IN SEASON / Eggplant : Varieties of Eggplant to Satisfy Any Taste

Kitty Morse is a free-lance writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

Eggplant may well qualify as one of the world's most common vegetables. It stars in a host of dishes from the Mediterranean to China.

Even in our own cosmopolitan back yard, eggplant isn't simply globe-shaped or purple. Some varieties look like a freshly laid egg, while others--such as the Asian bitter orange--are as plump and red as a ripe tomato.

One of the so-called exotic varieties is the Japanese or Oriental eggplant. Deep purple in color and slender in shape, the Japanese or "baby eggplant" is most often used in Oriental stir-fry dishes.

Like a number of other farmers, Kaz Hata of Valley Center keeps a steady supply growing in his fields--for his personal use, as well as to sell at area farmer's markets. "I have a lot of fun growing vegetables," says the soft-spoken Hata, a former landscape contractor who turned to farming full-time a few years ago.

He says his customers seem to prefer the Japanese eggplant for its sweeter flavor and meatier flesh. Chinese eggplant, which Hata also raises, is a little paler in color than the Japanese variety, with fewer seeds. Both produce leafy bushes elegant enough to be used as ornamentals.

Ornamental plants--edible and non-edible--are the specialty of Thai-born Ampol Orrungroj and his wife, Vipapan, of Hanging Around Etc. in San Marcos. Among the edibles, Ampol and Vipapan grow an unusual Thai eggplant rarely found in Western supermarkets. The bright green, marble-sized fruit, widely used in Thailand, grows in bunches like grapes.

"It's great for Thai curries or with shrimp paste," Ampol said. Another variety is an oblong, green eggplant, slightly paler than a cucumber and also commonly found in Oriental supermarkets. The one that Ampol refers to as "Giant Green Crispy" yields a round, striped fruit that can reach the size of a tennis ball.

"They're much more delicious than the purple ones--they're sweeter and more tender," he said of the variety.

He prefers raising them in containers, since they tend to get "huge" if planted in the ground. These hard-to-find varieties produce beautiful mauve blooms, which make them ideally suited for gardening in containers. "We sell our eggplant in 1-gallon pots so people can plant them in the ground or use them as decoration," says Vipapan.

Hanging Around Etc. supplies nurseries in San Diego and Los Angeles, as well as individuals. The public is invited to visit the nursery on weekends or by appointment.

If you happen to frequent Lino Ramos' vegetable stand at the Vista Farmer's Market, don't be fooled by the egg-shaped, white eggplant on display. These conversation pieces are not eggs, but gourmet varieties known as White Egg or Easter Egg, which Ramos grows in the back hills of Vista.

The skin of the small, white eggplants tends to be a little tougher than their more conventional cousins, so you may want to peel them before cooking. Use them for decoration, or just as you would any other eggplant.

Scott Murray of Murray Farms in Vista is experimenting with several Japanese varieties. "They're long and slim, easier to prepare and delicious when grilled on the barbecue," Murray said.

The Italian Black Beauty, which he also grows, "has a nice dark color, yields a large oval fruit, and is noted for having fewer seeds than the average eggplant," said Murray, who enjoys practicing his culinary skills with the vegetables he grows. This year's crop has been generous, and Murray has been "experimenting with everyone's favorite eggplant dishes."

Eggplant, one of the most versatile vegetables, is low in calories, and is an excellent source of fiber.

When buying eggplant, make sure the flesh is shiny and free of blemishes. Eggplant is perishable and cannot be refrigerated for more than a day or two. It doesn't freeze well unless it has been cooked. Peeled or unpeeled, eggplant often serves as a meat substitute in vegetarian dishes.

Many recipes call for letting the eggplant "sweat" before cooking to get rid of its bitterness. Slice it, sprinkle lightly with salt, and let it "sweat" for half an hour on paper towels. Pat the eggplant dry before proceeding with the recipe.

Rather than deep frying, try brushing eggplant slices lightly with olive oil, and broiling them for a few minutes on each side. Eggplant is also delicious grilled on the barbecue. Whatever the method, cook the eggplant well, or it will taste bitter.

Hanging Around Etc., 2247 Country Creek Road, San Marcos, 92069. 471-2526. Open to the public on weekends and by appointment. Call ahead for availability. Vegetables in 1-gallon containers cost $3, 2-gallon containers cost $6.

Hata Family Farm, 30764 Valley Center Road, Valley Center, 92082. 749-2789. Sells from farm stand and at Vista Farmer's Market. Call for availability and prices.

Lino Ramos, 758-4992. Sells at the Vista Farmer's Market. White eggplant, $1 a tray.

Murray Farms, Specialty Produce Growers, 2562 Foothill Drive, Vista, 92084. 941-6919. Wholesale and retail. Call for availability or to order. $1 a pound for Japanese eggplant, and 75 cents a pound for Italian.

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