Our eggplants are beginning to emerge, and will now be with us from mid-summer till autumn, as the outdoor temperatures remind them of home: south India and Sri Lanka. The eggplant first migrated from India to Burma and then China. In ancient Chinese writings, the eggplant is mentioned as early as the fifth century. From there, they migrated to the Middle East, where they became prominent ingredients in the Middle Eastern cuisine. The Muslim Moors from North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century brought eggplants with them, and the Italians came to know the eggplants via commerce with Arab merchants in the 13th century.
The eggplant is one of the vegetables grown in hothouses during the cold season in order to maintain a constant supply to its Israeli aficionados. In our farm, we bid it farewell in winter and are happy to welcome it back with the great heat of summer. The eggplant is considered a long annual or biennial crop, renewing itself at the end of the winter in areas where the plants were left during wintertime. Two years ago, we visited Iris Ben-Zvi, a veteran organic farmer from Emek Yizrael, and learned how to keep eggplants in the field during wintertime: at the end of their yielding, we prune the plants and leave them in place for their winter sleep. In springtime they bloom again. We tried this method, but it was hard to test the results, as we were moving from our old plot to the new one and the eggplants were the victims. This in our first summer in the new field, at the end of which we will attempt this method once more.
We plant the eggplants in our field when weather is turning to spring, around April, when the zucchinis and pumpkins have already been in the field for a couple of months, and the tomatoes are a month old. This is when the first eggplant plants acclimatize in the ground, young and youthful with silky leaves. Two months later we plant the second round.
Two months after they are planted, they start growing beautiful purple flowers.
Within a few weeks, the flowers are fertilized and they grow round dark fruits. That is when we harvest. We prefer to pick them at a medium size and not wait for huge fruits that have passed their climax. To determine if the eggplant is ready, we measure it, but also apply a little pressure to see how soft it is. An unripe fruit will be hard and not respond to pressure from our fingers. A ripe fruit is more flexible, but not softer. It is important to pick them at this stage, as we do not grow them with support or trellising. Fruits that are too big will be heavy on the bushes, causing them to bend over, become crooked or even break under the weight.
The eggplant is one of the most fundamental vegetables in the Israeli kitchen. The first important test for basic essentials in the local kitchen is the long-term adaptation test, i.e., will it appear over the years in simple and popular recipes alongside “gourmet” recipes of prosperous times? The eggplant passes this test with flying colors: from various eggplant salads in nearly every meat meal, to eggplant-mocking chopped liver during austerity, from popular fast-food—the sabich–to high-falutin eggplant rolls in goat cheeses, eggplant cream, eggplant jam, etc.
There are many types of eggplants in the world, in various shapes and colors. In Israel we are acquainted with the big dark purple elliptic type, and over the past years, the striped zebra kind as well. But eggplants also come in green and yellow, in elongated or round forms and in various sizes. Here is a glimpse of the various shapes and colors of eggplants:
The name eggplant refers to the fact that the fruits of some 18th century European cultivars were yellow or white and resembled goose or hen’s eggs:
The name aubergine which is used in British English, is an adaptation of the French word, derived from Catalan albergínia (or the Arabic al-baðinjān).
The first eggplants, as members of the family Solanaceae family, were received cautiously and suspiciously by the Europeans. The solanaceae is family to the tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and other non-edible plants, some of which are lethal. Because of the eggplant’s genetics, they were suspected to be toxic as well. Even today there are those (macrobiotic enthusiasts, for instance) who do not eat vegetables from the solanacea family. The harmful components are not as prominent in eggplants, and therefore are not injurious to most people (they exist to a higher degree in the leaves and stems). It took some time until the Europeans could fully trust the eggplant, so in its early days it was used only as an ornamental plant, sporting its spacious leaves, impressive shape and lovely purple flowers.
Today the eggplant is acknowledged for its medicinal and nutritional benefits: it contains components which shrink blood vessels, and is therefore considered to be good for treating hemorrhoids and bleeding wounds. They encourage secretion of liver and gall bile and help in cases of anemia, constipation, stomach ulcers and infections of the large intestine. The eggplant contains antioxidants that can help prevent strokes and bleeding, and the phytochemical monoterpene which assists in preventing heart diseases and cancer. Researcher have been examining the eggplant’s possible influences on battling cancer by reducing the steroid hormones which encourage the development of tumors, and preventing the oxidization of cells that lead to cancer’s spread. A folk cure for scorpion bites is a slice of raw eggplant applied directly to the sting, and to relieve frostbite, eggplant tea is chilled to room temperature, and compresses placed upon the burn.
But the most popular use of the eggplant is for food: steamed, toasted, baked (if fried, use only a little oil, because its sponge-like texture makes it absorb large quantities of oil), chopped and diced, stuffed, sliced or cut into cubes. It goes nicely with cheeses, meat, tehina or tomatoes, and does very well on its own as well, with some coarse salt, lemon juice and parsley. Bon appetit!
Wishing you a fine summery week,
Alon, Bat Ami and the Chubeza team
In addition to eggplants, this week’s basket includes:
Monday: cucumbers, yard long bean/checkpea, cherry tomatoes, melon, butternut, tomatoes, parsley/cilantro/basil, leek/green onions, lettuce, eggplants, corn.
In the large box, in addition: zucchinis, okra, more cherry tomatoes.
Fruits boxes: small: figs, mango, apples, grapes. Large: watermelon/melon, grapes, figs, mango.
Wednesday: corn, basil, tomatoes, eggplants, green onions, butternut, dill, long bean/checkpea, cherry tomatoes, melon, cucumbers
In the large box, in addition: potatoes, okra/ademame, zucchini/pumpkin.
Many eggplant recipes and one okra:
On Thursday, I got a call from Guy who enthused, “I have never seen or tasted okra like this in my entire life! So big, so purple, so sweet—and I come from a Greek household. I’ve eaten many an okra creation in my days, but there is no comparison!” He then told me that he’d prepared an okra-chicken dish that was so outstanding that he called his wife home from work to sample it. As always, I demanded the recipe, and Eli was kind enough to send both the recipe and a photo, below:
Chicken with Okra in Tomato Sauce
2 fresh chicken legs
1 large onion, cubed
2 garlic cloves, sliced in half
1 bag of authentic Chubeza purple okra, long and sweet (rinsed and whole; do not slice, just remove the tip without damaging the okra)
3 cups water
1 heaping tablespoon tomato sauce
1 T. chicken-soup powder
1 pkg. Stevia (or 1 level T. sugar)
In a flat pan, sauté the chicken legs with onion and garlic.
Cover and continue to sauté till browned.
Add okra and 3 cups water. Cover and wait 3 minutes.
Add 1 tablespoon tomato sauce, stir to mix ingredients smoothly, season with soup powder, salt and pepper.
When sauce bubbles, add package of Stevia to sauce (and remove after 5 minutes), then lower heat and cook over a low flame for at least one hour.
The result: an indescribable delicacy!