The aubergine is a tough lover. If eaten raw, its bland body is compact and spongy. Although it tends to be bitter, it can help us discover new culinary horizons.
Do you know any child who likes eggplant (just another name for the aubergine)? I don’t. And I never liked it as a child myself, which isn’t surprising. Most of the greyish morsels that ended up on my plate when I was young tasted even worse than they looked and left a trace of bitterness on my tongue. My mother would always wonder: salt or no salt? She’d read contradictory recipes in various women’s magazines, some of them saying that the only way to prevent the bitter aftertaste of aubergine is to dice it and season it with a generous amount of salt, then set it aside to let it sweat the bitter poison right out. Other sources declared the first solution a hoax, arguing that salt actually causes the fruit’s bitterness. Since I now have my own food column, I feel I need to set the record straight, once and for all.
Salting eggplant does have its perks – it’s one way to prevent the fruit from absorbing too much oil when frying, but I’ll get to that in a moment – however, it doesn’t influence the fruit’s bitterness. Bitterness is a matter of time. The longer an aubergine grows on its stalk, the juicier the pulp and the more bitter the taste. Although its skin doesn’t shrivel easily after harvesting, it shouldn’t be stored in warehouses or in the darkest corner of the fridge for a long time. Wrong storage causes unpleasant, embittered undertones. The conclusion is as follows: eggplant has the right to remain bitter and nothing can be done about it apart from buying the fruit from trusted sources. It’s not your fault if it doesn’t work out.
Niki Segnit claims eggplant tastes just right when it is compact and shiny like dolphin skin. The food guru surely means the lustre the fruit owes to the hectolitres of olive oil its spongy flesh so easily absorbs – people committed to losing weight may want to avoid the pear of love, despite its nutrient-rich composition. Eating aubergine boosts potassium, calcium and magnesium levels in the body. It’s a good source of fibre as well, since 100 grams of eggplant contain twice as much fibre as the same amount of apples or strawberries. Nonetheless, there is a whole array of strategies to prevent the aubergine’s legendary friendship with oil. For instance adding salt, soaking the fruit in milk, or even frying it in surprisingly large amounts of oil! Evelyn Rose explains that adding more oil than usual prevents it from absorbing as much fat because its surface seals faster due to the higher temperature.
Whatever method we choose, fried aubergine slices are a pure delight. I love eating them right off the skillet, sprinkled with nutmeg. It’s one of those combinations that throws our senses off-balance and empties our plates before we know it. Berenjena con miel (eggplant with honey), traditionally served as tapas in Cordoba, has a similar effect on our taste buds. It’s coated with a thin layer of flour before frying, which gives it a crispy shell that underscores its velvety insides. Slightly sour molasses is sometimes used instead of honey, but I think the best choice is orange blossom honey (or linden honey mixed with orange blossom water). I serve the slices with crumbled goat cheese and fresh thyme. It’s the taste of summer’s twilight.
Frying isn’t the very best way to cook the pear of love. It can be baked, stewed, marinated and steamed. In the Chinese province of Sichuan, eggplant is often served yú xiāng, ‘smelling of fish’: the name refers to the rich taste of umami we might associate with anchovies, among others, but the dish tastes much better than its name would suggest. It is entirely vegan, and has nothing to do with fish. The eggplant is fried or steamed (I recommend the latter method), then soaked in a mix of chilli sauce, soy sauce and doubanjiang – a paste made from fermented soy and broad beans.
The spongy structure of aubergine pulp begs to be immersed in specific flavours, which makes the fruit perfect for marinating. Dice it, generously season with salt and set aside for a few hours. Press firmly from time to time to get rid of as much moisture as possible. Then wipe it using paper towels and put it in a jar with garlic, walnuts and rosemary. Pour over red wine vinegar and virgin olive oil. It should marinate for a week at least, and the jar has to be kept in the fridge. After that, the distinctively feisty pear of love can be mixed with pasta, mascarpone, oregano and chilli flakes. A dish we can call spectacular.
I believe nothing serves aubergines as well as oven heat. If baked long enough, for 50 minutes or so, its texture changes from firm and spongy to velvety on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It also acquires a slightly smoky aroma. I serve roasted aubergine with garlic sour cream, sprinkled with mint and crackling roasted buckwheat. The pulp can also be spooned out and mixed with garlic, yoghurt and roasted pepper – a simplified version of the Middle Eastern baba ghanoush paste. Traditionally, baba ghanoush is made from eggplant roasted over an open fire, which gives it a strong smoky flavour. A hearth can also be staged at home if the eggplant is placed near a gas burner until it blackens. The charred fruit should be baked in the oven for another 15 minutes, then freed from the black cloak that shrouds its priceless pulp.
Thick eggplant slices roasted to a crisp in the oven are perfect for quick marinating as well as eating with your morning toast; they also do well as a quiche or lasagna filling, since they are a worthy substitute for meat. Moreover, if double-baked, the aubergine’s texture starts resembling boiled penny buns. Your brain has no idea what is happening when you start eating, but the dish tastes astonishingly good. An interesting way of preparing eggplant is rummaniyeh, which means ‘tasting of pomegranate’ in Arabic. It is a Palestinian goulash made from lentils and aubergine stewed in a tangy pomegranate sauce. The recipe is available in Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley’s book Falastin. The authors argue that the leftovers go well with poached eggs for breakfast. I admit, however, that my rummaniyeh never actually survived the night. I can’t help it. The thought of the pear of love waiting for me in the kitchen is just too much.
Long-roasted aubergine with garlic sour cream, roasted buckwheat and mint
3-4 aubergines (1 kg), sliced in half
½ cup of rapeseed oil
1 cup (240g) of sour cream or Greek yoghurt
3 tbsp raw buckwheat
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
Cold-pressed rapeseed oil
1. Preheat the oven to 220°C. Make a few ½ cm crosswise slits in both halves of the eggplant. Season generously with salt and roll in oil. Place the eggplant cut side down on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Roast for approximately 50 minutes, until it becomes blackish and completely tender.
2. Prepare the sauce in the meantime. Mix the sour cream with garlic, a large pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper. Set aside.
3. Heat a dry skillet at maximum temperature. Roast the buckwheat for two or three minutes, stir until it starts popping. Put the roasted grain into a bowl.
4. Spread the garlic sour cream on a large plate or platter. Place the aubergine on it, cut side up, sprinkle with the roasted buckwheat and mint. Drizzle with rapeseed oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with any side of your choice. I personally love eating it with wheat bread or barley.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Piechura
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