Contributed by Donna Hargrove, D.O., Nutrition Editor
If you are like most home gardeners in Florida, right now you have a lot of select produce coming in from your garden; eggplant, more eggplant and okra. I posted this article last summer but like to remind folks that eggplant can be used in so many ways. To me, it is best grilled or pan sauteed. But eggplant makes great vegetable lasagna and hummus. It can be part of tacos, burritos and frittatas. Grilled or sauteed eggplant mixes well with all types of pastas, particularly orzo, as part of quick and nutritious meal. These are but a few suggestions. We would love to hear how you use eggplant!
Eggplant, Solanum melongena, also known as aubergine, is a member of the nightshade family of plants, like tomatoes, potatoes and sweet peppers. It grew wild in India and was first cultivated in China around 5th century B.C. Eggplant was introduced to Africa before the Middle Ages, then to Italy in the 14th century. Thomas Jefferson brought eggplant to the US, where the plant was primarily used as a table ornament until the 20thcentury. Today, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, China and Japan are the leading growers of eggplant.
Eggplant is a very good source of fiber, potassium, manganese, copper, magnesium and Vitamin B. Eggplant contains many phytonutrients, which include phenolics compounds, such as caffeic and chlorogenic acid (the most potent free radical scavenger in plant tissues), and flavonoids, such as nasunin, found mainly in the skin of the eggplant. In animal studies, chlorogenic acid has been shown to have anti-cancer, antimicrobial, anti-LDL (bad cholesterol) and antiviral activities.
Nasunin has been studied in laboratory animals where it has been shown to be a potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger protecting fats in brain cell membranes from damage. Cell membranes are primarily composed of fats (lipids) responsible for protecting the cell from damage. In addition to free radical scavenging, nasunin is an iron chelator. Although iron is an essential nutrient, too much promotes free radical production increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer. By chelating the iron, cholesterol is protected from peroxidation, cellular damage is prevented that can lead to cancer and reduce inflammatory factors in joints.
How to select and store:
Choose eggplants that are firm and heavy for their size. They should be smooth and shiny with vivid color and free of discoloration, scars and bruises. The stem caps should be bright green.
Store uncut and unwashed eggplant in a plastic bag in the crisper section of the refrigerator where it will keep for a few days. Eggplant is sensitive to both heat and cold and is ideally stored at 50 degrees.
Wash the eggplant and cut off the ends. Most eggplants can be eaten with or without the skins. To tenderize the flesh and reduce some of the bitterness, it can be sweated by salting it. Cut eggplant into desired size and shape, sprinkle with salt and rest for 30 minutes. Most of the salt can be washed off prior to cooking. The flesh will have less water and absorb more flavors after sweating, while being less permeable to oil if used for cooking.
Eggplant can be baked, roasted, grilled, steamed or cooked whole (pierce skins prior to cooking to allow steam to escape).
Word of caution:
Eggplant is among a small number of foods that contain a naturally-occurring substance called oxalates. If oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause gallbladder or kidney stones. People with existing or untreated problems in these areas should avoid eating eggplant.