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Eggplant isn't just for Parmigiana

How to Harvest Eggplant PlantsEggplant is a warm-weather crop that is easy to grow, and it's a colorful, attractive addition to the garden. Fruits vary from small egg-shaped globes to heavy oblong teardrops to skinny foot-long Asian varieties, and the glossy skins can range in color from deep purple to light violet, lavender, yellow, white, green and pink.

Eggplant can be grown from seed or as a transplant. Seeds should be started 8 to 10 weeks in advance and transplant to the garden, or plant seeds directly in the garden after the threat of frost has passed. Choose a warm, sunny garden spot. Soil should be well-drained, fertile and rich in organic matter. Eggplant needs calcium, so an addition of garden lime to the soil before planting is beneficial. Allow a foot or two of space between plants, and water frequently to maintain moisture in the soil.

Begin picking eggplant as soon as they're big enough to eat and keep picking them throughout the growing season, to encourage production of new fruit. They should be shiny and firm, but not hard to the touch. Always cut the fruits from the stems, rather than pulling or twisting them off. As the frost season approaches, you can pinch off flowers to encourage faster maturation of fruits already ripening.

Eggplant will keep in a cool, dry location one or two weeks after harvesting. Because eggplant is so easy to freeze or dry, canning isn't the preferred method of preserving it. Eggplant needs to be blanched before freezing. It is a low acid food, so you'll need to add citric acid or lemon juice to the boiling water, to prevent the discoloration of the flesh. After four minutes of blanching, slices can be separated with sheets of waxed paper before freezing for use later.

Methods for cooking this vegetable vary widely, and each will determine its flavor and texture, and consistency. Skin can be peeled or left on. Eggplant can be boiled, broiled, baked, breaded and fried, or roasted. Stuffed eggplant is a delicacy in many ethnic cuisines. One thing is for certain, garlic and eggplant are a winning flavor combination.

There are as many ways to serve eggplant as there are types of eggplant. Recipes abound for Indian pickles and chutneys, as well as Far East Asian gourmet pickled relishes and dips. For more traditional dishes, stuff with bread crumbs. Or, bake with cheese, pasta, tomatoes and onions. Mix with a variety of other veggies and sauces to create casseroles that are a huge hit served piping hot from the oven. Or, combine diced eggplant with wild rice and mushrooms for a hearty winter stew. Cooked into recipes, eggplant will freeze wonderfully for individual servings to be microwaved later.

With its firm and meaty texture, vegetarians and vegans love the diverse uses for eggplant, sliced and diced to make salads, veggie burgers, soups and entrees. Roasted, it takes on a rich, thick texture and nutty flavor. Roasted eggplant is one of the main ingredients of Middle Eastern foods like Baba Ganoush, a hummus dip.

Dehydrating eggplant allows it to be stored in a cool, dry pantry for months. To rehydrate, simply soak slices in warm water and add to recipes like fresh produce.

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