Sun-drenched vegetables such as peppers, courgettes and artichokes hold a very important place in Mediterranean cookery, but for me, the plump, elongated, gleaming aubergine is the most versatile of the bunch.
There are many varieties of aubergines: long and round, with colours ranging from violet, black to blue and white. The Chinese were the first people to cultivate the aubergines in the fifth century; it was then introduced into Spain, Italy and from there onto southern and eastern parts of Europe. At one time, fashion conscious ladies used a black dye made from their skins to stain their teeth!
The Aubergine goes under a variety of names including the eggplant, apple of love, garden egg, and guinea squash
. It is a member of the nightshade family, thus related to potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. When shopping in the markets, avoid aubergines that are blemished and have lost their lustre. Look for shiny, healthy aubergines that are firm but supple. Too hard and it will be unripe and acidic, too soft and it will be overripe with a loose of texture and flavour.
Some people use coarse salt to draw out the aubergines natural sharpness, although for me, it seems a shame to change the personality and nature of any vegetable, especially when perfectly ripe and in its prime.
Aubergines are perfect for frying, baking, stuffing and its intense flavour goes well with all the other sun-drenched vegetables, especially tomatoes and peppers, slowly stewed in a “ratatouille”, “pisto” or the famous mallorcan “tumbet”.
The aubergines best ally is olive oil and garlic, although goat’s cheese, pesto, olives and capers also make perfect partners along with rosemary, thyme and parsley.
When cooking with aubergines, be sure to use stainless steel as it will oxidise and discolour in contact with iron. Also keep it away from water, as it soaks it up like a sponge and all that wonderful flavour and texture will be lost. My favourite way to cook aubergines is to cut them in half lengthwise and sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic and fresh thyme. Wrap them in silver foil and bake in a moderate oven for about 15-20 minutes. The aroma is fantastic and it must be the simplest way to enjoy the luscious, smoky flavour of one of the Mediterranean regions most popular summer vegetables.
Baba Ganoush (Aubergine Dip)
Ingredients Serves 8
2 large aubergines
2 garlic cloves
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp sesame seeds
pinch ground cumin
Pinch ground white pepper
2tbsp natural yogurt
Extra virgin olive oil, to serve
2tbsp Chopped flat leaf parsley
Preheat the grill to high. Prick the aubergines with a fork and grill them, turning occasionally, until the skin blisters and blackens all over. When cool, peel off the skin. Leave the aubergine flesh in a colander for 15 minutes to drain off excess liquid.
Pound the garlic and salt in a food processor. Add the aubergine flesh, lemon juice, sesame seeds, cumin, pepper and yogurt. Blend to a thick purée. Adjust the seasoning. Transfer to a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with parsley and serve.