Food: The colour purple

Simon Hopkinson Eggplants are beautiful to look at and delightful to touch. You can even cook with them. Photograph by Jason Lowe

Simon Hopkinson
Friday 23 April 1999 23:02

I look at aubergines - or eggplants, which is a name I actually prefer - every single day of my life at home. So, to illustrate this week's outing, I demanded of Leica Lowe that he take a few snapshots of my inedible collection (I asked him very nicely, in fact, and he was thrilled to participate). His fastidious montage represents only about one third of my entire collection (many of them refused to be photographed), which normally resides on some shelving in a corner of my sitting room. I jocularly refer to those who see it for the first time as "eggplant enclave" or "aubergine alcove", to which the reaction is usually a light titter - and hardly surprising, I suppose. But they are a constant joy to me, my deeply tactile black, purple and lilac objects. Well, it's better than bottlin' it up!

Initially, many find the eggplant a difficult vegetable to become fond of. Some even fear it. I seem to remember some cookery verbiage along the lines of " ... big, black and loathsome ... " but I don't recall who. Surely a misunderstanding - clearly no cook. What is marginally true about that ignorant observation, is that the bigger and blacker the eggplant in the greengrocer today (certainly the only one available to the supermarket shopper), the less interesting it will be to eat. These perfect specimens will generally have been grown in a Dutch hot-house, and we know just how unexciting and measured have been the lives of these little chaps. I'm not sure which is worse: the battery egg, or the battery eggplant.

Whether or not the original eggplant to be grown was egg-shaped and white, it is quite clear that this particular variety (now rarely seen on these shores) was aptly named because of its resemblance to the egg. I have recently noticed that the powers that be - ie supermarkets - have deemed that we should now refer to our blameless cos lettuce, as "romaine". This is the French appellation and also one long adopted by Americans. In their country, and also in Australia however, aubergine is called eggplant. I wonder why, and when, we suddenly decided to drop the perfectly apt English moniker? Maybe it was some continental Soho grocer of the early Sixties - le plus chic epicerie de cette temps, bien sur - who felt a change of name might increase sales of this rare vegetable? Because, as I most definitely recall as a nipper, mum most definitely pronounced "eggplant" the first time that she plonked one on to the kitchen table (she was about to make her first moussaka). If trendy supermarket nomenclature now insists on having romaine on their shelves, perhaps it is high time for them to give us back our eggplant?

Perhaps the most delicious of all eggplant cookery I have sampled - and there has been much sampling in my life, I can tell you - has been in Sicily. And, not surprisingly, it was also on that island that I saw the most beautiful of all eggplants for sale. They were displayed in all their glory, one early sunny morning in the market of the seaside town of Marsala, where the drink is made (I only mention this because I didn't know that until I first went there). But they were unlike any eggplants you'd chuck in your wire basket at the local Tesco.

Il melenzane di Sicilia - the Sicilian eggplant, as I have called it ever since, is a vegetable of astonishing beauty. Oh pish, I hear some of you say. How can some old eggplant be "astonishingly beautiful"? Get thee to Pseud's Corner with all haste. I may be biased, but this great, fat, white-, lilac- and purple-streaked miracle, simply brings out the very gush of me. I promptly purchased a couple of dozen and checked them in as hand baggage for the journey home. Favoured chums soon realised why they didn't get a bottle of Marsala once they were clutching their eggplants.

I have since seen this variety for sale in a few discerning grocers in London, as well as at the Italian grocers to end all Italian grocers in Great Britain, Valvona and Crolla (19 Elm Row, Edinburgh). If you have the good fortune to find some this summer, then - at least the first time you cook them - do them this simple way, the Sicilian way, and peel them first.

Grilled eggplant with salsa salmoriglio, serves 4 as a first course

It most definitely improves a dish as simple as this one if you peel the eggplant. Moreover, I now find myself preparing eggplants without their skins all the time, since eating them so fashioned in Sicily. And, although the skins on those astonishingly beautiful eggplants are as gossamer compared with the familiar big black ones, it is still worth the trouble. Those of you who drivel on about "what about that goodness just under the skin all that vitamin C ... " etc, etc, can just dry up.

Note: The salting thing. Hmmm ... Well, I certainly think that if you salt the slices of eggplant first, there seems less chance of them soaking up too much oil. But I've never really noticed the worry of bitterness, whichever route you take. I ponder that a bitter-tasting eggplant is simply an old eggplant.

