A life in egg­plant

Rachel Roddy’s ode to aubergines

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rache­leats

When I was grow­ing up, aubergines meant rata­touille. Oc­ca­sion­ally there was Josce­line Dim­bleby’s creamed au­bergine; maybe a mous­saka, but mostly the 70s and 80s were the rata­touille years. Mum made a pan­ful a week, fol­low­ing a Jane Grig­son recipe. Her need for the book had long passed, but it was open any­way, re­as­sur­ing and ready to col­lect an­other oily notch.

Think­ing back, I don’t ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber any whole aubergines; just black and white spongy cubes in a colan­der which, un­like the rings of cour­gettes des­tined for the same dish, were not for tast­ing – just squeez­ing.

Once ev­ery­thing was in the pan, it would blip and burp at the back of the stove, mak­ing the kitchen feel com­fort­ably claus­tro­pho­bic and my specs steam up as I did my home­work at the ta­ble, which was cov­ered with a red waxed cloth. Even though my brother, sis­ter and I moaned: “Not again – how bor­ing ...” we liked rata­touille very much. Lamb chops, roast chicken, fish, rice and boiled pota­toes were all com­pan­ions for a great big spoon­ful, the pieces seem­ingly in­tact, but then un­der your fork was a suc­cu­lent puree in a thick sauce sur­rounded by a fringe of olive oil. Easy com­fort, tast­ing both of home and some­where else – just what a teenager needs, maybe.

It was also in my 20s that Josce­line’s creamed au­bergine be­came baba ganoush – a dish as pleas­ing to eat as it is to say. I also had an af­fair with parmi­giana. But the rata­touille was like a reg­u­lar at my gran’s pub: al­ways there, as solid as the stove it was made on, as re­li­able as roast chicken and cheese on toast. I have al­ready ex­hausted the phrase “when I moved to Italy”, so I will sim­ply say: it was the Si­cil­ian caponata what did it (killed the rata­touille) – in a Ro­man kitchen, us­ing a heavy pan.

I have heard it said that aubergines are to Si­cil­ians what pota­toes are to the Ir­ish. They are cer­tainly the same fam­ily, which also in­cludes deadly night­shade – rea­son maybe for the deep sus­pi­cion of aubergines when they ar­rived with the Arabs in the 16th cen­tury, and why the Ital­ian name is melan­zane – “in­sane ap­ple”. Sus­pi­cion gave way to af­fec­tion. Like other im­mi­grants – ed­i­ble and oth­er­wise – aubergines put down roots and be­came an “al­most meat” of the Si­cil­ian and Ital­ian ta­ble, ways of cook­ing them nu­mer­ous and ap­peal­ing: fried, braised, grilled, stuffed, pick­led, lay­ered and baked.

Today’s au­bergine recipe be­gins at a goat farm in Um­bria. Our guide So­phie warned us it would be dif­fer­ent with male goats, but the fe­males we meet are a most cu­ri­ous and af­fec­tion­ate bunch, chew­ing our fin­gers and noses, and then when the skies open, un­load­ing the first rain in weeks, cry­ing like ba­bies.

The owner Emanuele is a goat milk al­chemist, his room a lac­tic cham­ber with a sweet-and-sour air that clamps on to your skin in the same way the air does when you get off an air­con­di­tioned plane in a hot coun­try. Hair­nets and plas­tic bags on our feet, we watch as he presses curds into pots for age­ing, strain­ing oth­ers to make a rich cream to be eaten straight away – cheese mak­ing is a won­drous thing. Back home, my friend, the food writer El­iz­a­beth Min­chilli, mixes the rich curds with herbs and cour­gettes for pasta, and uses a soft, crumbly goat’s cheese as a top­ping for these baked aubergines.

Ex­act quan­ti­ties are not re­ally nec­es­sary here, and the herb mix is open to im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Just be care­ful when criss-cross­ing with a sharp knife and re­mem­ber: aubergines are a blank can­vas, a sponge at the ready, so they need bold sea­son – press the herbs deeply into the cracks. Roast the halves un­til the edges are crisp and the flesh

very ten­der – an al­most vel­vety bed for the fat flecks of creamy, sharp cheese, which you crum­ble over while the halves are still warm.

Serve at room tem­per­a­ture as a starter, or as a meal – in which case a green or tomato salad with mint and a sharp dress­ing would make good com­pan­ions and what I am mak­ing for lunch today. Then, to­mor­row, I am go­ing to pull out my copy of Jane Grig­son’s Veg­etable Book from the shelf, and make rata­touille.

Baked au­bergine with herbs and goat’s cheese Serves 4

4 medium aubergines

A fat clove of gar­lic Salt

A small bunch of basil

1 tbsp pine nuts (op­tional) 6-8 tbsp olive oil, plus more for brush­ing

250g goat’s cheese or curd

1 Cut the aubergines in half length­ways. If you wish to salt, sprin­kle the cut sides with coarse salt and ar­range slant­ing down in a colan­der, pos­si­bly with a plate press­ing down with weight on top, for an hour or so, then brush off the salt and blot dry.

2 Line a bak­ing tray with grease­proof pa­per or brush with olive oil. Use a sharp knife to make criss-cross in­ci­sions in the au­bergine flesh, tak­ing care not to cut all the way down and through the skin. Rub the whole half with olive oil.

3 Set your oven to 190C/375F/gas 5. Crush, then finely chop the gar­lic with a pinch of salt, then chop the basil and pine nuts. Com­bine ev­ery­thing in a pes­tle and mor­tar or food pro­ces­sor and add enough oil to make a thick sort of pesto. Use a spoon or your fin­gers to press the herb pesto gen­er­ously into the in­ci­sions on the au­bergine.

4 Bake for 30-40 min­utes, or un­til the aubergines are still in­tact, but with crisp edges and the flesh al­most puree­tender. Once slightly cooled, lift on to a serv­ing plate, crum­ble or slice over the goat’s cheese, rip over some more basil, and serve at room tem­per­a­ture.

Aubergines are a blank can­vas, a sponge at the ready, so they need sea­son­ing boldly

Cook’s tipYou could add grated parme­san or pecorino to the herb mix­ture if you wish.

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