By Dave Adamshick
Eggplant is such an odd name for a plant that’s usually large, pear-shaped and purple. In most English speaking countries, it’s sold as an aubergine, a word that also refers to that rich purple skin color that encases common varieties. The eggplant is a little odd in that, like its tomato cousin, it’s botanically a fruit, whose seeds are encased in an edible flesh, but it’s sold commercially and cooked as vegetable.
A member of the nightshade family—a designation that compels me by custom, style guides and possibly law to use the phrase, the deadly nightshade—eggplants were originally cultivated in India. Because of the association, most westerners believed the plant to be poisonous until the Renaissance, causing Europeans to miss out on centuries of baba ghanoush.
Growing up in the Great Lakes region, the eggplant may have just as well been poisonous for as often as it was prepared. In recent years, my dad has developed a love of eggplant parmesan. Good for my dad, trying new foods, keeping himself open to new experiences. Except that, in true Midwestern style, breaded, fried and topped with cheese is the only way he’ll eat it.
While melanzane parmigiana is very good and proves everything sounds better with an Italian accent, there are other ways to prepare the plant. There’s the custardy moussaka, the Provençal ratatouille. Small, golf ball sized eggplants are found in both red and green curries in Thai style dishes. Everything that can go on the grill, should, and eggplant is no exception. Olive oil, salt, pepper and flame takes care of the problem of what to do when it’s too hot to turn on the oven.
The plant loves warm weather and in the Pacific NW, as August turns to September, the eggplant population explodes and you’ll see all the variations of the cultivar that will grow in this part of the world. At area farmers market you’ll find dozens of varieties. The shape will be familiar, but the plant’s skin color can be chocolate, purple striated, green or snow white. You’ll also likely spot banana shaped Thai and Japanese varieties and the small white fleshed eggplants, whose appearance will help you realize how the plant got its name.