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Groundwork: The secrets of eggplant aplenty

Eggplant Rosa Bianca, a mouthwatering Italian heirloom. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Joe Brunetti is already harvesting eggplant, and in his capable hands he can get this sun-loving veggie producing until early October. It is not my favorite nightshade-family veg (I prefer potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers, in that order), but a well-grown eggplant is undeniably handsome, and some of the varietal fruit is gorgeous. At the Victory Garden at the American History Museum, Joe and intern Nan Campbell are raising three varieties that go back a few decades and grow true to seed.
Black Beauty is a classic large, bulbous variety, stripey green when young but maturing to a deep glossy purple, an aubergine in every respect. The green calyx is armed with wicked spines, meaning that this is definitely a fruit to be taken with gloves and preferably when it's sleeping.

Black Beauty is the standard supermarket type, and counts as one of its parents an antique Chinese variety named Black Pekin. Expect to get fruit weighing one to three pounds. It's a big 'un.

Other Asian types tend to be slender and elongated. Joe is growing an eggplant from Thailand named Long Green. It's er, long and green. Actually light green, begging the question, how do you know when this (or indeed, any eggplant) is ripe for the cook. The thumbnail is the classic test: Press the nail into the skin, and the rind should spring back. If there is no give, it isn't ripe, if you leave a nail mark, it's overripe. I'm recommending this for home gardeners; please go easy when you're in the supermarket or at the farmer's market. I was at the grocery store the other day when this guy picked up 30 tomatoes to squeeze before choosing the favored fruit. I felt like saying, "You missed one, pal."

For eggplant, weight and gloss are other good indicators of ripeness. Long Green is thin skinned but firm fleshed and is valued for its mild flavor.

Joe's third variety this year is a handsome Italian heirloom named Rosa Bianca, which is violet with ivory streaks and is said to taste as delicious as it looks.

Eggplant culture is a multi-month affair but quite straightforward, and akin to that of its pepper cousin: The seeds are started indoors in mid-February and the transplants are set out in mid May -- after danger of frost and when the soil has warmed a little.

He incorporated an organic, granular fertilizer into the soil before planting, four cups in a bed 12 feet by two feet. He then gave the young plants a foliar feed of compost tea and another of Epsom salts. He also likes to pinch out the flowers for two or three weeks to encourage the transplants to put energy into root production. This is also an excellent technique for tomatoes and peppers.

The shotholes of the flea beetle, and the pest itself, posing cheekily for the camera. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The abiding pest of eggplant is the flea beetle. You can grow eggplant in town, in the country, in the city, in other parts of the world. Always, the flea beetle shows up. The pest is small and dark, and it hops (hence its name) and leaves lots of small holes right through the leaves. At best the damage is unsightly, and worst, it will kill the plants. The pest is most harmful when the transplants are trying to establish. I have a friend who fashions a cover wrapped in row cover to place over the plants to ward off the beetle and give the transplants some growth-spurring warmth in May.

As with most things in the garden, a healthy plant in great soil will overtake the pest's ability to devastate it. Last year, Joe had not gotten around to weeding the nightshade growing nearby, and that drew the beetles away from the eggplant. A better strategy might be to plant them late, after the initial period of feeding frenzy. It also helps to clean up the year's detritus in the off season, when the beetles overwinter as adults in the vegetative litter. They are pesky, to say the least, though Joe and Nan demonstrate that by growing robust plants organically, you can foil the beetle.

The other malady to watch is sun scald. Exposed fruits can develop horrible cankers from direct sunlight, and they should be grown shaded by their own leaves. An afflicted fruit can be shaded and grown to maturity, though it would be blemished. I'd be inclined to remove it, and to keep harvesting eggplants as they ripen. This will trigger further flowering and fruit set for most of the season. One year, I might even grow these blessed plants myself, though I find my eye wandering to the ruby-colored stems of okra and thinking how pretty they are. I feel sure okra will figure in my near future. But what will that shameless eggplant booster, Cindy Brown, do with the crop this year? Over to you, Cindy.

-- Adrian Higgins

Eggplant and Potato Pastries
Makes 8 pastries

Eggplant is the chameleon of the vegetable world; it absorbs whatever flavors it is combined with and can be featured in all types of cooking styles. Roasting gives it a bit more depth.

Encased in puff pastry it can be a simple snack, an appetizer or an elegant make-ahead lunch, especially when paired with a crisp cucumber salad.

From Cynthia A. Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education specialist, based on a recipe in "Eggplant," by Ofir Jovani (Sterling Publishing, 2007).

1 large or 2 small (1 pound total) eggplants, peeled and cut into cubes
2 small (8 ounces total) potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 small onion, chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 1/2 bunch parsley, chopped (1/2 cup)
3 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into 8 slices
1 heaping tablespoon hot or mild curry powder
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package (17.3 ounces) frozen unbaked puff pastry sheets (2 sheets), defrosted and cut into 4 equal squares each
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 large egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for an egg wash

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the eggplant, potatoes, onions, garlic and parsley in a large bowl. Drizzle the oil over the chopped vegetables and sprinkle with the curry powder. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Use nonstick cooking oil spray to grease a clean baking sheet; arrange the 8 squares of pastry dough on the baking sheet so there is room among them. Use a pastry brush to paint a narrow margin of the egg wash on 2 parallel edges of the dough squares. Place 2 tablespoons of the filling on each square. Top the filling with a piece of the mozzarella. Make a diagonal fold over the filling, forming triangles (like mini turnovers). Press together gently at the edges.

Brush the filled triangles with a bit of the egg wash and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Bake for 25 minutes (at 375 degrees) or until the pastry dough is golden brown. Serve immediately.

VARIATION: For a filling with more heat heat, add a minced, seeded jalapeƱo pepper to the vegetables.

Per pastry: 430 calories, 9 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, Joe Brunetti  
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5. thanks for sharing..

Posted by: ewss123 | July 20, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse

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