The range of sizes, shapes, and colors of the heat-loving eggplant (Solanum melongena) tells the story of its enduring popularity. Native to India, where it grows wild, it has been cultivated in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Europe was introduced to the vegetable in the 8th century via the Moors, who brought it to Spain, Sicily, and southern France via North Africa. In the sunny, dry climate of the Mediterranean basin, eggplant found the warm growing conditions it prefers and soon found its way into the classic cuisines of the region.
Today, an autumn stroll through a farmers' market here or abroad is made all the more intriguing by the displays of striped or mottled, round or pendulous, glossy white or silken purple eggplants, almost too beautiful to eat. But don't resist. Few autumn vegetables fresh from the garden compete with a young, newly picked eggplant for delicate flavor—it's only the overripe, shelf-bedraggled specimens that are bitter enough to have given this exotic vegetable a bad name. Stir-fried in olive oil, with a pinch of garlic and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, eggplant is an elegant foundation for a meatless meal.
Among the best eggplants to try are the Asian varieties, such as extra-early 'Ichiban' and 'Orient Express'. These long, slender, slightly curved fruits have a purple calyx—the scalloped cap that sits atop each eggplant. Other varieties have a green calyx, such as 'Kermit', a Thai eggplant that looks like a green-and-white-striped Ping-Pong ball. 'Rosa Bianca' offers the traditional eggplant shape, but with lovely purple-and-cream-streaked skin, and the high-yielding 'Clara' bears pearly-white, pendulous fruits.
Eggplants grow best when daytime temperatures hover between 75°F and 85°F and nighttime temperatures stay above 65°F. Temperatures below 62°F and above 95°F can cause flowers and small fruits to drop off the plants. "I think it's essential, especially in a cold climate, to give eggplants a good head start," says Barbara Damrosch, who authored The Garden Primer (Workman, 2008) and grows eggplants at her Four Season Farm in Maine. "We put our transplants out when they are 8 to 10 weeks old." When purchasing starter plants from nurseries, select ones that have sturdy, stocky stems and no flowers, and are not pot-bound.