Eggplants or aubergines lend themselves to so many cultural cooking styles by happily absorbing the flavours bestowed upon them. This recipe is a version of the classic Middle Eastern recipe imam biyaldi, meaning "the Imam swooned", because it was so delicious. This is a healthier version though, using less olive oil, and adapting some flavours form the Sicilian aubergine dish, caponata. This is my version of the wonderful recipe provided by Hugh at River Cottage.
I grow my own eggplants, and try to cook them the same day that they are picked when they are still delightfully crisp and not bitter. They are organically grown, assisted by the very useful and wonderful Ladybird Beetles or Ladybugs (Coccinellidae) busily working away on the leaves to remove all of the aphids which eggplant leaves seem to attract in the North. Interestingly though, the Ladybugs are considered useful insects, and not bugs by entomologists.
Throughout time there have been superstitious beliefs that it was unlucky to kill a ladybird, which is a great thing because they are so useful to the environment and the success of our crops. Another superstition was that if a ladybird lands on you and you chant the following verse, your wish will come true if it flies away. I grew up knowing the verse, taught to me by my Mum, and probably used by farmers who instead of killing the prolific ladybirds in their fields tried to convince them to fly home. So if a ladybird lands on you, always chant the following verse, and bring some good luck.
2 eggplants (about 750 g in total)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or canola oil
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 large red or brown onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (ideally apple balsamic)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon tomato puree
50g macro Organic Thompson Raisins, sultanas (or whatever you have on hand)
250g Woolworths Gold Australian Sweet Solanato or cherry tomatoes, halved (or home grown if possible)
50g pine nuts, lightly toasted
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chopped flat-leaf parsley or mint, to finish (optional) -
(I used parsley because my home grown mint didn't survive in the heat whilst we were away, but I think mint would provide a crisper flavour)
Preheat the oven to 190 deg C/Gas 5.
Halve each aubergine down the middle, from stalk to base. Use a sharp knife to make diagonal cuts deep into the cut side of the flesh, going almost through to the skin but not quite, about 1.5 cm apart. Repeat the other way to create a diamond pattern.
Measure out 2 tablespoons of the oil and brush it all over the cut aubergine flesh, using a pastry brush to work it into the cuts. Now stuff the slices of garlic into the cuts so that each aubergine half has a good share of garlic. Season the flesh well with salt and pepper. Put the aubergine halves in a large roasting dish and bake for 30 minutes.
Combine the onion, balsamic vinegar, sugar, tomato puree, sultanas or raisins and remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large bowl. Mix well, then stir in the tomatoes.
After the first 30 minutes, the eggplants should be looking nice and tender and browning off. Add the onion and tomato mixture to the roasting dish, pushing it around the aubergine halves so they are snugly surrounded but not covered. Trickle 100ml water over the tomatoes and onions (not the aubergines) and return the whole lot to the oven for another 30 minutes.
As soon as the dish comes out of the oven, spoon the soft onions and tomatoes and all their juices on top of the aubergines, so each one has a nice covering. Leave to settle for 10 minutes or so, then serve, scattered with the toasted pine nuts, and parsley or mint, if using. Serve with a green salad and/or rice.
This is such a satisfying dish and tastes even better the following day when reheated as leftovers.
So dear reader do you enjoy the old superstitions and rhymes you were taught when growing up about plants and insects, and often think about them when you are wandering about in your garden or cooking?