September Featured Produce: Eggplant

September is the height of the late summer harvest on the Monterey Bay and the markets are abundant with ripe summer fruits and vegetables. This year, some of the fall/winter crops are also arriving early—it’s a cook’s paradise — so many things to get excited about, so many possibilities for the table lining the aisles! The fragrance alone caused me a moment of euphoria last time I was there – it was as I walked past vendors selling basil on both sides of the aisle and came up to a booth with bundles of lavender that literally stopped me in my tracks. It was like an instant vacation to the Mediterranean.

KT Farm offers a stunning array of eggplant, including the widely known globe eggplant (the great big one that usually pops into mind when someone says “eggplant”) to more exotic varieties. The lavender Japanese and the darker Chinese eggplants are both longer and more slender than the globe variety. They cook up firmer and are usually less bitter, with the Japanese being the mildest. These eggplant are great for making gratins. Also available are the smaller pale Thai or Indian eggplants used in stews. These are generally more bitter than most Western palates are used to, and have a high seed ratio, but they are treasured by those who know them.

They also have Italian eggplants, which look a bit like globe eggplants, but are smaller. Italian and the globe eggplants are great for things like baba ganoush, caponata, moussaka, and eggplant parmigiana. Remember to look for eggplants that feel heavy for their size and have a less pronounced dimple on the end away from the stem. This is a way to avoid those eggplants that seem to be really seedy.

Peppers are also hitting the market now, and soon we will have lots of spicy chilis as well as sweet peppers. Peppers and eggplant, along with summer-fresh tomatoes all put me in the mood for ratatouille, and we now are getting great onions to round it out. Of course, it isn’t really ratatouille without zucchini (courgette in French), but no worries there as there are plenty of zucchini to be found, both green and bright yellow varieties. From tiny little ones to be cooked whole, to larger firmer ones that are just right for stewing or grilling, they are here in abundance. Also to be found are patty-pan squash-the ones that look like flying saucers-and crooknecks. Look for these at Mello-Dy Ranch, a great source for chilis, too, when they hit, as well.

Right now, the market also has huge selection of fresh beans – I spotted at least eight varieties. I saw purple beans (which typically turn green when cooked through), yellow wax beans (which tend to cook up mote delicate than green beans), haricot vert (a.k.a. filet beans, the wonderful thin green beans with big flavor, the ones typically found in Salade Nicoise), a couple varieties of green beans, Dragon or Yard Long beans (great for Chinese stir fry), Romano beans (both young delicate ones for sautéing and bigger ones perfect for braising), and fresh Scarlet Runner beans.

Did you know that the traditional way of eating pesto in Genoa is with pasta called “trenette” (substitute linguine or my favorite, “perciatelli”) tossed with halved haricot vert and little potatoes? Webb Farms has little baskets of marble sized potatoes that are perfect for this preparation. Potatoes and pesto are surprisingly good together.

I think I’ll go grab one of my kids and play in the kitchen.  And if you are at market, look for me – I will probably be the slightly manic looking guy darting from stall to stall, stopping periodically and giving the air a huge sniff. You should try it — it’s like a little vacation. See you at the market!

RECIPES: Papa O’s Eggplant Parmesan with Fresh Mozzarella, Eggplant Curry, Tuscan Eggplant Pesto, Braised Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, Eggplant and Tomato Gratin, Sautéed Eggplant, Mozzarella, Tomato and Basil Packets, Braised Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, Yogurt and Eggplant Dip, Greek Moussaka, Grilled Summer Vegetable Frittata, Mediterranean Tart, Babaganoush