A Marriage Made In Garden Heaven
Plump and lovely, eggplants are kissing cousins to tomatoes and peppers, which may be why they taste so terrific together. From French ratatouille to Italian caponata to Indian curries and Asian-inspired stir fries, these nightshade kin are combined in toothsome ways all over the world. Eggplant is probably the most under-used, which is sad, since chewy slabs of eggplant can even replace meat in vegetarian and vegan recipes, from Greek moussaka to eggplant parmesan.
That natural affinity of flavor is paired with a similar desire for warmth and sunlight. These tropical beauties thrive when summer stays reliably hot and night temperatures remain in the 60s or even higher. In my cool maritime garden, a more typical pattern is for foggy grey mornings to keep chilly night air captive until the marine layer burns off around mid day.
Grafting Is Horticultural Magic
In maritime and cool climate gardens, eggplants and tomatoes and peppers may struggle when temperatures swing or simply fail to climb. For the past few years, I’ve finally had outstanding success with these temperamental tropicals, thanks not to wondrous weather but to the horticultural magic of grafting. When flavorful but cold-sensitive varieties of these veggies are grafted onto sturdy, disease-resistant root stock, good things happen even in my windy, often chilly garden.
I’ve been using slender, tender Ping Tung eggplants in all kinds of dishes this summer. The grafted plants are strong enough to bear the weight of the 10-12 inch eggplants, which turn a lustrous purple as they ripen. Thanks to grafting, I’ve been enjoying tomatoes since June (amazing for my garden). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for salads, everybody loves the INDIGO Cherry Drops, rosy, black-tinged cherry toms with a sparkling sweet-tart balance. For a gorgeous garnish, I often use INDIGO Pear Drops, with dusky purple shoulders above a glowing golden base. When company’s coming, I decorate the table with trusses of super sweet INDIGO Gold Berries to nibble with a glass of whatever. Plump little INDIGO Blue Chocolate tomatoes are almost dessert like, their rich, juicy sweetness layered with just enough tang to make them mildly addictive.
And Basil Makes Three
Blue Chocolates make an incredible Caprese salad, sliced with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and pretty little leaves of variegated Pesto Perpetual basil, which brings a citrusy sparkle to the classic combination. This is a gorgeous plant, building into a statuesque bush that’s almost shrubby. Since it doesn’t bloom, fresh foliage never stops forming and the more you pinch, the bushier it gets. With its dainty, silver-tipped, soft jade green foliage, it looks delicate, yet a single plant can fill a half-barrel, towering 3-4 feet high, and will remain productive until frost cuts it down.
My other favorite basil has always been Genovese, with large, smooth leaves that smell and taste like heaven. but this year, I’m trying Bolloso Napoletano, with great, rumpled leaves that are big enough to use as wraps for bite-sized appetizers. They’re awesome with slices of nectarine and ripe brie, or crisp mini peppers and goat cheese, or tiny baby carrots and a dab of hummus….
Menage A Trois
If eggplants and tomatoes make delicious culinary partners, things get even juicier when we toss in some hot or spicy peppers. I especially love them in classic French ratatouille, but to avoid firing up the oven in the heat of summer, I make this stovetop version and serve it hot with fresh local goat cheese and ripe peaches.
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups peeled, diced eggplant
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup thinly sliced red peppers, spicy or hot
2 cups thinly sliced green bell peppers
2 cups chopped zucchini
3 cups diced tomatoes, with juice
1 tablespoon capers, drained
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil
In a heavy soup pot, combine 1 tablespoon oil, garlic and onion over medium high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Add eggplant, sprinkle with salt, cover pan, reduce heat to medium low and cook until soft ( 10-15 minutes). If pan gets dry, add oil as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time. Uncover pan, add 1 teaspoon oil and the peppers. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and oil as needed. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender but not mushy (all shapes should still be distinct). Gently stir in the tomatoes, capers and pepper, heat through for 3-4 minutes and serve hot or at room temperature for fullest flavor, garnished with basil. Serves 4-6.
Grilled Teriyaki Eggplant
Slathered with teriyaki sauce, grilled eggplant is a delightful summer entree and leftovers make amazing sandwiches. This recipe is also great with thickly sliced sweet potatoes or roasted beet rounds. Add as much garlic and ginger as you like, and toss in some fresh herbs such as lemon thyme, fennel greens, or cilantro.
1/4 cup plain rice vinegar
1/4 cup shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)
1 tablespoon honey
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
1 large eggplant, sliced in inch-thick slabs
1/2 cup stemmed cilantro
In a shallow bowl, combine vinegar, shoyu, and honey, stirring to blend. Add garlic and ginger, mix well, and add eggplant slices, turning to coat well. Let eggplant marinate for at least 30 minutes before you start the coals or preheat grill. Set grill high above the coals or in oven, then grill eggplant until soft (6-7 minutes per side), basting with marinade and turning twice. Serve at once, garnished with cilantro. Serves 4-6.