The summer heat wave sweeping through the Southland has left many of us too hot to even turn on our ovens. Not to mention the damage the heat has had on farmers and their summer crops. One summer favorite, though, thrives in this heat: eggplant.
Eggplant is a warm weather crop that loves the sun. Eggplant season in California begins in May, peaks in the heat of summer and lasts until the first frost, usually in mid-October or November. Eggplant grows on a big, beautiful, leafy, tropical looking plant with purple and white flowers that over time can grow as big as a tree. When people think of eggplant they usually conjure up images of the massive purple globes found in most grocery stores that are so huge the idea of how to go about cooking one seems daunting. Take a stroll down to your local farmers’ market, though, and the plethora of different varieties of eggplant will astound you. Grocery stores simply do not carry the wide array of eggplants found at farmers’ markets.
Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms is currently growing six varieties of eggplant at his farm in the Lucerne Valley that are available at his stand. There is the Rosa Bianca, an heirloom variety from Italy that is light with a purple blush. It is round with a mild and creamy taste that is great for stuffing or grilling. The Calliope is an oval, mild tasting Indian style eggplant. It has purple and white streaks and is beautiful to look at. The Cloud Nine is an oval Italian type of eggplant that has a wonderful flavor with few seeds and no bitter taste. The Green eggplant (Alex’s favorite) is a bell shaped variety from China with the creamiest taste. The Prosperosa is another round Italian heirloom variety. It is blue and purple at the bottom with a white ring around the calyx and great for stuffing. The Nadia is a classic style, tear drop shaped eggplant familiar to most people. It is a good producer and its purple color also adds a great burst of color to Weiser’s already aesthetically pleasing mix of eggplants. At Weiser Farms they do not keep eggplants on the vine too long, resulting in a smaller and more tender eggplant; all of Weiser’s eggplants are much smaller in size than what is found at the grocery store. He says both customers and chefs prefer the smaller size eggplants and like the variety of shapes that yield well to different cooking methods. He is excited to expand his eggplant crop due to the enthusiastic response he is receiving from the public.
Eggplant makes a perfect summer dish. To pick a good eggplant look for one that is firm and shiny with good color. A dull, faded eggplant is overripe and bitter. Eggplant parmesan is a classic recipe and grilling and roasting are both delicious ways to prepare eggplant. Some people prefer to slice and salt their eggplant and let it sit for an hour before cooking it to allow the eggplant to give off its bitter juices. To do this, simply slice the eggplant, salt it liberally and place it in a colander either in the sink or on top of a baking sheet to catch the liquid. This can be done ahead of time; just refrigerate the eggplant until you are ready to cook it. After letting the eggplant sit, rinse it, pat it dry and cook it as you like. To grill or roast your eggplant slice it into rounds, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until it browns. For oven roasting, 400-450 degrees works best. Eat it as is or turn it into a sandwich with bread, tomato and good cheese and heat it until the cheese melts. Take advantage of the blazing sun and head out to your local farmers’ market to get some eggplant. Weiser Family Farms, Beylik Farms, Peacock Farms and Elmer Lehman all grow delicious eggplant. Later in the season be on the look out for Windrose Farms exotic Thai varieties.