Aubergine

January is the month to keenly get ahead and start sowing your aubergine seeds indoors!

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Aubergine (Eggplant, American and Australian or brinjal, Asian and African), Solanum melongena, is a member of the nightshade family, grown for its edible fruit. A Solanum, it is related to the tomato, pepper and potato. Like its cousin, the Tomato, the Aubergine’s popularity was stifled in Europe and North America until relatively recent years due to its association to nightshade. Where as the Tomato was believed to be poisonous, the Aubergine was believed by superstitious Europeans to induce insanity and was unaffectionately known as the “Mad Apple” until only a few centuries ago.

It is a delicate, tropical plant that is only half-hardy – meaning it stays put indoors in rainy England. The stem is often spiny, the flower whitens to a pretty light purple. Botanically classified as a berry, the fruit contains numerous small, soft seeds that, though edible, taste bitter because they contain nicotinoid alkaloids like the related tobacco.

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Aubergines have been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory. The Aubergine’s scientific name “Melongena” is an ancient name for Aubergine in Sanskrit. About 500 B.C. Aubergine spread into neighbouring China and became a culinary favourite to generations of Chinese emperors. The Chinese saw the Aubergine differently than the Indians did and soon developed their own unique varieties. In particular, they preferred smaller fruited Aubergine, as well as differing shapes and colours. The first known written record of the plant is found in Qimin Yaoshu, an ancient Chinese agricultural treatise completed in 544.

From India and Pakistan, the Aubergine soon spread West into the Middle East and the far west as Egypt and northward into Turkey. The Turks alone are believed to have over 1000 native recipes calling for the use of Aubergine in many different ways. The Moors introduced the Aubergine to Spain were it received its Catalonian name “Alberginia”. The numerous Arabic and North African names for it, along with the lack of the ancient Greek and Roman names, indicate it was introduced throughout the Mediterranean area by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. The vegetable soon spread throughout Europe. The 16th century Spaniards had great respect for the Aubergine and believed its fruit to be a powerful aphrodisiac, an “Apple of Love”. The Italians too, held the Aubergine in very regard and called them “Melanzana”. The English were responsible for coining the name “Eggplant” in regards to a variety with egg shaped, white fruit that they became familiar with, yet strangely, they refer to them today by the French name of Aubergine, which is a corruption of the Catalonian name “Alberginia”. A book on agriculture published in 12th century Arabic Spain described how to grow aubergines. There are records from later medieval Catalan and Spanish. The aubergine is unrecorded in England until the 16th century.

Because of the plant’s relationship with other nightshades, the fruit was at one time believed to be extremely poisonous. The flowers and leaves can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities. It has a special place in folklore. In 13th century Italian traditional folklore, the Aubergine can cause insanity. In 19th century Egypt it was said that insanity was “more common and more violent” when the Aubergine is in season during the summer months.

In 2013, global production of Aubergines was 49.4 million tonnes. More than 1,600,000 hectares (4,000,000 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of Aubergines in the world. 57% of output comes from China alone, followed by India, Iran, Egypt and Turkey as the following top producers.

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Aubergines require a little attention when grown at home. They like sun and are easily knocked off their steady course to maturity so they should be grown under cover.

I start mine off under cover in January otherwise they never seem to grow/develop fruit during the year. February-March is kind of the final deadline.  I start them off in compost in old tall yoghurt containers with holes punctured in the bottom to release water. I place them in a seed tray in the warmest room in our house (my dad’s bedroom is my propagator) and when they have germinated, I put them on the windowsill to get lots lot light during the day before putting them on the floor by the radiator again at night to keep them warm. Once they are big enough and the weather has improved, I pot them on in very large pots of compost in our greenhouse. As the plant grows, it must be supported by sturdy canes. Fortnightly comfrey or seaweed feeds will help to encourage the flowers to fruit. Mr Fothergills recommends spraying the flowers to encourage fruit to set. Be careful- those pretty purple petals are easily damaged.

I have tried growing ‘Black Beauty’, a popular breed. I was given some long, thin, purple-marbled styled ones (that I don’t know the name of) by a friend to grow last year. They unfortunately were not very delicious – they just would not ripen or swell properly. Other recommendations by research suggests: Moneymaker, Rosa Bianca and Slim Jim (especially if you live in the chillier North).

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You will hopefully be able to harvest from August-October. Don’t wait for the aubergines to reach supermarket size, just like courgettes or cucumbers. Snip them off whenever they reach 8cm in length and up to 18cm or so. Mark Diacono, Otters Farm, suggests salting aubergine slices for half an hour, rinsing them, patting them dry, before using as this can get rid of bitterness.

It will mostly be the weather/growing conditions that injure your crop. Otherwise known pests are aphids and red spider mites. Companion planting with basil is one human approach or parasitic controls.

Aubergines are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are also a good source of vitamins B1, B6 and potassium. It is high in minerals copper, magnesium and manganese. Aubergines are rich in antioxidants, specifically nasunin found in aubergine skin – which gives it its purple colour. A potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, nasunin has been found to protect the lipids (fats) in brain cell membranes. Cell membranes are almost entirely composed of lipids and are responsible for protecting the cell and helping it to function. The lipid layer is crucial for letting nutrients in, wastes out and receiving instructions from messenger molecules that tell the cell what to do. Research indicates that phenolic-enriched extracts of Aubergines may help in controlling glucose absorption, beneficial for managing type 2 diabetes and reducing associated high blood pressure (hypertension). Aubergines may also help to lower LDL cholesterol levels, likely to due to nasunin and other phytochemical in the fruit.

