There are some nights, particularly blustery cold winter nights, when we crave Eggplant to the point of obsession. We remember and hunger so strongly for it that we can almost smell again the last piping hot, cheese-bubbling, meaty Eggplant Parmesan that we pulled out of our oven.
We're frequently asked which is our favorite variety of a particular vegetable. It's like asking a parent which is their favorite child. While we normally avoid blatant favoritism, we confess that Black Opal is our most beloved lusty Italian for soul-satisfying Eggplant Parmesan. This cherished hybrid has the provocative teardrop shape, mahogany-purple skin and the look-at-me, high gloss finish of Aubergine perfection. Happily, its beauty is more than skin deep. Inside, the creamy white flesh is smooth in texture, mild in flavor and meaty enough to be the main course event. Each large, productive plant can yield six or more, 1- to 1 ½-pound fruits. Babaganoush? Moussaka? Eggplant Parmesan? Black Opal will provide you with a bountiful harvest of luscious Eggplant, and a world of culinary delights.
So Many Shapes, Sizes and Colors
Much as we adore Black Opal, our love for each of our Eggplants knows no bounds. We offer ten varieties, each with its own distinct fabulousness. You can choose from four other Italian varieties, each of which are open-pollinated (OP) heirlooms and good for seed-saving. Rubenesque Rosa Bianca has the classic teardrop shape with a comely pale lavender-rose and ivory skin concealing tender, creamy flesh. Bianca di Imola is more elongated in shape with pristine milky-white skin. Thin-skinned Listada de Gandia has alabaster-white skin adorned with purple and lavender stripes and tasty, delicate creamy-white flesh. Honestly, our Black Beauty Eggplant does rival Black Opal for our affection. Open-pollinated, it out-produces most hybrids with 1- to 3-pound bell-shaped fruits that boast of dense, firm flesh with glossy deep purple skin and spine-free stems. It is beautiful, delicious and perfect for virtually all recipes that call for Eggplant.
If you enjoy stir fries, we highly recommend Bride and Ping Tung. Chinese Bride has white-striped purple skin and tender, velvet-creamy white flesh. Ping Tung is beautiful rose-mauve. Each has fruit that is 8” long and just 1½” in diameter~perfect for stir-frying and grilling.
The most unlikely Eggplant is Turkish Orange although, in truth, it more closely resembles the wild Eggplants first cultivated more than 2,000 years ago. Its small, plump, egg-shaped fruits mature from green (when they are best harvested for delicious consumption) to flamboyant, shiny orange-red when they adorn the garden like so many brilliant ornaments. Young green Turkish Orange fruits are a treat when baked and stuffed with its sautéed, diced ambrosial flesh mixed with feta cheese and toasted pine nuts.
Little Orlando is an enchanting miniature with slender, 4-inch deep purple fruit in the shape of little fingers. Since these babies bruise easily, you’ll never find them at any market, so the only way to experience their innate sweetness is to grow your own for grilling, stir-frying or pickling. Louisiana Long Green Eggplant a southern heirloom, produces slender, pale green fruits that we love to slice length wise, brush with vinaigrette, and grill or broil.
How to Pamper an Eggplant
When growing Eggplant, particularly in the north, it’s important to start seed indoors at least eight to ten weeks before your Frost-Free Date, so that the seedlings are as large as possible when you transplant them~then it’s 60 to 70 days until harvest. First, soak the Black Opal seeds in warm water for an hour, then sow sparingly in seed starting mix in flats or pots under lights or in a greenhouse. The warmth of a seed starting mat (70 to 90 degrees F) will help speed germination. Pamper the emerging seedlings with 12 to 15 hours of light each day, even moisture, warmth and good air circulation. Two weeks after emergence, when the seedlings are about 2 inches tall, replant the strongest seedlings in 4-inch pots filled with richer-than-average soil mix. Begin feeding them weekly with a diluted liquid fertilizer. A healthy adolescent Eggplant that is ready for the garden should be a stocky 6” to 7” tall with at least three sets of true leaves.
