The first year I grew eggplant, it was a prolific producer. It was beautiful in my garden, but I had no idea what to do with it. Eggplant parmesan was the only recipe I had ever even heard of, but that didn’t bother me – the plants bore lovely fruits, and I appreciated them as an ornamental as much as an edible.

Eggplant

The large leaves of the eggplant are soft to the touch. The nodding lavender flowers will self-pollinate and ultimately produce shiny, plump fruit.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Black Beauty and Ichiban eggplant

The rounded eggplants on the left are the American variety, ‘Black Beauty’. The long, slender eggplants on the right are the Asian variety, ‘Ichiban’.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

Eggplant sweating

“Sweating” eggplant involves slicing, then salting it to draw out some of the moisture.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

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Male or female? Check for the dimple or dash – just one of the visual differences that can be found among eggplants.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

But, of course, they are quite edible – baked, roasted, steamed, fried, sautéed, grilled or in a dish (like parmesan). Eggplant has a spongy or meaty texture and a mild, “pleasantly bitter” taste. To reduce the bitterness, you can treat the veggie with salt to pull out some of the water. (This process is called “sweating,” and it’s explained in the delicious eggplant parmesan recipe at the end of this article.)

Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), along with tomatoes, bell peppers and potatoes. I’ve grown two varieties of eggplant: ‘Black Beauty’ (an American variety – the larger, more egg-shaped type) and ‘Ichiban’ (an Asian variety that’s long, slender and milder-tasting). There are some other cool varieties of eggplant out there: If you like novelty vegetables, try a white eggplant like ‘Cloud Nine’ (as you might guess, these eggplants are white rather than purple, and some are the size and shape of – you guessed it – an egg). Want something showy? Try the striped ‘Fairy Tale’; Thai eggplants, which tend to be small and round and can be green, purple, white or yellowish; or the orange-colored Turkish eggplant.

No matter the type, eggplants require a long warm season. Plants should be spaced 12-18 inches apart and may need to be caged to support heavy fruiting in late summer. Flea beetles and Colorado potato beetles can cause serious damage to the leaves of a young plant. (You can pick off mature larvae and beetles with your fingers, or spray with organic Neem oil in the evening.)

The vegetable should be harvested as it ripens since it can become overripe if left on the plant. You’ll know it’s ready to be picked when the veggie reaches its mature size (dependent on the variety you grow), has glossy skin and is firm to the touch. Overripe fruits have a dull skin and large, brown seeds when cut open. Harvest by using a knife or scissors to cut through the thick stem – and be careful how you handle the vegetable since the calyx (the green “cap” at the top of the fruit) has sharp, spiny points.

When it comes to storage, remember that eggplants are sensitive to heat and cold. The ideal storage temperature is around 50 degrees F, which is warmer than the fridge but cooler than room temperature. The best approach is really to eat the veggie as soon after harvest as possible. But if you have to store it, keep your eggplant in the crisper drawer for a few days. (You’ll notice that it has a glossy, rich color when fresh, but dulls and becomes soft to the touch as its postharvest quality declines.)

Eggplant may not be as mainstream as its cousins, but for those who appreciate culinary delights, it’s a treasured summer favorite (and the star of the following recipe). As for those who’ve yet to discover it as a delicacy, it remains a garden beauty that can be appreciated by the eyes if not by the palate. Here’s one recipe that’s sure to please:

Eggplant Parmesan

Prepare Marinara Sauce
(You can just use store-bought spaghetti sauce if you don’t want to make your own sauce, but here’s the how-to for that from-scratch taste.)

Ingredients

  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 can mushrooms (optional), drained
  • 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning (or some combination of oregano, basil or other spices you like)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • Pepper (to taste)
  • Crushed red pepper (optional…for a little kick)

Combine ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring often so the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of your saucepan, then simmer while preparing your eggplant.

Prepare Eggplant
(sweating and frying)

  1. Wash and cut 2 large, round eggplants into ½- to ¾-inch slices.
  2. Lay slices flat on plate and sprinkle with salt. (This draws out the excess moisture and helps the slices fry better).
  3. Let sit for about 5 minutes, then blot with a paper towel. (You can rinse the salt if sodium is an issue – but since the eggplant is being fried, expect it to absorb some oil.)
  4. Flip slices and repeat.
  5. Cover slices with flour. (I usually add just a little bit of salt in my flour, too.)
  6. Pan-fry in oil until golden brown, then blot off excess grease.

Combine Eggplant & Sauce

  1. Spray a deep baking dish with nonstick spray.
  2. Add a thin layer of sauce, barely covering the bottom of the dish, followed by a single layer of fried eggplant. (Try not to leave much open space, but don’t overlap either.)
  3. Cover the eggplant with a generous layer of sauce, then add a layer of mozzarella cheese. (I prefer sliced mozzarella, but shredded is fine, too.) Repeat until you’re out of eggplant. (You should have 2-4 eggplant layers, depending on the size of your dish.)
  4. Cover the top layer with cheese, and if you like, put several thick mushroom slices on top.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30-45 minutes until cheese starts to turn golden brown.

Enjoy!