Marianne Ophardt

Try growing eggplants

Did you know 2008 is the Year of the Eggplant?

Every year the National Garden Bureau selects one vegetable and one flower to be showcased. Plants selected for this honor must be "easy to grow from seed, widely adaptable, genetically diverse, and versatile." Eggplants fit those criteria well. Even though it doesn't share the popularity of its cousin the tomato, I think eggplants should be grown and eaten more.

I'm willing to bet that a small part of the eggplant's lack of popularity is because of very old fears about its safety. Apparently many Europeans didn't trust the eggplant -- perhaps for good reason. They feared it was poisonous like its similar-looking cousins: deadly nightshade and jimsonweed.

Louis XIV, apparently a epicurean daredevil, introduced the eggplant as a food in France, but his lofty title couldn't allay fears that eggplant caused maladies including fever, epilepsy and insanity. Even Thomas Jefferson couldn't change its perception. It wasn't until Asian and Italian immigrants brought their cuisine that Americans accepted the eggplant.

American gardeners are most familiar with the large pear-shaped purple eggplant varieties "Black Beauty" and "Dusky," but there are others available. Eggplants are grouped by their shape -- globe, cylindrical, egg-shaped, specialty and pea. Dark purple isn't the only color. There also are eggplant varieties with green, white, black, yellow, orange, red, pink, lavender and even striped or shaded skin.

Some gardeners grow eggplants as a decorative plant. For example, "Bambino" is a dwarf foot-tall plant that produces little 1-inch purple fruit and can be used as an interesting edging plant or in containers. In 2005, "Fairy Tale" eggplant won distinction as an All-American Selection for its white fruit striped with violet and purple. This year, the "Hansel" eggplant was recognized with an All-America Selections Award for its prolific production of shiny purple fruit.

Eggplants are easy to grow, just like tomatoes. They like warm weather and shouldn't be planted outdoors until the soil warms up and after the danger of frost is past. They grow best in rich fertile soil that's kept evenly moist. Space plants about 18 inches apart and give long or heavy-fruited varieties support by caging or staking them.

To keep plants productive, harvest the fruit by snipping them off the plant with shears as soon as they're mature. Fruit should be the size indicated on the seed packet. The skin should still be glossy and the fruit firm. A ripe fruit will give a little when pressed with the fingertips, but should spring back immediately. One reason many folks don't like eggplant is because they've only eaten over-mature fruit that has turned spongy, bitter and seedy. Eggplants must be harvested as soon as they're ripe and stored in the refrigerator vegetable bin within a perforated plastic bag.

There are many tips on cooking eggplants, such as soaking slices in water for 15 minutes before cooking to reduce bitterness and breading slices before frying so the flesh doesn't soak up a lot of oil. Check out a good cookbook for preparing and cooking eggplant the right way.

So celebrate the Year of the Eggplant and give this veggie another try. After all, it won't kill you or make you go crazy!

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Extension Office in Benton County.