I have very few insect pests that really annoy me. The payoff for a very wildlife friendly garden is that insects have to run a gauntlet of lizards and frogs and wrens and spiders, and not enough make it through to be serious competition. Except for flea beetles. These are little black jumping beetles from the Chrysomelidae family. They eat holes in the leaves, only eggplants and potatoes in my garden, but so prolifically that the leaves look like lace. On its own, even that probably wouldn’t faze me, but they also spread wilt and blight diseases and nine times out of ten my eggplants succumb to something before bearing a decent crop.
Rock mulching the plant to attract and provide habitat for lizards helps a bit. Surrounding seedlings with well developed Thai basil and other strong camouflage plants helps a bit. I’ve read that planting a catch crop of radishes works but the flea beetles are fast and they jump, so I haven’t figured out how you would catch the beetles once the radishes have attracted them. I’ve read that yellow sticky traps work, and I can see that, but I worry about catching beneficial insects too. I’ve read that mulching with coffee grounds works, but I suspect it works by caffeine poisoning the beetles, and that would poison beneficials too so I might try it but carefully.
Meanwhile, red square eggplants don’t resist the beetles any better than any other variety I’ve tried, but they resist the resulting wilt and blight diseases. So I have red eggplant bushes with colander leaves but they are still bearing a good crop.
Peeled, the red eggplants work in just about any eggplant recipe. They are a bit more bitter and I tend to pick them green, just as the colour turns for most recipes. Unpeeled and fully ripe, they work brilliantly in an Indian style eggplant pickle.
- Chop 6 cups, or about a kilo (2 pounds) of red eggplant into 1.5 cm cubes.
- Put it in a colander and massage through about 6 dessertspoons of cooking salt.
- Let it sit for half an hour in the sink.
- Put some jars on to sterilize, either in a pressure cooker for 5 minutes, or by boiling for 15 minutes, or in a slow oven for 20 minutes (but boil the lids separately or the plastic lining melts). You can also use a dishwasher or a microwave so they say but I don’t have either of them. You want to put the hot pickle into hot jars so time it so both are ready at once.
- Finely chop a whole corm of garlic, and about the same amount of fresh ginger and fresh turmeric.
- Also finely chop some chilies. How many depends on how hot you like your pickles and how hot your chilies are. I used half a cupful of bishops crown chilies, without the seeds, which makes a spicy but not heroic pickle.
- Rinse, drain and squeeze the eggplants.
- Heat ¾ cup light olive oil in a pot big enough to take all the eggplants
- Add 1 teaspoon each of fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds, and a half teaspoon of brown mustard seeds.
- Cook for about half a minute, then add the garlic, ginger and turmeric.
- Cook for another half a minute or so, then add the chilies.
- Cook for minute or so then add the eggplants.
- Cook for a few minutes, then add a cup of vinegar and a heaped dessertspoon of brown sugar.
- Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, till the eggplants are soft and translucent and the oil is separating. You can tell when it is ready because the oil becomes visible. Leave a ladle to cook in the pot so that it is sterile too.
- Bottle the hot pickle into the hot jars using the ladle, wipe the edge of the jars with a clean paper towel, and put the lids on. The lids will pop in as it cools.
- The pickle will last for months in the fridge. If you want to keep on the shelf, or give away, you can go the extra step of boiling or pressure cooking the sealed jars (boil for 20 minutes, pressure cook for 10 in a pot with a tea towel in the bottom to stop the jars rattling).