Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Excellent eggplant!

And now, after a slight detour to discuss Seedy Saturday, I'm back to the vegetables.  Which of course is mostly what Seedy Saturday is all about!

Eggplants. Ah.

Time to start talking about them, because soon it will be time to plant them.

What I have again in eggplants is a vegetable no one in my family would agree is excellent.  But sometimes they announce as they are eating it how much they are enjoying it.  Go figure.  Of course they don't KNOW they are eating it....and that is the beauty of eggplant.

Much like my beloved tofu, it takes up the flavour of whatever you are cooking it in or with.  And it ends up in that way being terrifically versatile.

I've grown lots of eggplant over the years.  They are one thing that I find it really hard to cut back on.  I mean they are absolutely gorgeous in the garden..the purples, stripes.  The oranges, yellows, reds, greens and beautiful shapes.  Despite the fact that up until a few years ago I found them a hard sell, just like hot peppers, I typically find room for about 40 or so different varieties.

I. Can't. Stop.   These beauties are magnificent, and have every right to show off in the flower garden if you so wish.  Thank goodness now people are turning on to their goodness and buying them.  Clearly at some point there can just be too many for one family!

Eggplants have never been extremely popular.  For many years in their history, as members of the nightshade family, it was believed that their fruit was deadly, as was the tomato.

In the third century AD however, the Chinese began experimenting with less bitter cultivars they had developed, beautiful colourful and slender fruit.  But even at that point, it was oddly enough believed that they were only to be used by professional chefs...home cooks shouldn't risk the poisoning of their families.  What these professional chefs actually did that detoxified them is a mystery yet unsolved!

In North America Thomas Jefferson was amongst the first to give the eggplant, also known as "the mad apple" a try, despite the fact it earned this nickname as it was thought to cause insanity.  He wrote about his eggplant trials in his garden journal in 1809, and by mid century, eggplant recipes were rather common in American cookbooks.  But they were considered appropriate for breakfast dishes.  Don't know about you, but I find that a little difficult to stomach.  A common way they were served for breakfast was just simply slicing, and frying in butter.  Hmm.

Perhaps another reason eggplant was slow to catch on is because it requires certain conditions to grow well, heat being the priority.  Eggplant grows best in USDA zone 5 and up, struggling in the colder zones.

For me here in the balmy banana belt of Canada, Canadian zone 6b, I can manage to grow eggplant quite nicely in a good season.

I try to give my eggplants a nice early start indoors and under lights.  I get them going first, then come the peppers and a few weeks later the arduous task of planting 10,000 tomato seeds.  It is usually mid-February to late February when the first eggplant seeds hit the soil (less) mix.  Most of the varieties I grow require a long season, so an early start in a warm environment is essential.

I find eggplants very susceptible to aphids when they are growing indoors, so I keep a close watch.  If I find there is a problem, I wash the plants, hence the aphids off, under warm water.

Eggplants like it warm, so I am never in a rush to get them in the ground.  If they are exposed to temperatures of 50 degrees F or less for any period of time, they will suffer.  And a frost?  They're done. In my area, having nice eggplant transplants in the warm ground in June is ideal.

I plant them much as I plant tomatoes, although I space them a bit closer together.  I dig my planting holes 2 feet apart, add a good hefty shovelful of compost , pop in my plant, cover the root and water.

Unlike tomatoes, eggplants do not want to be planted deep.  Give them a good drink once a week after they are established and they should produce well. When I water I always hold the hose to the base of the plant and water while I count very slowly to ten. 10 slow seconds is magic to eggplants and peppers! A nice thick layer of mulch is helpful to retain moisture and to combat weed problems.

The worst problem you are likely to have with eggplants is the dreaded Colorado Potato Beetle, who actually prefer eggplants over potatoes.  I have an Italian friend who is a market grower and she simply won't grow her beloved eggplants anymore.  The beetles simply destroy them year after year.
It pays to be vigilant with potato bugs.  If you can get the eggs before they hatch, you're ahead of the game.  Check the undersides of eggplant leaves for the deposits of bright orange eggs, and destroy.
If allowed to hatch you are always playing catch-up.  They are voracious eaters in the larvae stage, and not nearly as pleasant to squish!

I sell seed for a number of my favourites.  Ping Tung Long would be one of those, a  mauve and white long Asian type which is a wonderful producer, requires no peeling and has a mild flavour.  Then there is the beautiful Italian Listadia de Gandia, pictured above with purple and white striping, Thai long green, another non bitter beauty, and Casper- a teardrop shaped white heirloom.

Try a few different ones this year...maybe you'll find a new favourite!

Save this recipe for the summer when your eggplants are producing well.  It is my favourite eggplant recipe from Andrea Chesman's wonderful book "The Garden Fresh Vegetable Cookbook"

Eggplant Lasagna
Note: The lasagna can be assembled and held for up to 8 hours in the refrigerator. Add 15 minutes to the baking time if it is cold when placed in the oven. The lasagna can also be baked in advance and frozen for up to a month. Bake it still frozen and covered with foil, adding 30 minutes to baking time.
1/3 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggplants (3 medium or 4 smaller), peeled and sliced lengthwise 3/8 inch thick
1 pound (about 2 cups) ricotta cheese
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
3 cups shredded mozzarella
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
4 cups well-seasoned tomato sauce (homemade or pre-made)
12 no-cook lasagna noodles
Pre-heat the oven to 425˚F. Lightly grease two large sheets pans (preferred) or shallow roasting pans with oil. Combine the oil, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Mix well. Brush the eggplant slices on one side with the seasoned oil and set the slices, oiled-side down, on the prepared pans. Roast in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until browned on the bottom. Brush the second side with oil, turn the slices over, rotate the pan from the top to bottom and side to side, and continue roasting for another 15 to 20 minutes, until browned on the second side. Remove the pans from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 350˚F.
Combine the ricotta, egg, and basil in a medium bowl and mix well. Combine the mozzarella and Parmesan in a second bowl and toss to mix. To assemble the lasagna, spread about 1 cup of the sauce in a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish. Place three lasagna noodles over the sauce. The noodles should not touch or overlap. Spread 1 cup of the sauce over the noodles. Arrange a layer of one third of the eggplant over the sauce. Spread one third of the ricotta mixture evenly over the eggplant. Sprinkle a fourth of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses on top. Repeat the layering twice. Top with remaining three lasagna noodles. Spread the remaining sauce on top. Sprinkle with the remaining cheeses. Cover with foil.
Bake lasagna for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Let the lasagna stand for 5 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Serve warm or hot.

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