Aubergines come in a wide array of shapes, sizes and colours. The varieties range from dark purple to pale mauve and from yellow to white. The longer purple variety is the most commonly eaten. Aubergines have a very neutral taste, which allows them to be combined with many other ingredients. They are especially good when prepared with garlic (think Baba Ganoush dip) and herbs such as marjoram and basil.

A fresh aubergine is firm and has a smooth, very glossy, dark purple skin and white, spongy flesh. A ripe aubergine has a matte gloss and yields slightly under finger pressure. Its weight must be in proportion to its size: excessively light aubergines can be limp and dehydrated.

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Aubergine is used in plenty of cuisines worldwide. They are curried in India; they are also roasted, skinned, mashed, mixed with onions, tomatoes and spices and then slow cooked gives the South Asian dish gojju. Another version of the dish, begun-pora (charred or burnt), is very popular in Bangladesh where the pulp of the vegetable is mixed with raw chopped shallot, green chilies, salt, fresh coriander and mustard oil. Sometimes fried tomatoes and deep-fried potatoes are also added, creating a dish called begun bhorta. In a dish called bharli vangi, brinjal is stuffed with ground coconut, peanuts and masala and then cooked in oil. Aubergines are also deep fried as in the Italian parmigiana di melanzane, the Turkish karniyarik of the Turkish and Greek moussaka (yum).  It can be sliced and deep fried, then served with plain yoghurt (optionally topped with a tomato and garlic sauce), such as in the Turkish patlıcan kızartması (meaning fried aubergines), or without yoghurt, as in patlıcan şakşuka. Perhaps the best-known Turkish aubergine dishes are imam bayildi (vegetarian) and karniyarik (with minced meat). There are PLENTY of recipes from different cuisines worldwide to choose from, take a look on they internet to be inspired! One of my favourites of all time is the dip baba ganoush: roasted aubergine, blended in a food processor along with tahini paste, lemon juice, diced raw garlic, salt and pepper and served with raw parsley sprinkled on top, a mixture of your favourite salad leaves and Manneesh (sesame and thyme coated flatbread) for dipping – delicious with homegrown boiled potatoes or rice too. It is like another version of humous (which we all know I’m a fan of…).

Aubergines are also stewed in the classic French Ratatouille and here I offer my recipe that I used to cook the (few) Aubergine I managed to grow/harvest 2016 season. If you are lucky, you will be able to make the entire dish using homegrown produce!

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Ratatouille 

(Serves 2)

  • Olive oil, for frying in
  • 1/2 – 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 aubergine, sliced into small chunks
  • 1 courgette, sliced into discs
  • 1 red pepper, sliced into small chunks
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 200-400g fresh tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Salt and pepper, for seasoning
  1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Fry the sliced onion and aubergine, turning it down to simmer.
  2. Add the sliced courgette and pepper. Add the diced garlic and the tomatoes, stirring to combine.
  3. Leave to simmer for at least 15 minutes – 30 minutes, the longer the better, stirring now and then.
  4. Once the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes have broken down, releasing their juices to become a sauce, add salt and pepper for seasoning and remove from the heat and serve hot in dishes.

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Seville Orange Marmalade

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I thought that it was important to post about the delights of the Seville Orange even though they will never appear in our kitchen garden – English weather will never be that kind, I am afraid, even if Global Warming went into full swing.

Imported from the warmer climates, Seville oranges have a VERY brief stint in the supermarkets in the UK. They appear in January but are often cleared from the shelves by February.

I’m not at all a marmalade fan myself but my parents are and it is very important to buy as many Sevilles possible and to make billions of jars of homemade marmalade to last them the year. So far I’ve managed to purchase 3kg… that will probably get them through to March, if I’m lucky!

Anyway, last year was my first attempt at making marmalade and I am pleased to say that it went pretty well and the homemade stuff lasted until around Christmas time.

Here is a recipe if anyone fancies making some. You can substitute the Seville oranges with normal oranges or lemons and grapefruits.

What is so special about Seville oranges? They are the most flavoursome and strong tasting and ultimately make marmalade taste better for those that like it. They have a overwhelming citrusy smell and are quite bitter tasting and ideal for cooking. They don’t keep long so if you are lucky to get some, don’t leave them hanging around too long (easier said than done, it does take effort, time and initial courage to start the process of jam-jelly-marmalade making).

Here is a good starting recipe. It is the ‘whole fruit’ method I tried and tested last year. Enjoy!

Seville Orange Marmalade 

(Makes 5 x 450g jars )

  • 1kg Seville oranges
  • 2.5 litres of water
  • 75ml lemon juice
  • 2kg granulated sugar
  1. Scrub the fruit, remove buttons at the top and put the fruits whole into a large pan filled with 2.5 litres of water. Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer, covered, for 2-2 1/2 hours, or until the orange skins are tender and can be pierced easily with a fork. (I often do this in the evening, turn of the hob and leave the oranges overnight before continuing onto the next step the following evening).
  2. Once cool enough to handle, take the oranges out of the pan and measure the water left over – you should have about 1.7 litres. Make it up tot his amount with more water if you have less or bring it to the boil to reduce it if you have more.
  3. Cut the oranges in half or quarters and remove the pips with a fork, flicking them into a bowl. Drain the juice from the pip bowl and put in the pan with the other liquid.
  4. Put the orange segments into a food processor and blend. Scrape into the pan of liquid and stir in.
  5. Add the lemon juice and the sugar, turning on the heat to dissolve. Stir in. Bring to a rapid boil (takes a while) and boil for at least 10-15 minutes. Perform the pectin test (add a splurge of liquid onto a cold plate and put it in the freezer for a couple of minutes. When it wrinkles when a finger is pushed through the middle, it is done). Keep boiling until it is ready then turn off the heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes, half an hour to 1 hour is even better.
  6. Ladle into sterilised jars and seal. Store in a cool, dry place.

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