I've been on a Mediterranean mission, stocking up on aromatic herbs to plant in my new garden. Well, we were promised a heatwave, and it makes sense to buy plants that suit a warmer climate. At Columbia Road Market in London's East End, I bought caraway and lots of types of flowering, creeping thyme, which I planted in a big old French galvanised tub for the front garden. I even bought a short, dumpy, bargain olive tree that was bearing fruit.
But the Mediterranean harvest doesn't stop at olives or lemon trees. As I negotiated the crowds I noticed several of the vocal traders were selling aubergine plants with full-size aubergines attached. That looked pretty weird I must say and anyway, shouldn't that be classed as cheating, even for urban gardeners who forgot to plant them earlier in the year?
None the less, it set me thinking - as gardening usually does - of cooking. Aubergines must be the fashionable garden accessory this season, but recipes for aubergines aren't all that easy to come up with. They normally play a supporting rather than central role in dishes, and can be eclipsed by brighter-coloured rivals such as red peppers and tomatoes. But in Middle Eastern and North African countries, where the vegetable is held in high esteem, you find them used in a huge variety of ways.
One of my favourites is baba ganou which sometimes has "sh" on the end. However it's spelt - and for every spelling there's a different way of making it - this smoky aubergine purée is delicious. Served as a dip with flat bread, it's an important part of the mezze table. To make it you bake or grill the aubergine until the skin shrivels and starts to burn. Unfortunately, if you leave your aubergines hanging around for too long while you think of what to do with them, the skins start to shrivel of their own accord.
There are all sorts of aubergines sold now, but no matter how attractive the paler, smaller, purple and white types look, I still prefer the traditional, large, dark-skinned variety, or the large, bulbous, mauve Italian aubergines for cooking. The small ones tend to have bitter skins, especially if they've been hanging around for a while. Try some of these recipes and your aubergines - and any other Mediterranean ingredients such as courgettes, olives and Parmesan - won't be left unwanted for long. That fashionable new tree might start looking a little bare, though.
Antipasti of summer squashes and courgettes
There are some interesting summer squashes around now, including acorn squash, onion squash and butternut, the old faithful which these days seems to be readily available for most of the year.
I've added some deep-fried courgette flowers to this dish. They can be picked from the male courgette plants that don't develop a courgette, or you can buy them from specialist greengrocers. Farmers' markets may also sell the flowers, and you can use squash or pumpkin flowers if you come across those instead while you're looking.
A simple batter can be made by mixing together equal quantities of flour and cornflour along with some finely grated Parmesan and baking powder and mix to a smooth batter with water and seasoning, or you can cheat and use a tempura batter mix which always comes out well. The flowers are then dipped in the batter and fried until crisp.
Just to add to the flavour I've drizzled the cooked squashes and courgettes with toasted pumpkin-seed oil which you can buy from good supermarkets or delis. One of the best is produced by Merchant Gourmet.
1 squash, such as an acorn, cut into segments and seeded, with the skin left on
1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-3cm chunks
2 large courgettes, cut lengthways into 1cm-thick strips
4-5tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2tbsp pumpkin seed oil
1tbsp pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
2tbsp pesto, thinned down with olive oil for the deep-fried courgette flowers
8 courgette flowers
1/2tsp baking powder
1/2tbsp grated Parmesan
Water to mix
Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan with a little oil. Season and cook the squashes on a medium heat until lightly coloured then finish them in an oven preheated to 200°C/ gas mark 6 for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, heat a ribbed griddle plate brushed with a little olive oil, or a heavy frying pan, and lightly season and cook the courgette strips for about 4-5 minutes on each side, then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180°C in a large, thick-bottomed frying pan, or use an electric deep-fat fryer. Dip the courgette flowers into the batter, then into the hot fat and fry until crisp, turning with a slotted spoon.
To serve, arrange the squashes and courgettes on a serving dish and drizzle with the pesto and pumpkin-seed oil and scatter the pumpkin seeds and courgette flowers on top.
Baked aubergine with anchovies
Stuffed aubergines may sound a little bit dull, but after they've been cooked almost to a pulp and have taken on the taste of the anchovies in the process, they make an exceptional antipasti. The filling can be varied - you could even incorporate pieces of chopped bacon or minced lamb if you're an anchovy-hater.
4 large aubergines, halved and the flesh scooped, or cut out and chopped
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tsp chopped thyme or oregano
3tbsp olive oil
6 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped
8-10 good quality anchovy fillets, either from a jar or a can, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
40g fresh white breadcrumbs
1tbsp freshly grated parmesan
1tbsp chopped parsley
30g melted butter
Gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes until soft. Add the chopped aubergine and tomato, season, cover with a lid and continue cooking for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the aubergine is tender and starting to fall apart. Stir in the anchovies and mix well, then spoon into the aubergine halves. Meanwhile, in a food processor, mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley and butter to a fine crumb, or until well mixed, then spoon evenly over the aubergines, and preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Cook the aubergines for 30-40 minutes, covering them with foil if they begin to colour too much. Serve hot or cold.
Aubergine soup with cumin and minted yoghurt
I've been guilty of discovering a shrivelled aubergine in the bottom of the fridge. A good way to rescue it is to make this North African soup. My favourite spice, cumin, comes into its own here, adding a nutty, savoury tint to the blended aubergine. You can serve this chilled, at room temperature or hot, depending on how you're feeling. I prefer it at room temperature as the flavours come through most clearly then.
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tsp ground cumin
2tbsp olive oil
4 medium-sized aubergines, peeled and chopped
11/2 litres vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to serve
4tbsp thick greek yoghurt
1tbsp chopped mint leaves
1tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted
Gently cook the onion, garlic and cumin in the olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan for 3-4 minutes until soft, stirring every so often. Add the aubergines and vegetable stock and bring to the boil, then season and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and blend until smooth in a liquidiser and re-season if necessary. Meanwhile mix the yoghurt with the mint. Serve the soup with the yoghurt spooned into it or served on the side, and with the toasted cumin seeds scattered on top. Eat with flat bread or pitta.
Baked aubergine with buffalo mozzarella
This is easy to assemble for dinner parties. You can prepare everything in advance and put it together at the last minute, or half an hour before you want to eat, then just spoon the dressing around before you serve it. The recipe features in The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine, which I've written with Malcolm Gluck. It's published by Mitchell Beazley in September, but look out for the first extract in this magazine next month. It's important to buy top-quality buffalo mozzarella and leave it out of the fridge at least an hour before you serve it.
1 large aubergine cut into 2cm thick slices
1tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 buffalo mozzarella weighing about 150g each, or you can use smaller ones
Sea salt for the dressing
60ml extra virgin olive oil
12 black olives, stoned and quartered
2 firm tomatoes, skinned, seeded and diced
1tsp balsamic vinegar
1tbsp chopped basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Season the slices of aubergine and scatter the thyme leaves over them. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and lightly brown the aubergines on both sides, then cook place on a baking tray and cook them in the oven for 15-20 minutes, take out and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients for the dressing. Place a slice of aubergine on a plate and cut each of the mozzarella into quarters, if they are large, or use the mozzarella whole if they are the small enough. Arrange two quarters (or a whole small one) on each slice of aubergine. Spoon the dressing around and sprinkle with a little sea salt.Reuse content