best that they are prepared within a day or two after harvest. Eggplants wrapped in plastic and placed in the refrigerator will become soft and may begin to rot after a day or so. Eggplant is not suitable for drying or canning but may be frozen after blanching in water and lemon juice for about 4 minutes. Eggplant that has been fried may also be frozen, but I would recommend that you separate the eggplant slices with wax paper prior to sealing and storing in your freezer.
Eggplant is such a versatile vegetable. It can be baked, grilled, steamed, or sautéed. It’s never eaten raw. To prepare eggplant in advance of cooking, you may want to slice as needed then salt lightly and let sit for about 30 minutes. Rinse to remove salt.
Eggplant can be cooked whole. Be sure to pierce the skins as you would a potato and bake at 350 degrees for about 20-30 minutes, depending upon the size of the eggplant. Eggplant is ready to serve if you can put a knife through it easily after baking.
Other ideas? Fry eggplant slices in olive oil, along with garlic, tomatoes and herbs. Serve when tender but not soggy. Or, bread eggplant with Italian bread crumbs and fry a few minutes on each side until golden brown and tender. Serve immediately. Or, add cooked eggplant to a batch of Indian curry. The sky’s the limit with this fabulous vegetable.
Nutritional Value of Eggplant
Eggplant is a great source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, potassium and folate. One cup of plain, cooked eggplant has about 27 calories, making eggplant a great low-cal, low-carb side dish. In addition, studies are underway on the benefits of eggplant in promoting brain health. Also, researchers at the US Agricultural Service in Maryland found that eggplant is a rich source of phenolic compounds that function as antioxidants. In one variety alone, scientists found three times the amount of phenolics than in other eggplant varieties. Why is this important? These compounds in eggplant and other vegetables help fight disease and promote overall health and well being.
University of Maryland Extension Service
By Jon Traunfeld, Lisa Winters and Peggy Yen for Grow It, Eat It, an online publication of University of Maryland Extension Service (March 2010)
Agricultural Research Service
US Department of Agriculture
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service