A life in eggplant
Rachel Roddy’s ode to aubergines
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.