Solanum melongena is referred to by many different names depending on location. Some may refer to it as aubergine, brinjal, or, as I call it, the eggplant. This member of the nightshade family is related to potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco, and comes in dozens of varieties, with colors ranging in hues of white, green, and purple.
The eggplant has its origins rooted in south and eastern Asia, with writings alluding to the use of the fruit as early as 300 BCE and cultivation beginning in antiquity. Later it was introduced to areas in southern Europe and the Mediterranean via Arabic merchants. As with many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs we use in cooking today, they were also used for medicinal purposes.
The eggplant was used to treat a variety of ailments and was thought to be an aphrodisiac. Although in Europe, during the Renaissance, the eggplant was referred to as the “mad apple” or “mala insana”, as it was thought to cause insanity. This may have been attributed to the fact that they contain solanine, as do all nightshades. However, it isn’t toxic unless consumed in ridiculously high doses. For solanine to be deadly, a person would need to consume 2–5mg per kilogram of body weight. Therefore a 150 lb. (68kg) person would need to consume a minimum of 136mg of solanine for toxic symptoms to appear. The average eggplant has about 11mg of solanine. Therefore to consume anything close to a lethal dose of solanine, you would have to eat 12 eggplants. So, while some individuals may be generally sensitive to the nightshade family of foods, eating enough eggplants to cause any harm would be pretty difficult to do.
So beyond, just not being lethal, eggplants also offer a wonderful nutritional profile. The average eggplant (whole and unpeeled) comes in at about 500 grams and offers 136 calories, 1 gram of fat, 5 grams of protein, and 32 carbohydrates (16 grams of which is dietary fiber). Eggplants also provide us with vitamins A, C, E (Alpha Tocopherol), K-1, all the B’s (except B-12, as it comes from animal sources), and the minerals manganese, magnesium, copper, potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. Of course, calories and nutrient content will vary per variety and also soil mineral condition.
All eggplants contain different flavonoids, which are the polyphenolic compounds found in plants that have antioxidant powers. The difference in the flavonoids contained, are based on the color, or pigment the variety of eggplant possesses. For example, the dark skinned (purple/blue) eggplants contain the anthocyanin flavonoid, nasunin, which is linked to the inhibition of neural degeneration (far from a “mad apple”). It is also known to possess antiviral and antibacterial qualities, just as does chlorogenic acid, another eggplant flavonoid that is typically associated with coffee beans. The green varieties of eggplants contain the flavonoids such as quercetin, luteolin, and myricetin. While specific flavonoids can have different benefits, most all reduce inflammation and reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases and cancers.
Eggplants in the Garden
To grow this lovely annual in your garden, it’s recommended that they are begun as transplants, as opposed to direct seed sowing. Be sure to plant when soil temperatures have reached above 65°F, and all danger of frost is gone. These heat lovers are extremely cold-sensitive and will not tolerate frost. Plant in a location that receives full sun, and has fertile well-drained, slightly acidic soil, that has been augmented with organic matter prior to planting.
Plant seedlings 2’ apart in rows that are spaced 3’apart. As plants grow, you can stake them, as you would tomato plants. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, it will reduce rot and allow your eggplants space to grow. Moderately water your eggplants and expect blooms mid to late summer. Eggplants typically take about 65-85 days after they are transplanted to be ready for harvest. Of course this is variety dependent, so be sure to remove fruit from the growing plant while it’s still glossy and before the flesh becomes tough and seeds begin to harden. Use garden clippers to remove fruit, as opposed to twisting them off, and be careful when picking the fruit, as the stem and calyx can have slightly prickly thorns on them, so wearing gloves may be warranted. Once picked, store the little gems in the refrigerator for up to one week.
There are several species of unwanted beetles that can plague eggplants. They cause damage to the plants that, especially if sustained in the early parts of the growing season, substantially affect yield and quality. Managing your garden through proper rotation and plant separation may help alleviate beetle problems. Eggplants should be rotated with vegetables that are botanically unrelated to them (this also helps eliminates wilt) and separated from other produce that can possibly attract unwanted beetles, such as potatoes and cucumbers. Row covers or lightweight insect-exclusion covers can also be used.
Eggplants in the Kitchen
With the wealth of health benefits eggplants have, they are a delight to cook with. Based on the variety you pick it will color your dishes with different flair. However, most any variety will fit into any eggplant recipe. Beyond brushing them olive oil and seasoning them with salt and pepper to cook on the grill or roast in the oven, try this recipe for your next crop of eggplants.
Eggplant and Sausage with Yogurt Sauce
1 medium eggplant – peeled and very coarsely chopped
Salt for sprinkling
1 pound Italian sweet sausage with fennel
3 cloves garlic – minced
1 rib celery – finely chopped
1 small white or yellow onion – finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 can (32 oz.) crushed tomatoes
3-4 fresh basil leaves (torn) or 2 teaspoons dried basil
2 cups plain full-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 clove garlic – minced
2 teaspoons cumin
Juice from 1 lemon
1-2 tablespoons olive oil (enough to thin out sauce)
Place eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with salt
Let sit and drain for 5 minutes
While the eggplant drains, cook sausage over medium-high heat
Cook until crumbled and browned
Add garlic, celery, and onion to the sausage
Pat the moisture from the eggplant
Stir into sausage mixture
Season with salt and pepper
Cook for 10 minutes
Add tomatoes and basil
Bring to a boil
Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes
Directions for Yogurt Sauce:
While sausage mixture is cooking, place all sauce ingredients in a bowl (slowly adding the oil until sauce is a consistency that allows a thick drizzle)
Mix well and set aside
Directions for Serving:
Once sausage and eggplant mixture is cooked, place on serving plates
Drizzle with yogurt sauce and top with a sprinkling of cheese
No matter the hue of eggplant you choose, know that it will add pizzazz to your garden, as well as your dinner table. With its many nutritional benefits, and no insanity causing effects, this fetching fruit is a unique and valuable summer sensation. Enjoy the exceptional eggplant and all it offers to your diet and your growing spaces.
Doubrava, N. Last Update October, 2014. Clemson University. Eggplant. https://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/crops/hgic1310.html
Jett, L. 2017. Curators of the University of Missouri. University of Missouri Extension. Eggplant Production. https://extension.missouri.edu/p/G6369
Stommel, J., et al. September 2003. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. V: 128: 5. Pages 704-710. https://journal.ashspublications.org/content/128/5/704.full.pdf+html
Toxnet. January 01, 2014. US National Library of Medicine. Solanine. CASRN: 20562-02-1. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+3539