“What is it?” I asked, pointing to a bright orange vegetable not much bigger than a golf ball at Frank Fekete’s Red Stick Farmers Market booth.
Fekete’s answer, Brazilian orange eggplant, surprised me - and began my summer obsession with eggplant.
Fekete got the seed for the lovely little eggplant from a chef who uses it in his restaurant. I bought a basketful to take home to experiment. I discovered they retain their brilliant skin color when cooked.
The next week I searched the market for other eggplant varieties and quickly discovered seven more: the skinny green Louisiana Long; the small, light purple and white Fairytale; the thin, purple Japanese one, Ichiban; the large purplish-black Globe; the large white with a purplish cast Twilight; a large green heirloom variety; and the bright purple Neon.
Eggplant, a native of India, is a member of the nightshade family and is related to tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing eggplant to North America.
It is low in calories (about 35 calories for one cup of cooked, cubed, drained eggplant), fat and sodium, according to Beth Reames, LSU AgCenter nutrition specialist.
“It is a good source of fiber and a fair source of potassium,” she said. “It also provides some vitamin C, iron and folate.”
There are many varieties of eggplant, with the dark purple eggplants being the most common type sold commercially in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the dark, almost black, eggplant varieties weigh from 1 to 5 pounds each and are either oval or elongated. The elongated ones are sometimes called “Japanese” or “oriental” eggplant.
“There are eight to 10 varieties in just the black eggplants grown around here,” said Charles “Brother” Glaser, who with his wife, Jynell, operates Glaser Produce in New Roads. “In the seed catalogs, there’ll probably be 20 to 30 varieties.”
The Glasers specialize in green eggplants, particularly the Louisiana Long and a large oval heirloom variety - they don’t know its official name - which they sell locally and to some restaurants.
“We’ve been saving the seeds for the heirloom for 25 years,” Brother Glaser explained. “It’s not a hybrid so you can save the seeds and get the same eggplant year after year. We got the seeds from a fellow in Maringouin. Most of the black eggplant are hybrids so you can’t save their seeds. A hybrid is two varieties put together to make a better variety.”
In Louisiana, eggplant can be planted in April and is ready for picking at the end of May. While can produce until September or October, its main season is June and July.
The Glasers also plant a fall crop. “You can still pick from the spring crop but the quality falls off,” Brother Glaser said. “The fall crop is planted in August, and we start harvesting in September and into October. You can harvest until frost, but eggplant is very susceptible to cool weather. Cold weather will kill them. It’s a hot weather crop.”
Green eggplants have a milder flavor, he said. “You don’t get that bitter taste and there are less seeds. The reason you don’t see them in grocery stores is because they bruise easily and lose their appearance. ? We pick daily and sell locally. When green eggplants are bruised, the skin turns tan and they look old, not fresh.”
When green eggplant are over-mature, they turn yellowish, Glaser said. “You don’t want to buy them then; they’ll be seedy.”
When temperatures are very high, the black eggplant varieties get smaller and bitter, he said. When buying, look for a fresh, shiny black appearance. “The globe should be longer than wide,” he said. “If they are on the vine too long, they lose their black appearance and look kind of purplish. At that stage, they are overripe, real bitter and real seedy and the flesh turns brown on inside.”
The CDC suggests looking for a symmetrical eggplant with smooth, uniformly colored skin. Eggplant should feel firm and heavy for its size. Avoid those with wrinkled or flabby skin.
Eggplant is versatile and can be baked, grilled, fried, steamed, saut?ed or stewed. It also can be served stuffed or used as a meat extender.
It should not be eaten raw nor is it suitable for canning or drying.
Store eggplant uncut and unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator’s vegetable crisper and use within a few days. Wash just before using and cut off the cap and stem.
If you don’t want to peel the eggplant, select young tender eggplants because older skin takes longer to cook. Some cooks like to salt and press the eggplant before cooking to reduce its water content and to keep it from absorbing a lot of oil. If doing so, rinse and pat dry to keep extensive salt out of the finished dish.
Use stainless steel knives to slice eggplant and don’t’ cook in an aluminum pot because the eggplant will discolor.
Eggplant can be frozen if harvested before the seed matures and when the color is uniformly dark, according to nutrition information from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. To freeze, wash the eggplant, peel if desired and slice about 1/3-inch thick. “Water blanch 4 minutes in 1 gallon of boiling water containing 1/2 cup lemon juice. Cool, drain and package, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Seal and freeze.” If you want to use the eggplant for frying, be sure to pack the drained slices with a freezer wrap between slices.
Jynell Glaser said she likes to fry eggplant slices, grill eggplants with peppers and potatoes, or use them in ground meat casseroles. “You can do anything with them. They absorb the flavor of anything you put with them.”
Here are some recipes to try: