Eggplant 101: Learn basics of this summer favorite

Eggplants were all white originally, though the purple ones are more familiar now.
Eggplants were all white originally, though the purple ones are more familiar now. Bigstock

Nutrition: One cup of raw eggplant cubes contains about 33 calories. It’s considered a good source of vitamin K, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber. In addition to its beneficial antioxidants, eggplant contains oxalates that may cause issues for people with kidney or gallbladder problems.

Selection: Choose firm eggplants that feel heavy in relation to their size. Look for glossy, taut skin free of blemishes, breaks or bruises. Wrinkled skin or lack of luster are signs of old age, something to avoid when selecting eggplant since it turns bitter as it ages. Eggplants come in many varieties and three major colors: Purple, white or pale green. You’ll also see combinations of those colors on the same eggplant. Allow 1 1/2 pounds – about the size of one large eggplant – for four servings. Four “baby” eggplants usually add up to one pound, which yields 3 to 4 cups cubed.

Storage: Because of their high moisture content, eggplants don’t keep fresh very long. Store in a cool, dry place for a day or two. In the refrigerator crisper drawer, they keep three days before losing quality. Don’t freeze eggplant; it turns to unappealing brown mush.

Preparation: Eggplant can be fried, sautéed, broiled, grilled, steamed, roasted, baked or stuffed. Although bland by itself, its flesh takes on the flavors of other ingredients and cooking methods, which makes it a good combination for intensely flavored ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, garlic and strong herbs. It’s considered a wonderful meat substitute in vegetarian dishes such as eggplant parmigiana or croquettes. Eggplant also is the basis of condiments or dips such as caponata (a Sicilian favorite) or baba ghanoush (a Middle Eastern staple).

Global diversity: Eggplants are believed to be native to India, but they’ve been in cultivation for more than 2,500 years. The Chinese grew eggplants in 500 B.C. By the Middle Ages, Africa and Europe had discovered eggplant, too. Thanks to Marco Polo and other transcontinental travelers, eggplant’s popularity gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean region. The Italians particularly took to eggplant (they developed many of the varieties we know) and early explorers brought it to the New World. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the world’s leading eggplant producers.

It’s all relative: Eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, making it a cousin of tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. While the fruit is delicious, the leaves and flowers can be toxic. And, yes, eggplant is technically a fruit, but treated as a vegetable.

Purple vs. white: Originally, all eggplants were white; that’s how they got their name. They looked like eggs hanging from low bushes. The familiar dark-purple varieties developed through breeding over the centuries primarily in Italy. But white eggplant is regaining popularity. The skin tends to be a little tougher in white varieties and shows more flaws; if desired, remove it before cooking. But the flesh of white eggplant also can be more tender and sweeter. Regardless of the color, they can be prepared the same ways.

Debbie Arrington

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