2 large eggplants, peeled and thickly sliced

fine sea salt

olive oil

For the salsa salmoriglio

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

salt and pepper

1tbsp roughly chopped oregano leaves

juice of 1-2 lemons

6-7tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Lay out the eggplant slices on to a tea towel and sprinkle over the fine sea salt, but only enough to just season them. Gather up the towel and tip the slices into a colander. Leave to drain over a bowl for 30-40 minutes, until a significant amount of brown juice has exuded beneath them. Pat dry and put on to a plate, ready for cooking. Preheat a ribbed grill, barbecue or solid-bottomed large frying pan, but regulate the heat around moderate to high, rather than full blast.

To make the sauce, put the garlic, seasoning and oregano into a mortar and pulverise with the pestle. Squeeze in some of the lemon juice to dissolve the seasonings and then partly introduce the oil little by little, mixing until it resembles a loose dressing. Alternate both lemon and oil, until you are quite happy with the overall taste. Use a food processor if you must, but it won't be nearly as good. Entirely a matter for you.

(The most important thing to remember when you make a dressing such as this is not to be too rigid with measurements. Think fondly of the unknown originator for a moment, who had neither book, index, instruction or the slightest smattering of avoirdupois; simply a taste that satisfied the palate. Sicilians also like to introduce capers, anchovies and lemon rind. But to bring us all down to earth for a moment, it is important to know that the name of the sauce originates simply from the Italian for salt - sale - and, as reliably informed by the Italian cookery writer Giuliano Bugialli, traditional fabricators of this sauce insist upon a few drops of sea water to cohere it.)

Whichever method of cooking you choose, first brush the eggplant slices with olive oil. Then grill gently on both sides until lightly marked on the surface and the interior is soft to the touch (a brief squeeze from forefinger and thumb should recall soggy, thick-sliced white toast). The frying pan option will result in an even gilding across the surface of the eggplant rather than a burnish, but the inner texture should turn out the same. Arrange the slices over a large platter, slightly overlapping if you like, and spoon over the sauce while the eggplant is still warm. Leave to cool to room temperature before eating.

Even though I have not listed it, I can never resist flinging a shower of chopped parsley over the finished thing and also tucking in a few pieces of lemon for those who want a taste that shouts a bit more. You could even hand around a small bowl of anchovies and capers too. After all, it's just something to eat. Hardly a recipe, in fact.

Eggplant baked with herbs, cream and tomatoes, serves 4

This truly luscious dish is based on a French recipe: much cream, mild garlic, soft herbs (aka fines herbes), fondant tomatoes and the talents of the fondly remembered chef Pierre Hiely, when he reigned supreme at his eponymous restaurant in Avignon. As far as I understand, he is now retired, but along with his gratin de moules aux epinards, pieds et pacquets a la Marseillaise and this most intelligent way with an eggplant, he remains as one of the formative influences in my early learning classes at the French table. He was a cook who didn't mess around with his ingredients. He had it all worked out. When a well-honed dish finally worked, it stuck. It's called a specialite de la maison. Dishes such as this become the chef.

4 small aubergines, peeled and thickly sliced

fine sea salt

olive oil

50g butter

8 ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

salt and pepper

3 pieces of pith-less lemon zest

2 heaped tbsp chopped fines herbes: tarragon, chives, chervil and parsley (you may include some basil too, although it isn't strictly "fine")

400ml whipping cream

juice of half a lemon

Proceed with the preparation of the aubergines in exactly the same way as in the previous recipe, but when you come to cook them, use the frying pan method. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5.

Melt the butter in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes to it, together with the garlic, seasoning and lemon zest. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, or until nicely thickened and mulchy, but not too dry. Remove the pieces of lemon zest and put to one side.

Lightly butter a shallow oven-proof dish, preferably oval in shape. Start to fill the dish, beginning with one slice of eggplant swiftly smeared with a spoonful of the tomato mulch. Slightly overlap with a second slice and smear with tomato once more. Continue in this fashion until the dish is full and neatly layered. Now pour the cream into the (unwashed) tomato pan, together with the chopped herbs. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until reduced in volume and showing signs of thickening to the consistency of custard. Whisk together to smooth and amalgamate and pour evenly over the eggplant. Shake the dish a bit to allow the cream and herbs to sink in, then slide into the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, until bubbling and blistered with little points of brown. Assuming all goes well, you will certainly score Brownie points (excuse me) with this rich and savoury dish of eggplants

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