Time to rediscover the aubergine

In Britain, the aubergine gets overlooked. Mark Hix gives it some attention
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The aubergine is a noble vegetable - or should I say fruit? If you tried the recipe for deep fried aubergines with honey I gave a few weeks ago, you'll know that they're also treated as fruit in many Mediterranean countries. And while I'm reminiscing about past recipes, can I remind you about one of my favourite ways of cooking it - stuffed with pork and braised in black bean sauce - as they do in Chinese restaurants. And that's not boasting, because I "borrowed" it from the New Diamond in Chinatown.

There's something about aubergine recipes that prompts extravagant claims. Think of the imam bayildi - a stuffed aubergine dish - which is said to have been so named because it made the imam faint with pleasure.

It's such a versatile and sumptuous vegetable, and both these recipes play to one of the aubergine's strengths - its absorbent quality. But because it's not native to Britain, we need to discover more ways of cooking it and to learn more about the several different types - though we don't necessarily have access to as many of them as there are.

The bulbous pale Italian aubergines that are mottled white and mauve are one of my favourites, and Secretts Farm in Surrey has them right now along with lots of other interesting Mediterranean vegetables and fruits. In Asian cooking they tend to use the smaller varieties such as the tiny Thai pea aubergines, which are virtually the size of a pea and used in dishes like green curry and braised dishes as they have quite a bitter taste. The Japanese also use finger-sized aubergines and often serve them simply baked and spread with miso paste. You'll find these in Asian supermarkets.

You might put our unadventurous approach to aubergines down to the fact that ours is not an ideal environment for growing them - unless you have exceptionally green fingers. But then we grow carrots easily enough [or not - see Urban Gardener, page 55] and still don't cook them in many of the ways we could.

Mixed grill of lamb with caponata

Serves 4

This is a great time of year to buy and eat all sorts of cuts of lamb, including offal. If you're conservative about the meat you eat you can just use the cutlets or rump or even chops. Lamb sausages are not so difficult to find in butcher's shops and farmers' markets, or you could simply spice up some minced lamb with salt and pepper, cumin and mint and/or oregano.

Caponata, with its sweet and sour flavours, is perfectly suited to grilled or roasted lamb. You can eat it hot or cold as a starter, a salad or part of a meze with flat bread. Here it's served hot.

4 lamb cutlets or chops
4 slices of lamb's liver weighing about 40-50g each, trimmed of any sinew
2 lamb's kidneys, halved and sinew removed
4 plumb lamb's sweetbreads or 8 smaller ones
4 sprigs of rosemary about 6cm long
4 small lamb sausages or 100g minced lamb

for the caponata

2 medium aubergines, cut into rough 1cm cubes
Vegetable oil for frying
4-5 sticks of celery, any stringy stalks peeled, cut into rough 1cm pieces
4-5tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 x 225g can of chopped tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp caster sugar
75ml white wine vinegar
1tbsp grated dark chocolate, minimum 70 per cent cocoa solids
40g salted capers, rinsed in cold water
12 large green olives, stoned and quartered

Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan until very hot and cook the aubergines in a couple of batches, stirring every so often, until they are golden then remove with a slotted spoon and dry on kitchen paper. Fry the celery pieces in the oil left in the pan, or a little more if necessary, and dry on kitchen paper.

Gently cook the onion in the olive oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan for 2-3 minutes, until soft. Add the tomatoes, season and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile heat the sugar and vinegar in a saucepan, add the chocolate, capers and olives and heat the mixture, stirring until the chocolate has melted. Add to the tomato mixture and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Add the aubergines and celery to the sauce and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.

Pre-heat a ribbed griddle plate, thick-bottomed frying pan or barbecue. Skewer a piece of sweetbread and half a kidney on to a stick of rosemary and season. Season the cutlets, lightly oil them and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side keeping them pink. Cook the sausages thoroughly.

Cook the sweetbreads and kidney for about a minute and a half to 2 minutes and the seasoned liver for just 30 seconds on each side.

Spoon the hot caponata on to the centre of warmed plates and arrange the lamb on top.

