Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Get fresh with eggplant

Right along with Jersey tomatoes and farm-fresh sweet corn, locally grown eggplant merits a spot on the weekly shopping list.

“Like with any other product, when there are less food miles, the eating quality is much better. So is the shelf life at home,” said Joe Marino, vice president of the NJ Vegetable Growers Association and a farmer who grows about 50 acres of eggplant under the Sun Valley Orchards label at Marino Brothers in Swedesboro.

So far, the growing season has been ideal for eggplant, which thrives in hot, dry weather. “We have eggplant coming out of our ears,” said Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Gloucester County, where Marino farms. With about 900 acres in cultivation, New Jersey ranks fifth in national production, behind California, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
Large farms that cater to the wholesale trade overwhelmingly plant big, midnight-skinned, teardrop-shaped varieties like Santana, Nadia, Night Shadow and Classic, said Infante-Casella. But at smaller farms, the emphasis often is on less common varieties that will capture shoppers’ attention at tailgate markets.

Although Santana is the biggest seller, three other varieties share the half acre devoted to eggplant at Stony Hill Gardens in Chester, said the farm’s proprietor, Carol Davis. They are Prosperosa, an elongated white eggplant with a pale lavender top; Megal, a long, thin, light purple variety; and Cloud Nine, a round white eggplant ideal for stuffing. Davis sells the eggplant at her own farm market in Chester and at 14 tailgate markets in Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic and Union counties.

Traditional eggplant has been a mainstay at Stokes Farm in Old Tappan since its founding in 1873, but over the past 10 years, owner Ron Binaghi, Jr., has added eight other varieties to the mix. He sells his eggplant at various New York City Green Markets, at the River Vale farmers’ market on Thursdays, and at his own farm stand on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“People really latched onto them,” he said. “I wouldn’t say they come in looking for them, but once we educate them about them, they come back looking for them.”

The Manhattan chefs who frequent the Green Markets where Binaghi sells his produce favor Beatrice, a round lavender eggplant about the size of a giant softball. “They say it has the best flavor,” he said. Binaghi’s Moroccan and Algerian customers relish the Comprido Verde Claro, which starts out lime green and turns orange when mature, but gets no bigger than a plum tomato. “It’s slightly bitter, but it’s supposed to be,” said Binaghi.

Many eggplant recipes call for liberally salting eggplant slices, then allowing them to drain before cooking, to remove excess bitterness and moisture. But that time-consuming step isn’t necessary and can even adversely affect the vegetable’s taste, according to Tassos Stefanopoulos, co-owner with his wife, Chysanthe, of Pithari Taverna, a Greek restaurant in Highland Park, where eggplant is always on the menu.

Since eggplant tends to soak up surrounding liquids, for best results only extra-virgin olive oil should be used when frying it, insists Stefanopoulos. “You must have a lot of passion to cook with eggplant,” he said.

“The fear of preparation — not knowing what to do with it,” is why some are reluctant to buy eggplant, said Marino. But making a satisfying eggplant dish doesn’t have to be time-consuming, said Infante-Casella, who has four eggplant plants — plump and thin, purple and white — in her home garden for personal consumption.

One way she enjoys eggplant to cut it into quarter-inch-thick slices; brush them with olive oil; sprinkle with garlic powder, salt and pepper, and toss them on the grill, turning once until cooked through. What could be easier?

Shopping Hints: Look for eggplants that are shiny, firm, and heavy for their size. They should not be sunken, pitted or soft. The calyx (the crown just below the stem) should be bright green, not dull or brown.

Nutrition Notes: Eggplants contain folate, potassium and terpenes, which help control cholesterol and may prevent or slow the growth of certain cancers; pectin, which helps lower cholesterol; and saponins, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antihistaminic properties.

Fun Fact: The Greek word for eggplant, melitzana, and the Italian word, melanzana, reflect the ancient Latin name, mala insana, or “apple of madness.” When eggplant was introduced from its native India to Europeans, they initially feared it caused insanity.