Stuffed aubergines

Main course: Serves 2. Total time: 2 hrs

For the minced lamb stuffing
2tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
½tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp ground cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper
1dsp tomato purée
250g minced lamb
salt and pepper
1 small glass red wine
1tbsp chopped mint
2 aubergines (approximately 150g a piece)
salt
olive oil
For the bechamel sauce
250ml milk
½ small onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove
1 small bay leaf
salt and freshly ground white pepper
25g butter
30g flour
2tbsp single cream
freshly grated nutmeg
2 small tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced
a little grated feta cheese

To make the meat stuffing, first fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil until just beginning to colour. Add the cinnamon, cumin and cayenne pepper. Cook together gently over a low heat until fragrant, before adding the tomato purée. Mix this in well and allow it to change from tomato red to rusty brown over five quiet minutes of slow stirring with a wooden spoon. Introduce the minced lamb, now, briskly stirring the meat around over a higher heat until it begins to separate out into small, glistening nodules. Season with salt and pepper and pour in the red wine. Bring up to a gentle simmer (use a heat-diffuser pad if you have one) and allow to stew very gently for 45 minutes to one hour, if not longer. An hour and a half, in fact, would possibly be even better. If you are at all concerned about keeping a look out, simply pop on a lid and leave it be in a low oven.

Note: depending upon the quality of the lamb, do take note of how much fat has exuded from it after cooking. If you are at all concerned, drain the mince through a coarse sieve suspended over a large bowl. Allow to drain for 15-20 minutes, return the mince to the pan and then, using a spoon, remove the surface fat from the collected juices and discard. Now return the degreased juice to the mince and stir in.

Cut the aubergines in half lengthways, attempting to cut directly through the middle of their stalks, too; aesthetically speaking, this little mirror-image manoeuvre has always seemed worthwhile to me, but you may think otherwise ... Using a small, sharp knife, make a neat and deep criss-cross pattern into the flesh of each aubergine half, neither cutting too deep nor rupturing the skin that surrounds the flesh. Sprinkle the surface of the latticed flesh with fine salt, but only enough for seasoning. Allow the salt to soak in for 10 minutes or so and then turn the halves of aubergine over, suspended, perhaps, over a rack or in a colander. Leave to drain for a further 20 minutes or so. Preheat the oven to 375°F/ 190°C/gas mark 5.

To make the bechamel sauce, heat together the milk, onion, clove, bay, salt and pepper. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about 10 minutes. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, before straining over the infused milk. Vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of any lumps) over the lowest possible heat and, using one of those heat diffuser pads if you have one, set the sauce to quietly blip for 7-10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the cream and nutmeg and whisk in thoroughly. Strain again into a clean pan and put a lid on; this helps to prevent a skin forming. Reserve until needed.

Gently squeeze each drained aubergine half in the hand to expel excess juice and then dry with a tea towel. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan and briefly fry the aubergine (cut-side down) until golden. Flip them over, drain off any excess oil and continue to cook for a further five minutes. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or so, until soft. Remove and allow to cool. Scoop out most of the flesh on to a chopping board, while also making sure that a modicum of robustness is retained within their now slightly flaccid surrounding skins. Carefully arrange these in an oven-proof serving dish, tucked up together in readiness to receive their meaty cargo. Coarsely hand-chop the scooped-out aubergine flesh and add to the minced lamb along with the chopped mint. Stir well.

To assemble, fill the aubergine skins with the mince until full and slightly "domed''. Arrange three slices of tomato along the surface of each, so neatly covering the minced lamb. Spoon over enough of the bechamel sauce so that it entirely blankets the tomato slices and also flows down between the aubergines, too. Sprinkle the surface of each aubergine half with a little grated feta cheese, slide the dish into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until all is good and hot, slightly blistered here and there and bubbling merrily around the edges.
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