5 Easy Ways with... Aubergines
Updated: May 8
Is there a more beautiful vegetable than an aubergine? There's something inherently tactile about that dark, glossy, purple-black skin. It demands to be touched, admired and eaten. The flesh inside is a stark contrast to it's lustrous exterior - white, bland, mildly astringent and spongy - not remotely appetising, but inviting transformation. A little clever cooking reveals its true character; unctuous, slippery, and full of flavour.
I often put aubergines at the heart of my vegetarian cooking, especially in the summer months, when the unrivalled Italian varieties are in season. They make a good substitute for either meat or starchy carbs in a lot of dishes, and they pair well with a wide array of different flavours, meaning you can use them in everything from a pasta to a curry. For the recipes below, where I use meat I also suggest substitutions for a vegetarian alternative.
When cooking aubergines you need to be aware of how much oil you use. Their texture when raw means they can absorb and hold an astonishing quantity of the stuff. Some oil is essential - and it is their propensity to absorb it that makes them excellent vehicles for spices and other flavours - but be mindful of how much you add.
There are many excellent varieties of aubergine available at farmers markets in all different colours and sizes. if you can lay hands on them, do. They are beautiful and delicious. For these recipes however, a standard, supermarket variety aubergine is perfectly fine.
1. Aubergine Parmigiana
Not a ground-breaking recipe this one - it's a classic that you'll find in any decent Italian cook book alongside pasta, pizza, and risotto. It's such a crowdpleaser though, that no list of aubergine recipes could be considered worthy without its inclusion. Like a vegetarian twist on a lasagne, this dish layers slices of aubergine with rich tomato sauce and generous handfuls of cheese before baking to a bubbling, decadent delight. A good parmigiana should ooze.
There are two approaches to making this dish - one incredibly indulgent and delicious, and the other a more health conscious twist. I'll list both here, but I'd urge you to try, at least once, making it "properly". Treat yourself. You won't regret it. It's worth the extra time in the gym the next day.
Recipe (serves 4):
50g flour (if frying the aubergines)
oil for shallow frying (if frying the aubergines)
2 sticks celery
3 cloves garlic
100ml olive oil
2 tins tomatoes
bunch of basil
150g parmesan - grated
200g mozzerella - torn into small pieces
a couple of handfuls of breadcrumbs (optional)
1. First prepare your aubergines. They need to be thinly sliced, as you will be layering them like lasagne sheets. The best way to do this is lengthways on a mandolin, to ensure long, thin, even slices - but if you don't mind a more rustic feel it's fine to use a knife and slice them into thin disks. Be as consistent as you can with the thickness though.
Once you've sliced them all, lightly salt them and leave them for at least an hour in a large bowl. Traditionally this was done to draw out the bitterness in the plant - but while modern cultivars mean this is no longer necessary it still helps get rid of any excess liquid that will make the final dish too watery, and it helps to season them. After an hour, remove them from the bowl and pat them dry.
You can now choose whether you want to fry or grill your aubergines. I recommend frying, as the resulting taste and texture is amazing - and with all the cheese you're putting in now isn't the time to be fretting about calories - but do what feels good to you. If you decide to grill, brush the aubergine slices lightly with olive oil and grill them on both sides under a medium heat until golden. If you're frying, toss them in the flour first to get a light coating and then shallow fry the slices a few at a time until they are golden brown.
2. Next, make the tomato sauce. Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery and garlic, add them to a heavy based pan with the olive oil over a medium heat, season with a pinch of salt and cook gently until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, water and the stems from the basil (keep the leaves for later) bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After 30 minutes, use a hand blender or food processor to blitz the sauce until smooth and silky. It should be quite thick and not watery - if its still a little wet, return to the pan and simmer for another 10 minutes or so until you get the required consistency.
3. Now you can build your parmigiana. In an oven dish, spread a little of the sauce in the base, then cover with a layer of aubergine slices. sprinkle with grated parmesan, some mozzarella and a few of the basil leaves. Cover these with another layer of the sauce - then aubergines etc. building up layers of sauce, aubergines and cheese like you would a lasagne. Make sure you save enough mozzarella and parmesan for the top. You can also finish the top with breadcrumbs for a crunchy finish.
4. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at a low to medium heat, around 170c. It's ready when the cheese is melted, bubbling and starting to brown.
Parmigiana is one of those dishes that is better eaten the next day - it gives the flavours time to develop properly and for it to come together as it cools. In the restaurant we cook it in large trays, leave it in the fridge overnight and then cut it into slices which we heat to order, but if you don't have the time or the patience it's fine to serve straight away - ideally with some good bread and salad.
