Aubergines, known for their glossy obsidian skins and mild firm flesh, are enjoyed all over the world, and that means there are numerous delicious ways to prepare them.
But aubergines need to be cooked correctly to tease the best out of their wonderful texture and flavour. Although technically a fruit, aubergines – also known as eggplants – are generally eaten as vegetables, and there are numerous different varieties to choose from.
They range from the large bulbous versions with shiny purple-black skins, to small plump white ones that are common in the US and Australia, through to petite varieties widely used in Southeast Asian cookery.
The flesh is firm, spongey and in truth doesn’t taste of very much, so a few culinary tactics are required to make them truly delicious. Also, cooks must accept the fact that aubergines demand plenty of time to cook, and also a great deal of good olive oil.
First, the preparation. Don’t slice aubergines too far in advance, as the flesh oxidises quickly and turns brown. Conventional wisdom states they need to be sliced, salted and drained before cooking to draw out bitter juices. Strictly speaking, this is no longer necessary, as modern varieties aren’t bitter.
However, many chefs and home cooks attest to the benefits of salting aubergines beforehand if you intend to fry them. This draws out water, magnifies their flavour, and helps them crisp up nicely without quite so much oil. If you do wish to salt aubergines, the process is simple.
Just slice or chop them according to your requirements – it’s not necessary to peel them – place in a colander set over a sink of bowl, and sprinkle generously with salt and toss with your hands.
The longer you leave the aubergines to drain, the more water they will lose; you could place a plate and a weight on top if you want to hasten the process. Just pat the aubergine pieces dry before frying.
To enjoy aubergines simply, slice thinly, salt and set aside (as above) if you have time. When you’re ready to cook, heat a griddle pan until very hot, brush the sliced aubergines with olive oil, and griddle for a few minutes both sides until tender and golden.
Serve as a side, drizzled in plenty of good extra virgin olive oil, and seasoned with salt (be careful if you have salted them beforehand) and pepper, a splash of red wine vinegar and chopped fresh herbs like basil and mint.
This dish is lovely topped with garlic spiked yoghurt and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.
Alternatively, use the griddled slices in a hearty aubergine parmigiana (also known as melanzane parmigiana). Make a good tomato sauce with plenty of garlic and dried oregano.
Then, in a baking dish, make layers of griddled aubergine, tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella cheese, finishing with tomato sauce. Sprinkle over breadcrumbs through which you have stirred olive oil and finely grated parmesan cheese. Bake in a 180C oven for 30-40 minutes, or until bubbling and golden.
Another delicious way to enjoy aubergine is miso glazed eggplant (nasu dengaku), a gorgeous Japanese dish that makes a perfect side. It’s made by slicing aubergines in half, scoring the tops and brushing with a sweet miso glaze before grilling until tender and bubbling.
Why not try incorporating aubergine into your everyday cooking, just like other vegetables? They’re best cooked on their own first.
Cut into bite-sized cubes (again, no need to peel), fry into plenty of hot oil and when tender and golden add them to your cooking pot: curries and stews will thank you.
For a wonderful sharing dish, make baba ganoush, the deeply flavourful dip enjoyed through the Levant. To achieve the distinctive smoky notes, the aubergines are traditionally cooked over flame – on the barbecue or on the hob – until the skin is blistered and blackened all over, flesh tender to the point of collapse.
But excellent results are also possible by placing the aubergines whole under the grill, turning frequently. (Whenever you cook aubergines whole, don’t forget to prick them with a fork first).
When cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into a bowl, and stir through crushed garlic, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and black pepper. Serve with pitta bread for scooping.
Aubergines pair well with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, tahini, tomato sauce, basil, mint, parsley, parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese.
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