What's in Season at the Farmers Market: Eggplants + an Eggplant Primer
Local farmers with the field space in the desert areas sometimes are able to give us a limited eggplant crop in the early spring. But eggplant, a close relative of tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, generally is intolerant of cold weather. A few chilly nights (they don't even have to reach below freezing) and the plant dries up and withers away. Summer is its glory time, which is evident right now when you pass tables rich with dusky purples, vivid lavenders, egglike whites and marbled orbs in heathered purples and greens. The hot weather yields unrivaled eggplant diversity, and with it myriad ways to enjoy the varied profusion.
Felicia Friesema Various eggplant varieties at Peacock Family Farms at the Hollywood market
Peacock Family Farms is just one of many local vendors that grow an ample eggplant crop for summer harvest. What sets Peacock apart is its unrivaled variety. Right now it has the small and white Clara, the striped Calliope, the nearly black Nadia, two Italian varieties -- one lighter purple round called Rosa Bianca and the Beatrice, an eggpalnt so dark that even its calyx up top is a dark purple. Peacock also grows two Asian varieties -- a Japanese-style eggplant called Orient Express and a lighter lavender, long Chinese variety called Orient Child, all available through the end of summer.
"Coming up we'll have a few more varieities," said Melissa Gore, who has been working with the Peacock family for about five years and frequently works the booth at the Hollywood farmers market. "The Fairy Tale is coming. It's striped like the Calliope but is long and thin. There's the Tango -- another thicker, white variety used in a lot of ethnic dishes. And the Hansel and Gretel -- a pair of contrasting eggplants. Same size, but one is white and one in nearly black."
Nailing down an eggplant's flavor is a bit tricky. Some varieties are decidedly squashlike, with a sweeter edge and mild, pleasant flavor. Bitterness is more prevalent in older, overripe eggplants that have been allowed to develop seeds -- which produce phenolic compounds that create that bitter, almost tannic flavor. This can be cured with a generous salting to leech out the compounds -- and any water -- from the flesh. Simply salt the exposed flesh and allow to sit for an hour, then rinse and prepare as needed.
Choose eggplants that are shiny and firm, with no deep gashes or obvious soft spots. The calyx, or plant crown at the top, should look fresh -- either green or a vivid deep purple depending on the variety -- and be fleshy and flexible, not dried out and brown.
One of the larger and more common varieties, Black Beauty, can grow to gargantuan proportions, while others, like the diminutive green Thai eggplant, stay relatively small. Follow this simple rule regardless: The larger the size for the type, the larger the probability of bitterness.
Peacock Family Farms currently has the best selection, varietywise, but you can find the stripey Calliopes at Weiser Family Farms, long Japanese-types at Thuy Farms, standard Black Beauty at Central Valley and other vendors, and soon you'll be able to try the green Thai eggplants (along with Indian and other Asian varieties) at Yang Farms, all of whom you can find at the Hollywood market on Sundays.
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