Food and Drink: A chameleon among the veg - Aubergines will blend tactfully with the ingredients of many dishes - even a Neapolitan chocolate pudding

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The problem with writing an article about cooking aubergines is that there are so many fine dishes to be made with them. Aubergines may have started off in Asia, but they have been woven into the cuisines of virtually every country where they can be grown easily. This, I suspect, is because they are chameleons among vegetables; though they have their own distinct flavour and texture, these can blend in with local spices, herbs and cooking methods.

To allow space for the full details of three recipes - one puree and two layered dishes - I shall limit myself to just one observation about the use of aubergines: I really do believe that it pays to spend a little extra time degorging aubergines: removing some of their juices, usually by salting. While modern varieties are seldom bitter enough to be unpleasant, there still lingers a hint of a metallic, tingling aftertaste which may mar an otherwise appetising dish.

Nicoise aubergine and anchovy puree

A really brassy puree from the South of France, flavoured with lots of anchovies and garlic. Serve it lightly chilled with plenty of good bread.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 2 large aubergines

4tbs olive oil

2-3 cloves garlic, chopped

6 anchovy fillets, chopped

2tbs finely chopped parsley

1 red onion, grated

salt and pepper

Preparation: Roast the aubergines in a hot oven (around 200C/400F/gas 6) until soft and tender. This should take 20-30 minutes. Drop into a plastic bag. Knot the bag loosely and leave the aubergines until cool enough to handle. Quarter lengthwise, strip off the skins and leave the pulp to drain in a colander for 15 minutes. Squeeze out the last of the juice, then puree the flesh with the olive oil.

While the aubergines are draining, chop the garlic and anchovy fillets finely. Stir garlic, anchovy, parsley, grated onion and pepper into the aubergine puree. Taste and season with salt if necessary.

Moussaka

Made with care and good ingredients, this is one of the best composite aubergine dishes. It does not have to be greasy, either. You could do without oil almost altogether by steaming the aubergine, but I think you get the best flavour by baking the aubergine slices with just enough oil to keep them moist. The meat sauce and the white sauce can be made up to 24 hours in advance, but leave cooking the aubergine and layering until the day the moussaka is to be baked and eaten. Do try to get Greek kefalotyri cheese if possible as it has a particularly good flavour. If you do not have the right-sized dish, use one slightly smaller so you get a good thickness.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 3 large or 4 medium aubergines, sliced lengthways

olive oil

2oz (55g) grated kefalotyri cheese, or a mixture of gruyere and parmesan

generous 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

salt and pepper

For the meat sauce: 1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3tbs olive oil

1lb (450g) minced lamb

1 generous glass dry white wine

1lb (450g) tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped

2tbs tomato puree

1tsp sugar

1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1tbs dried oregano

3tbs chopped parsley

For the white sauce: 2oz (55g) butter

2oz (55g) flour

1 pint (570ml) milk

2oz (55g) grated kefalotyri cheese or mixed parmesan and gruyere

1 egg

1 egg yolk

Preparation: For the meat sauce, cook the onion and garlic gently in the olive oil until tender without browning. Add the lamb and stir until it loses its raw look. Now add all the remaining meat sauce ingredients except the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 20-30 minutes until thick. Stir in the parsley.

Make the white sauce in the usual way with the butter, flour and milk. Let it simmer for a good 10-15 minutes, stirring, until it is fairly thick. Draw off the heat and stir in the cheese, salt and pepper. If not using immediately, spear a knob of butter on a fork and rub over the surface to prevent a skin forming. Reheat gently when needed. Just before using, beat the egg and yolk into the sauce.

Sprinkle the aubergine slices with salt and leave for at least half an hour, preferably a full hour. Wipe clean. Either steam them until tender, or lay them on oiled baking sheets, brush quite generously with olive oil and bake in the oven at 190C/375F/gas 5 for about 20 minutes until tender and patched with brown.

Brush a rectangular or square baking dish - about 12in x 8in (30cm x 20cm) or 10in x 10in (25cm x 25cm) - lightly with oil. Lay half the aubergine slices on the base, overlapping if necessary. Spread half the meat sauce on top. Repeat these layers, then spoon over the white sauce, covering the meat entirely. Sprinkle over the grated cheese and the last 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Bake at 180C/350F/ gas 4 for 50-60 minutes until nicely browned. Let it settle for 5 minutes before serving.

Amalfitana aubergine and chocolate pudding

Yes, honestly . . . and it is delicious. I was introduced to it by the owner of Al San Vincenzo restaurant in Bayswater, west London, and found this recipe in a book of Neapolitan desserts. It is best made 24 hours in advance. Try to find good candied peel in whole pieces: the taste is so much better than the ready-chopped stuff.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 3 medium aubergines, sliced lengthwise

flour

olive oil and sunflower oil

cocoa

For the creme patissiere: 1/2 pint (300ml) full-cream milk

1 vanilla pod, slit lengthwise

3 egg yolks

5oz (140g) castor sugar

1 1/2 oz (45g) flour

pinch salt

3oz (85g) mixed candied peel, finely chopped

For the chocolate cream: 1oz (30g)

cocoa

1 1/2 oz (45g) flour

1 1/2 oz (45g) castor sugar

1/2 pint (300 ml) full-cream milk

a knob of butter

Preparation: Sprinkle the aubergine slices with salt and set aside for 1 hour. Rinse and pat dry. Heat 1in (2.5cm) depth of oil (I use half olive oil, half sunflower) in a wide frying pan and, one by one, dust aubergine slices with flour and fry until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.

While the aubergine is being salted, make the creme patissiere and chocolate cream. For the creme patissiere, heat the milk slowly with the vanilla pod until it starts to boil. Cover, draw off the heat and leave to infuse for 20 minutes. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar and flour. Gradually tip in the milk, whisking constantly. Pour back into the pan and stir over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly, then let it bubble for 2 minutes. Draw off the heat, stir in the candied peel and leave to cool. Remove vanilla pod.

For the chocolate cream, mix the cocoa, flour and sugar in a pan and gradually whisk in the milk. Bring gently to the boil, stirring constantly. Simmer for 2-3 minutes until the taste of raw flour has gone. Draw off the heat and beat in the butter.

Cover the base of a deep dish - around 9in (22.5cm) square - with a layer of aubergine. Cover with a layer of creme patissiere (if necessary warmed slightly to make it runnier), then spoon over a layer of chocolate cream. Repeat layers once or twice, depending on the size of the dish, finishing off with a layer of chocolate cream. Chill for at least 4 hours. Dust with cocoa just before serving. Cut into squares, and ask visitors to guess the mystery ingredient.

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