An aubergine is a rather strange-looking vegetable and I believe the first time I ever used one was when I made a Turkish-inspired dish of stuffed aubergine with minced meat when I was living on my own as a university student.
Since then, the abundance of Turkish, Greek and Indian restaurants has helped to bring the aubergine to the more northern European climes while in the south, along the Mediterranean, it had never really left since the Romans.
Raw, it does not taste like anything and is very chewy and even dangerous. During cooking it could act like a sponge, soaking up fats and juices. Yet when well-prepared it can be very delicious. Aubergines can help reduce weight and cholesterol levels, depending on the way they are prepared and eaten.
In the U.S. the vegetable is called eggplant and I long wondered about the relationship between what I knew as an oblong and purple plant (whose colour shade is called aubergine) and an egg.
But in the very old days, when the plants were making inroads into Europe and the United States from their ancestral grounds in India and northern Africa, some of the species were white and had the look of a large egg. More an ostrich egg than a chicken egg. The whites still exist.
The aubergine also has a flower, just like the courgette vegetable. But while you can stuff and eat the yellowish courgette flowers, the star-shaped purple aubergine flowers are best kept for decorative purposes. They are beautiful.
During a recent visit to a local vegetable grower, I ran into a bunch of plump aubergines and bought a few. I did not want to make the stuffed Turkish variety, especially not as I had six aubergines and with one half per person I lacked diners and oven space.
The fritto misto approach for Melanzana in Italian cuisine, sliced up, dried, basted in a batter with cheese and then fried, was a bit too cumbersome and so was the new French fad to make chips from aubergine – potatoes and aubergines are from the same family. You can slice the aubergines very finely and put salt and cheese and herbs on the slices and dry these in the oven. It is less fat than potato crisps, apart from the cheese, but remains salty.
The Greek use thick slices of aubergine with cheese and tomato.
In the south of France they have a recipe for so-called ‘caviar d’aubergines’ which perhaps derives its name from the lumpy shape in the aubergine purée afterwards, which may resemble caviar and can be spread on bread. In fact, the few times that I have had caviar I did not see or taste any resemblance but then I may never have had the chance to see and eat greenish caviar.
This purée is rather straightforward; you mellow the aubergines in an oven, take out the flesh and pound that with garlic, oil and pepper. Or you cut the aubergines in two, add the sliced garlic and some oil, put it in aluminium foil, bake for an hour, take off the skins and pound into a paste.
In this recipe, I am borrowing from the Lebanese by adding some sesame paste (tahini), lemon juice, sumac and cilantro. You serve it chilled.
- 2 aubergines
- 1 tablespoon of sesame paste
- 4 cloves or garlic
- 20 grammes of cilantro/coriander
- Two cups of virgin olive oil
- One cup of lemon juice
- 10 grammes of sumac
- A few twists of the white pepper mill
- Wash the aubergines, pat dry and cut the green leaves from the stem. Cut in half lengthwise. Put skin down on a grill in an oven at 200 °C and bake for 45 minutes to an hour until the flesh is brown. Let it cool.
- Scoop the flesh out of the hull, or tear the skin from the vegetable and collect the flesh in a bowl.
- You can either pound with a pestle and mortar or use a kitchen machine.
- Add the olive oil to the aubergines and start to pound or mix until you have a smooth paste. Add the crushed garlic, sesame paste, lemon juice and sumac and continue mixing.
- If the mixture is not smooth enough, add more oil and/or lemon juice.
- Chop the coriander and mix it though the paste. Let it cool. You can serve it another day with pita, Lebanese bread or any other bread. It can also accompany grilled meat or fish.