The Aubergine Question

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Aubergines are a divisive vegetable; most people fall on one side or the other in liking or loathing. Soggy and underseasoned, the aubergine is not a delight to eat, but cooked properly they are incredible. They are beautiful in appearance and can come in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes. I am a sucker for the traditional long purple ones you can find everywhere. There is nothing really to rival the shiny, inky blackness of the almost mirror-like skin. They were brought to Spain and Italy by the Arabs, who must have thought they were very curious things. They were know as ‘mad apples’ for a time, as they were thought to induce insanity.

It is quite hard to think of a cuisine which does not include aubergine (or eggplant) in its repertoire, they are so versatile. The Greeks have moussaka, the French have ratatouille, Italians have it in caponata, Indians and Thai often have it in aromatic curries, Arabs and the southern Mediterranean have smoky, creamy baba g’noush in its many forms, the Chinese like to stew it and in Eastern Europe it is often served stuffed. In Britain, it has never had great success as an ingredient, despite the fact that it’s fat, meaty texture is a great alternative for vegetarians who cannot face another stuffed mushroom.

During the 70s and 80s, it got a terrible reputation for needing lengthy preparation due to its bitterness, which I imagine came from someone trying to eat them either raw or undercooked. I remember my mother leaving slices for hours on a tea towel, glistening with salt in an attempt to extract the supposed bitter flavour within. I must confess that I have never salted aubergines, but in preparation for this post I did so. I found that it made no difference to the flavour when the aubergine was cooked, but then I have never found aubergines to be bitter anyway. The one difference it did seem to make was that the aubergine pieces seemed to soak up less oil when cooking than non-salted pieces. Ah yes, the oil issue. Aubergines are like sponges, even more so than mushrooms, and so biting into a piece can often flood your mouth with oil which has been soaked up when cooking. Sometimes, this is amazing and just what you want, but often it’s not.

Some of the best recipes using aubergine do not need any kind of frying at all and I have found that chargrilling is the best way to prepare them, so they become smoky, unctuous and slightly sweet. You can do this under a grill, on a barbecue or on a griddle pan, which is what I do. Simply heat the griddle as high as possible and leave it to heat up for at least 10 minutes. Slice the aubergines fatly and lay them on the griddle-do not oil the griddle or the aubergines, or your kitchen will resemble a smokehouse very quickly. Do not move them around for a few moments, then turn over-if they stick to the pan, they need a little longer. When they are ready, the will lift off without any sticking at all. You can make nice criss-cross patterns by alternating the angle you put the slices down on, but really, all you want is some sort of charred lines and a soft texture. When they are cooked, the slices will droop as you lift them up. You can serve these slices as they are, warm or room temperature, drizzled with olive oil, salt and chopped parsley and perhaps some dried chilli flakes.

However, you can use these gorgeous slices as a basis for many other dishes. My favourite is a Sicilian classic-Pasta alla Norma, named after the Bellini opera. It is a dish you cannot avoid in Sicily, made very simply with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and aubergine, it is topped by amazing salted ricotta cheese. This is literally dried and salted ricotta cheese and is everywhere in Sicily and southern Italy, often used in place of parmesan. In Sicily, they will deep fry the aubergine, which is wonderful but very high in calories. I find the chargrilling adds great depth and smoky flavour to the dish, without any of the fat. It means you can eat this dish more often, which cannot be a bad thing. You can sometimes get hold of salted ricotta, or ricotta salata, in cheesemongers or Italian delis. It has a unique savoury flavour and crumbly texture which works so well with the aubergine. However, it is quite a specialised ingredient and so parmesan will do very well if you cannot get it.

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Pasta Alla Norma

Serves four

Ingredients

400g pasta-penne is best for this.

1 large aubergine

1 tin quality chopped tomatoes

4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

200ml passata

2 tbs dried oregano

2tbs extra virgin olive oil

100g shaved ricotta salata or parmesan

sugar, a pinch

salt and pepper to taste

Method

Prepare the aubergines as described above. This can be done the day before and then refrigerated. Chop the aubergine into bite size pieces.

Place the tomatoes, passata, garlic, oregano, sugar and a little salt and pepper in the pan and simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Then add the chopped aubergine. Simmer for a further five minutes. Meanwhile, put your pasta on and cook as minute less than the packet instructions (see How to Cook Pasta), reserve 100ml of the pasta cooking water and drain.

Add the olive oil to the sauce and mix. Add the drained pasta and mix well, adding a little pasta water as you go until the sauce clings smoothly to the pasta.

Serve in bowls, topped with the shaved ricotta salata or parmesan.

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