Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants (aubergines), and potatoes all belong to the large family of nightshades (Solanaceae). Also called solanums, nightshades are perennials in their native tropical habitats. In temperate climates they are grown as annuals.
The nightshades also include poisonous members such as henbane, mandrake (familiar to Harry Potter fans), and deadly nightshade, or belladonna. Tomato plants, in fact, bear an unfortunate resemblance to the latter.
The wild tomato is believed to have originated in South America, in what is now Peru. Wild tomatoes are still found from Ecuador to northern Chile, as well as on the Galapagos Islands.
At one time, Europeans considered tomatoes poisonous, perhaps because of their association with the more deadly members of the nightshade family.
Tomato varieties include common hothouse, plum, and cherry tomatoes. Less common are tiny grape tomatoes, slightly larger yellow pears, and large colourful heirlooms such as ‘Big Rainbow’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’.
Grape tomatoes are the smallest fruits. Bite‐sized ‘Sweet Olives’ are great for snacking or salads. Slightly larger cherry varieties such as ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ ‐ which actually grows wild in Eastern Mexico ‐ are great in salads.
Slicers range from reliable garden favorites such as ‘Early Girl’ to luscious one‐pound‐plus ‘Watermelon Beefsteaks’. Slicers are best eaten fresh ‐ in salads, sandwiches, and on burgers.
Plum tomatoes (also known as paste or Roma) are good for Italian sauces, canning, and cooking: they have a full flavor and contain less juice.
Peppers are native to Central and South America, where they were discovered by Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Later, they were introduced to India, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Peppers feature in the cuisine of many countries including Mexico, the southwestern US, India, Thailand, Japan, and China.
Peppers may be either sweet or hot. Sweet bell peppers, members of the Capsicum annuum grossum group are usually either red or green. Red peppers are simply green peppers left on the vine to ripen to maturity. Peppers also come in varieties that, while also green when immature, ripen to bright orange, yellow, purple, and even a dark brown “chocolate”. Sweet bell peppers are good stuffed, sautéed in slices to top pasta or pizza, or diced and added to omelets or salads.
Hot peppers, also called chilli, chili, or chile peppers, are members of the Capsicum annuum longum group. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, the alkaloid which gives peppers their “heat”. The hotness of peppers is measured on the Scoville scale, which measures capsaicin content. The common bell pepper has 0 Scoville heat units. Hot peppers (in order of increasing heat on the Scoville scale) include: banana peppers (100 to 500), poblanos (1,000 to 1,500), jalapenos (2,500 ‐ 4,000), cayenne (30,000 to 60,000), Thai (150,000), and habaneros (200,000 to 350,000).
The mildest of the hots, banana peppers (so called for their shape) are also known as cubanelles or Italian frying peppers. Banana peppers are good stuffed, sautéed, or cut up in salads or sandwiches. The familiar small, thin cayennes are used in Mexican salsa. Poblanos (called anchos when dried) are often used in chili.
Capsaicin actually does burn, so it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly after cutting or handling hot peppers, being especially careful not to touch your eyes. Some cooks wear rubber gloves to eliminate this problem.
Eggplants or Aubergines
Eggplants, or aubergines, were originally cultivated in India (where they are called brinjals) and China. From there, they spread throughout Asia and were later introduced to Europe by Arab traders. Spaniards introduced eggplants to the New World.
The eggplant (Solanum melongena) is technically a berry. Dark purple varieties with names like ‘Black Magic’ and ‘Black Beauty’ are the most widely known. Eggplants may also be white, pink, pale green, orange, or bi‐colored. More exotic types include the small; white ‘Easter Egg’, the round pink‐and‐white ‘Rosa Bianca’, the popular Thai ‘Green Tiger’, and the unique ‘Turkish Orange’.
Eggplant must be cooked to be eaten. The texture and protein content of eggplant make it a good meat substitute. Eggplant is popular in Italian dishes such as eggplant parmesan and Middle Eastern dishes such as baba ganoush, a mixture of roasted or grilled eggplant and sesame tahini. The classic Greek dish moussaka is a combination of ground meat and eggplant. Indians make baingan bharta, an eggplant curry which also contains tomatoes and hot peppers. Ratatouille is a delicious French stew made with eggplant, sweet peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, and garlic (the perfect dish to make when the summer garden is at its peak production!)
Other members of the nightshade family include potatoes (discussed in the article on roots) and tomatillos, a small relative of the tomato, which is used in salsa verde, a popular Mexican condiment.
Sweet or hot, peppers add flavour and colour to any cuisine.