By Ellen Kelly
The eggplant, or aubergine, was once thought to be poisonous. This striking fruit (more specifically, and botanically, a berry) was initially greeted with much apprehension. I guess not everyone thought a huge, shiny, purple berry, moreover one related to deadly nightshade, was a good culinary bet.
Many people still eye the eggplant with consternation. Where on earth does one even begin? I am asked this very question, often while waiting in line at a supermarket checkout. It really has to be properly cooked, you see. A raw, or even undercooked, eggplant is not at all appetising and not representative in any way of this delicious and versatile fruit/vegetable. It is astringent and unpleasantly chewy. The eggplant is a sponge; as it cooks, it absorbs oil and flavourful liquids and only then becomes a silken delight, reflecting the other ingredients while contributing its own “earthy tenderness”, to quote the inimitable Jane Grigson. A ratatouille is probably the perfect example of this transformation, but the tenet holds true for any eggplant preparation.
The aubergine is a beautiful plant. If you have a suitably warm and sunny spot in your garden, it will put many conventional flowering plants to shame. Its aspect is compact and sturdy with lovely, slightly furry lobed leaves and white to purple star-shaped flowers, with bright yellow centres. The fruit itself is quite varied; coloured dark purple, lavender, white, green, variegated and even red striped. It can be large or small, globe shaped, long and slender or the size and shape of an egg. Etymologically speaking, there’s no mystery there.
The eggplant’s value goes beyond the kitchen. Several years ago, during a tour of Paul and Hilda de Jonge’s impressive Broxburn greenhouses, I learned that the practice of growing eggplants with tomatoes is an early alert to pests that would otherwise decimate the tomato vines. Eggplants are more susceptible to many of these destructive insects and so when spotted, the staff can react quickly, releasing the appropriate insect combatant (Broxburn uses no chemical pesticides), thus avoiding substantial harm to the main tomato crop.
Mid-summer into early fall signals the beginning of the peak eggplant season. Look for tight, smooth, shiny skins without bruises or blemishes; buy fruit that is heavy in the hand. If you can, use right away and try to avoid the fridge. Like tomatoes, eggplant’s flavour and texture is diminished by cold temperatures.
Many recipes tell you to peel and salt eggplant before using. Using just-picked, ripe fruit makes this practise unnecessary, in my opinion. Salting can, however, help save an over-ripe eggplant by leaching out some of the bitterness along with the liquid. The same goes for peeling. Unless you’re making fritters or a dip or spread, peeling isn’t required either.
Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi, this gratin is a true delight and super easy, especially if you choose to use a good jarred pesto instead of making your own… and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Preheat your oven to 425° F. Slice 4 large eggplants into ¼ – ½ inch rounds. Spread them out on baking sheets lined with parchment and brush both sides liberally with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then roast for 25-30 minutes, or until deep golden brown all over. Remove from the oven and spread pesto over each slice. Lower the oven temperature to 375° F.
Slice 8 medium-sized ripe tomatoes into ¼ – ½ inch rounds. Arrange the sliced eggplant, pesto side up, snugly on the bottom of a deep 9 x 11 baking dish. Lay half the tomato slices on top, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then a layer of sliced buffalo mozzarella (2 large balls should do it). Top the cheese with a layer of pesto covered eggplant slices and finish with the last layer of tomatoes. Spread about a cup of passata (fresh, uncooked tomato puree, sans seeds and skins) over the top and salt generously. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until well-coloured and bubbling. Allow the dish to sit for 10 minutes or so and serve with plenty of fresh basil, a simple salad and lots of crusty bread.
Served with hummus, fresh pita and lots of olives, baba ganoush (or eggplant caviar) starts any summer meal. I’m not a huge fan of tahini, but it’s an elastic preparation, so please yourself. Start by cutting 3 – 4 large eggplants in half lengthwise. Score them deeply, but without cutting through the skin and then brush generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast cut side up for 30 – 45 minutes, or until flesh is very soft. Remove from the oven and scrape the flesh from the skins into a colander; allow to drain for at least 15 minutes. Discard the liquid and, in a bowl, thoroughly mash the eggplant with 1 finely minced clove of garlic, zest of a lemon, 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice (or 2 tsp. red wine vinegar), 1 Tbsp. tahini (or try 1 – 2 mashed anchovy fillets and 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise). Season again with salt and pepper. Serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and plenty of warmed pita bread.