Beautiful shiny eggplants
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September is right around the corner, marking your very last chance to purchase the beautifully detailed and illustrated “Shana Bagina” calendar – a monthly guide to home gardening and local harvests. This year in two new editions and two languages: “Friends in the Garden” (Hebrew) and “The Porcupine Edition” (English)
Our eggplants are beginning to emerge, and will remain with us from mid-summer till autumn, as the outdoor temperatures remind them of their birthplace: Southern India and Sri Lanka. The eggplant first migrated from India to Burma and then China. In ancient Chinese writings, eggplants are mentioned as early as the fifth century. From there, they migrated to the Middle East, where they became prominent ingredients in the local cuisine. The Muslim Moors from North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century brought eggplants with them, and the Italians made their acquaintance with the exotic vegetable via commercial ties with Arab merchants in the 13th century.
The eggplant, so adored in Israeli cuisine, is one of the vegetables grown in hothouses during the cold season in order to maintain a constant supply to its Israeli aficionados. At Chubeza, 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. We once visited Iris Ben-Zvi, a veteran organic farmer from Emek Yizrael, who showed us how to keep eggplants in the field during wintertime: at the end of their yielding, prune the plants and leave them in place for their winter sleep. In springtime they bloom again. We did try this method, but it was hard to determine whether or not the results justified the effort. So we continue to replant our eggplant crop annually.
We plant eggplants in our field when winter is turning to spring, around April, when the zucchinis and pumpkins have already been in the field for a couple of months. This is when the first eggplant seedlings acclimate in the ground, young and youthful with silky leaves. Two months later we plant the second round, and six weeks later in the middle of June, we plant the third and last round.
The plants grow calmly, strong and healthy, and grace us with lovely purple flowers that start peeking out of the leaves around two months after being planted. (A personal thanks – again – to Chana for the very beautiful photos in this newsletter.)
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 slight pressure to check its softness. An unripe fruit will be hard and unresponsive to fingertip pressure. A ripe fruit is more flexible, but not soft.
The eggplant is an androgynous plant, meaning every flower is both female and male. The flowers usually ripen themselves, but sometimes they get by with a little help from friendly fly-by insect:
And that reminds me, I’m duty-bound to refute the Number One Urban Legend: there is no such thing as a male (fewer seeds, less bitter) and female (more seeds, more bitter) eggplant. The difference in seed quantity has to do with spraying using vegetal hormones (Auxin) in order to prevent the leaves and flowers from falling, particularly during the cold months. (Naturally, in organic agriculture and in our fields we do not use those methods…)
Eggplants arrived in Israel long before the Hebrew pioneers, for, as noted, this vegetable was an important component in the Arab cuisine. The idea to match the eggplant with the charcoal grill must have arrived in the area just about the time the wheel was invented. But the love affair between eggplants and the Israeli cuisine was more complex. During the era of austerity after the State of Israel was established, eggplant recipes were invented and designed to take full advantage of this vegetable’s three most admirable characteristics: availability, low price and an amazing ability to absorb flavors. In Israel’s early days, the eggplant was used as a convenient replacement for the real thing. Liver was expensive, so let’s liver-flavor the eggplant (remember mocked chopped-liver?!). Tomatoes scarce and expensive? One tomato, ten eggplants, and voila: a tomato-flavored eggplant! There is even a dessert dish: sugar-coated eggplant, baked like a strudel and served in Israeli restaurants during interesting times. And alongside these wonder foods, the eggplant always starred in Mideast cuisine as a component of various salads, or sliced and fried to one day become, in Israeli culinary jargon… antipasti! There will always be those who claim the eggplant as king of the local vegetables, but in any case, it is definitely a guest of honor in the emerging Israeli kitchen.
The first important test for basic essentials in the local kitchen is the Long-Term Adaptability Test, i.e., will this food appear over the years in simple and popular recipes alongside the “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, and more.
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 variety, and over the past years, the striped zebra type as well. But eggplants also come in green and yellow, in elongated or round forms and in various sizes. 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 hen is for illustrative purposes only. Trust us, those are eggplants):
To please the eye and paint the summer green (purple and black), take a look at this array of eggplant shapes and colors:
This year we will be growing three different types of eggplants – two of the “classic” variety, and one Baladi (local) variety that connotes a cross between an eggplant and a fancy prom dress: wider (but not chubbier), with flowing curves along its length. Here’s one:
The first eggplants, members of the Solanaceae family, were received cautiously and suspiciously by the Europeans. The solanaceae is home to the tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and certain 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 example) who do not eat vegetables from the solanacea family. The harmful components are not as prominent in eggplants, and therefore pose no danger to most people. (The hazardous components 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 as well: it contains elements which shrink blood vessels, and is therefore considered to be beneficial for treating hemorrhoids and bleeding wounds. Eggplants promote secretion of liver and gall bile and are advantageous for 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 disease and cancer. Researchers 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 its compresses are placed over 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 absorbs large quantities of oil), grilled, chopped and diced, stuffed, sliced or cut into cubes. Your dependable peacemaker, it goes nicely with cheeses or meat, tehina or tomatoes, but also does very well on its own with some coarse salt, lemon juice and parsley. Bon Appétit!
And apropos eggplants – some very local, very Israeli, 80’s nostalgia. Enjoy!
Wishing everyone a gentle, summery week,
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Yochai and the Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Parsley, corn/cherry tomatoes/potatoes, yard-long beans, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, edamame (green soy), leeks/garlic, slice of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, scallions/onions.
Large box, in addition: New Zealand spinach/coriander, okra, butternut squash.
Wednesday: Coriander, cherry tomatoes/bell peppers, potatoes/eggplant, corn, yard-long beans, tomatoes, edamame (green soy), leeks/garlic, slice of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, scallions/onions.
Large box, in addition: Parsley/New Zealand spinach/Swiss chard, okra, butternut squash.
And there’s more! You can add to your basket a wide, delectable range of additional products from fine small producers: flour, sprouts, honey, dates, almonds, garbanzo beans, crackers, probiotic foods, dried fruits and leathers, olive oil, bakery products, apple juice, cider and jams, dates silan and healthy snacks and goat dairy too! You can learn more about each producer on the Chubeza website. On our order system there’s a detailed listing of the products and their cost, you can make an order online now!