On Gardening: Eggplants Provide Sumptuous Meals

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:44:00 AM

A friend recently announced that our Berkeley winters are becoming warmer. Always inclined to scoff at categorical and unfounded opinions, I decided to see if evidence showed this to be true. 

In my early days, I was shown how to record daily weather on a grid, drawing in each square (numbered according to the day’s date) an umbrella, a sun, clouds, and so forth, a practice that not only captivated me at the time, but one which I resumed when in adulthood I started to garden. 

As a consequence, first thing every morning I tap a barometer, read a thermometer, and record these, together with a weather symbol, in my gardening log. So far this year it shows a lot of umbrellas. 

Although I did not start recording temperatures until the middle of 2007 when it was extremely cold, I was able to verify my friend’s opinion by totting up subsequent January temperatures and dividing by 31. The results were 47, 49, and 51 degrees Fahrenheit for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010.  

What does this mean, other than my friend’s irritating omniscience? I do rather hope it means hotter summers, so that the heat-loving fruits and vegetables I wanted to grow when I moved to my present cool damp location might turn from dream to reality. I know there are people in Berkeley who can grow tomatoes. Some can grow chili peppers. I doubt however that any gardener this side of the Berkeley hills succeeds with eggplants, because eggplants, like melons, require a warm ground and warm nights. 

If it does indeed become warmer where I live, I will probably start the seeds indoors, for these too require warmth to germinate. I will put them in the ground in July, with compost made by my red wriggly worms. When the seedlings show sturdy growth, I will regulate temperature and moisture by surrounding them with a light mulch of hay. I can hardly wait. Meantime, since the roots of eggplant are short and compact, and so would grow well in pots, they would probably thrive in a greenhouse. But building a heated and ventilated structure for one vegetable readily available at the market a few blocks away is perhaps going too far, even for a gardener. 

Eggplant, Solanum melongena, is native to tropical Asia, with China as usual claiming the original, although a good case could be made for India, where it is known as brinjal, a word that derives from Sanskrit. It is glorious to look at when plumply encased in purple satin. Other varieties have fruits like small ivory globes, the origin of its common name here. In Europe it is called aubergine, the word also deriving from Sanskrit, via Catalan, Arabic and Persian. Its family is Solanaceae which has, like the Borgias, many toxic members, such as belladonna and black henbane, more suitable for a witches brew than a chef’s. All solanums, including potatoes, chilis and tomatoes, must be approached with caution, for some people are allergic to their properties.  

Despite a dearth of nutritional value, except perhaps in mineral content, the eggplant in capable hands produces sumptuous meals. Some gastronomes consider it the king of vegetables. Although it is routinely featured in Indian, Thai and Chinese restaurants, it is the chefs of the Middle East who recognized the eggplant’s outstanding gustatory qualities. Probably the most famous eggplant dish is Imam bayildi, which means the Imam fainted, perhaps because of its fabulous aroma. It feels sacrilegious to describe a simple quick version of this: cut small narrow eggplants lengthwise and place cut side down on a plate. Pierce the skins and microwave, covered, for 3 minutes. (It is not necessary to salt and drain the eggplant slices first. Only in Western cookbooks does one find these instructions.) The flesh will emerge soft. Turn the slices cut side up. Smother with tomatoes and garlic that have been sautéed in olive oil and salt. Return to the microwave for another minute or so, with or without a sprinkling of cheese, and enjoy a superb appetizer. Since flavors develop as they cool, these little boats make excellent finger food for a potluck.  

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Berkeley’s climate will become tropical any time soon. Subtropical plants do grow here, killed by prolonged frost. Warm temperate pockets might expand to include my garden and even accommodate eggplant’s horticultural requirements. Do the average temperatures of July of the last three years indicate such a warming trend? They do not. In fact July temperatures in 2009 and 2008 were lower than in 2007. It will be a long wait for eggplants in my garden.