August 18, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 17
Shining a Light on Nightshades
The name “nightshades” may sound a little spooky, but it represents a group of some of the most delicious and versatile vegetables out there, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Despite their current-day popularity, nightshades have a tumultuous past. Even the name itself is rooted in mystery: some theorize it stems from the fact that many grow best in shady areas and spawn fruit overnight, but the dark overtones of the name may also have derived from early mistrust of these delectable veggies.

Early Days: Off to a Rocky Start

When eggplants were introduced to the Mediterranean by Middle Easterners in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were not immediately incorporated into the cuisine. Some southern Europeans actually believed they induced insanity and refused to eat them. Similarly, when tomatoes and peppers were introduced to the Mediterranean through trade with South America, many believed they were poisonous. However, most of this historical skepticism was due to their association with toxic, non-edible plants also in the nightshade family, like mandrake and belladonna, which can cause sickness, hallucinations, or even death if ingested at high levels.

Centuries later, small pockets of nightshade mistrust persist. Anecdotal claims are sometimes made that nightshades can cause joint pain, arthritis, or other symptoms, but a review of the medical literature finds no evidence for such claims. That said, some people with compromised guts or immune systems may find they can’t stomach the natural pest-resistant defenses in nightshades, called alkaloids. For those of us in normal good health, however, nightshades have no downside. 

Now Essential to the Mediterranean Diet 

Today, nightshades are adored in the Mediterranean and by people all over the world. They are especially useful for making vegetarian dishes. In particular, eggplants have a delicious meaty flavor and can take on rich, smoky flavors. One popular way of preparing them in the Mediterranean is by roasting whole eggplants over an open flame until the outside skin is charred and black. Once cool, the skin is removed, and the silky, smoky pulp is removed to be used in sauces and dips, or mixed with sugar and spice to make jam. Eggplant is the traditional star of many Mediterranean dishes, including Greek moussaka, French ratatouille, Italian eggplant parmigiana, and Middle Eastern baba ghanoush or mutabal.

Potatoes might not typically be thought of as “Mediterranean,” but they actually are a staple in some areas. For example, they are present at nearly every meal in Spain. The Spanish tortilla (called either tortilla de patatas or tortilla española) is similar to an omelet, with potatoes, onions, eggs, garlic, salt, and pepper cooked in olive oil. Skordalia is a popular Greek potato and garlic dip, and batata harra (spicy potatoes) is a standby in Lebanon.

We probably don’t need to go into detail about the ubiquity of tomatoes and peppers across the Mediterranean, but there are some traditional dishes you might be less familiar with. In Greece, vegetarian lathera dishes are made by stewing vegetables – often tomatoes – in olive oil. Salmorejo is a Spanish tomato soup served cold, and harissa is a North African condiment made from dried red chili peppers.

Easy Ways to Enjoy Them

There are endless ways to use nightshades in your cooking, and it's likely you already prepare and eat at least some of them regularly. Many nightshade dishes – such as gazpacho, salads, and frittatas – require little or no cooking. They are in season right now, so head to your farmers’ market and check out the selection, then explore more great ways to use them with our resources: 12 Great Ways to Use Bell Peppers; 12 Great Ways to Use Tomatoes; 12 Great Ways to Use Eggplant; 12 Great Ways to Use Potatoes.

Check out the recipes below for even more ideas featuring eggplants, which may be less familiar to you than potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

This dish pairs seasoned meat with the smoky flavor of eggplant for a unique Mediterranean taste.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Al Wadi Al Akhdar .

The smokiness of the eggplant balances well with the peanut oil in this salad. Use for dipping with toasted pita and vegetables, or spread it on a sandwich.

Recipe and photo courtesy of The Peanut Institute .

Serve cold or at room temperature, with spicy greens such as arugula.

An Oldways recipe and photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.