Aubergine and mozzarella tart

Serves 4

Those lovely pale-skinned Italian aubergines have an interesting, irregular shape and are nice and thick around the middle - perfect for this simple-to-make tart. If you can't find them then just use any large fat aubergines. A good quality light and buttery puff pastry really makes the difference to a tart like this.

350-400g good quality puff pastry, rolled to about 1/2cm
4 slices of aubergine about 2cm thick
1-2tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp pesto
5-6 pieces of semi-dried tomatoes, chopped
150g good quality mozzarella
A few basil leaves to decorate

Heat some of the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and cook all the aubergine slices for a couple of minutes on each side until lightly coloured. Remove from the pan and drain them on kitchen paper.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the puff pastry into circles about 2cm larger than the aubergine slices and place on to a baking tray.

Mix the pesto (I gave the recipe for this a few weeks ago) with the chopped tomatoes and spread in the centre of the pastry, about 3cm from the edge, then place the slice of cooked aubergine on top and season.

Score the pastry around the aubergine once you have placed it on the pesto mix. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the pastry has risen up around the aubergine and is golden.

Slice the mozzarella into 1cm slices and place one on top of each aubergine. Season and return to the oven for 3-4 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil, add garnish and serve.

Vietnamese braised aubergine

Serves 4

I had this at the Viet Grill in Kingsland Road, Dalston, east London, my new best local Vietnamese restaurant, sister to my old best local Cay Tre in Old Street. It's great to move house and have a favourite neighbourhood restaurant open another branch nearby.

Hieu, one of the owners, told me that this dish is well-known and loved in the south of Vietnam - where he comes from - but that the food is very different in the north and this dish is probably unheard of there.

2 medium sized aubergines
1tbsp vegetable or corn oil
4 spring onions, shredded on the angle

for the nuoc cham dressing

2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium chilli
30g caster sugar
60ml fish sauce
125ml water

First make the sauce. Using either a mortar and pestle or a knife, grind the garlic and chillies to a coarse paste. Bring the sugar, fish sauce and water to the boil. Mix with the garlic paste and leave to cool.

Pre-heat a grill, place the aubergines on a tray lined with foil and cook them under the grill, turning them every so often until the skins are blackened.

Leave to cool for about 15 minutes then peel off the skin, cut the flesh into chunks and arrange on a warmed dish. Don't worry if the aubergine is a little bit soggy; it doesn't have to look neat.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook the spring onions for a few seconds to soften them. Spoon them over the aubergine.

Spoon over the reheated nuoc cham dressing and serve.

Stuffed aubergines with feta and mint salad

Serves 4

Lamb and aubergines seem to have a perfect relationship, as you'll know if you've had a good moussaka (and as shown in the mixed grill and caponata on the previous page).

This makes a great summer main course. You can even have the aubergines already cooked and finish them on the barbecue, and have the salads ready assembled on plates in advance for your guests.

2 large fat aubergines

for the stuffing

250g minced lamb
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
3tsp ground cumin
2tbsp chopped coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the salad

60g pea shoots or other small salad leaves
A handful of mint leaves
120g good quality feta, cut into rough 1cm chunks
3 firm tomatoes, skinned, seeded and roughly chopped
3tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 small lemon

Cut the aubergines into four 4cm thick slices (you may have a little aubergine left). With the point of a sharp knife make a 2-3cm long slit through the skin of each aubergine slice and work the point of the knife into the flesh, almost to the edge of the skin at the opposite side, but taking care not to pierce it. The idea is to make a pocket as large as you can.

Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing together and season. Push as much stuffing as possible into the pockets with your fingers, again being careful not to break the slices. Don't worry if the stuffing bulges out a little. It's hard to gauge exactly how much stuffing you need, and you may find you have a little stuffing left over.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Heat a roasting tray in the oven with a little olive oil, season the aubergines and place in the roasting tray.

Roast for about 10-15 minutes on each side, or until the aubergines are soft.

Meanwhile arrange the pea shoots or salad leaves, mint leaves and feta around the edge of a plate and scatter over the tomatoes.

Mix the olive oil and lemon juice and season before spooning over the leaves. Place the aubergine in the centre and serve.

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