Before transplanting your Eggplant seedlings into the garden, harden them off by putting them outdoors in a sheltered location for a few hours each day and bringing them in at night. Do this for a week to 10 days, gradually lengthening the time outdoors. This will help them to avoid transplant shock and to thrive. No matter how warm you think it may be, hold off transplanting until well after your spring Frost-Free Date when the soil is 65 degrees F or warmer and night time temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees F. To find the Frost-Free Date for your garden, go HERE and use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart. Select your State from the pull down menu to generate a PDF file with a list of local NOAA data collection sites. Prior to transplant, you can boost garden soil temperatures by covering the bed with black plastic for two to three weeks.
Plant the seedlings in a hot spot with fertile, well-draining soil, to which you have added compost, well-rotted manure and/or slow-release organic fertilizer. Space the seedlings in rows 18 to 24 inches apart with each plant 12 to 18 inches apart. Water moderately after planting and apply a 2” layer of mulch to help conserve moisture later on. If cold night time temperatures are predicted, cover the seedlings with individual cloches or floating row covers to retain protective warmth. In fact, young transplants like to be coddled with a light blanket of garden fabric for their first three to four weeks in the garden. It keeps them warm, shades them from scorching sunlight and protects them from flea beetles.
Pinch off the flowers at planting time and for the first month in the garden to keep the plant focused on growing larger and bushier for more productive yields later. Keep the plants well fed during the first half of the growing season with side dressings of compost and a weekly dose of half strength liquid fertilizer. The discovery of the first little fruits peaking out from under its foliage always feels like a celebration. Harvest individual fruits when they are firm, shiny and not much longer than 6 inches long (before serious seed formation has begun). Pressing the flesh with your finger should leave a very slight indentation. Though ripe Eggplants look tough, they should be handled as gently as eggs, as it’s easy to dent the skin and bruise the flesh. Harvest carefully with a sharp blade without disturbing the whole plant.
If you have a sunny deck or terrace, consider growing Eggplant in containers. They love the extra heat and special attention.
A Diva in the Garden, A Star in the Kitchen
Eggplant’s meaty texture has made it a natural for meatless dishes coveted around the globe. Substantial and nutritious, Eggplant is a great source of fiber, manganese and potassium as well as phytonutrients that work as antioxidants to protect our bodies from toxins.
Did we mention that we love Eggplant? At harvest time, we enjoy them grilled until tender after brushing them with basil- or garlic-infused olive oil. We cut thick meaty rounds to grill and dress like classic burgers. Or, we cut long one inch-thick Eggplant teardrop-shaped slices that we carefully grill and move to a platter where we top it with a thin layer of soft goat cheese spiked with our favorite fresh salsa du jour. Then, we roll it into a savory jelly-roll, top it with homemade tomato sauce and grated Parmesan, and serve it with a lofty, lightly dressed green salad and crusty bread. Leftover grilled Eggplant, mozzarella and Tomatoes also makes one terrific pannini, hot or cold. Cubed Eggplant is a wonderful companion veggie in our Roasted Vegetable Mélange. Eggplant features large in so many global cuisines: Indian and Thai curries, Japanese stir fries, and Greek and Middle Eastern dips and salads. Ping Tung Long Eggplant is absolutely wonderful in Elizabeth Schneider's Eggplants Baked in Gingered Red Pepper Puree, excerpted from her masterful book, The Essential Reference: Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini.
My favorite fall nesting ritual is making tray after tray of Oven-Baked Eggplant that I freeze in airtight freezer bags for use over the winter. I use them in my Aubergine Lemon Chicken or classic Italian recipes like the essence-of-comfort food Eggplant Parmesan, Eggplant Lasagne, Eggplant Rollatini or Chicken Sorrentino. When I prep the Eggplant for freezing, I always peel it. Sometimes I salt and weigh down the slices on a cookie cooling rack over a roasting pan to remove excess water, and sometimes I don’t, depending on how much time or Eggplant I have. At day’s end, all of those bags of Eggplant-in-waiting makes me feel like my freezer is a treasure chest.