2. Chana Dal with Chickpeas and Roasted Aubergines
This actually came about fairly recently when being in lockdown made me have a look at what I had in the cupboard that needed using. I don't know how long the chana dal (yellow split peas) had been there, but I think at least a year. It's one of those dishes where I just made it up as I went along, and it came out so great I immediately had to sit down and try to remember everything I'd done so I could write it down and make it the same next time.
If you're not vegan or veggie, you can replace the veg stock with chicken stock for more depth of flavour, and it makes a fantastic accompaniment to marinated lamb chops.
Recipe (serves 4):
200g dried chana dal (yellow split peas)
1 tin of chick peas
1 tablespoon dried peri peri chillis (or any dried chilli, or chilli flakes)
1 tablespoon cumin seeds - pounded in a pestle and mortar or blitzed in a spice blender
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 red onions
150ml veg oil
1 tablespoon ginger paste or grated ginger
1 tables spoon garlic paste or grated garlic
3 cloves of garlic
2 litre veg or chicken stock
A couple of big handfuls shredded kale of baby leaf spinach
1. Prepare your chana dal - wash repeatedly until the water runs clear, then soak in clean water for at least 30 minutes. Drain, rinse, and add it to a heavy based pan with the veg stock. Bring to the boil and keep it there for around 10 minutes, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Add the 3 garlic cloves and the dried chillis, and cook over a low heat for around 40 minutes - you're looking for most of the liquid to have evaporated or been absorbed by the dal.
2. Cut your aubergines into rough pieces around the size of your thumb. Toss in 50ml of the veg oil, sprinkle with half the crushed cumin seeds and season with a pinch of salt and some cracked black pepper.
Lay them out on a baking tray and cook in a low oven (around 160c) for 25 - 30 minutes.
3. Heat 50ml oil in second pan over a medium flame. Add one of the onions, finely diced, the garlic and ginger pastes, and cook gently for a few minutes. Add half of the cumin seeds and all of the garam masala and turmeric. continue to cook for another couple of minutes - this should give you a thick paste that will form the flavour base for the dish. Set aside.
4. Slice the remaining red onion and fry it in the remaining oil. When it softens, add your spice paste, then your cooked chana dal, half of the cooked aubergines, the tin of chick peas (drained) and cook for a few minutes while stirring. Add your kale or spinach, give it a stir and allow it to wilt in the heat (do not overcook here or you will lose the colour in the greens)
Serve, topped with the remaining aubergines.
3. Stuffed Aubergines
I can't remember when I first cooked this, or where I got the original idea from. It's got a hint of Ottolenghi about it and I've always loved his food, so perhaps it was there? Regardless, I've been cooking it for a long time, and the recipe gets a tweak almost every time I make it depending on how I feel and what's in the fridge, so I feel comfortable that this variation is mine.
You can make this with lamb mince, or if you want to keep it vegetarian, with puy lentils instead. Either is delicious.
If you can get hold of it, za'atar is a wonderful seasoning. It's an aromatic Middle Eastern blend of dried herbs and spices used to flavour everything from breads to stews. If you can't find it a pinch of the dried oregano you have lurking in your cupboard will do.
Recipe (2 people):
2 large aubergines
2oog lamb mince or 200g cooked puy lentils
a red onion, finely diced
100g feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 a pomegranate (or a small pack of prepared pomegranate seeds)
A sprig of mint, leaves finely chopped
2 cloves garlic - grated
a good heaped teaspoon of za'atar
100ml olive oil
a handful of breadcrumbs
1. Slice the aubergines in half lengthways. Score the flesh into a diamond pattern, making sure to get the knife most of the way in but without piercing the skin. drizzle with oil and bake for 20 - 30 minutes at 160c. You want the flesh soft and cooked, but not to the point where it's starting to dry. and crisp.
2. While your aubergines cook, take a heavy based pan and over a medium heat gently cook the onion and garlic. Take out and set aside. In the same pan, turn up the heat, add the lamb mince and fry in small batches until deep brown and caramelised, then add the onions and garlic back in, turn down the heat and cook them gently until soft and translucent.
(if you are using lentils in place of mince, simply add them directly to the pan once the onions and garlic are ready)
3. Remove the aubergines from the oven. Carefully (because they're hot) use a spoon to scrape out the flesh - taking care not to damage the skins, which you should set aside and keep. Add the cooked aubergine to your lamb / lentil mix, along with the za'atar (or oregano), chopped mint leaves, and about 3/4 of your crumbled feta. Stir it all together to combine, and season with a squeeze of lemon.
4. Divide your lamb or lentil stuffing mix back into the hollowed aubergine halves, top with breadcrumbs and return to the oven for 10 minutes.
5. To serve, garnish with the pomegranate seeds and the remaining feta. If you have any in the cupboard you can finish them with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. Flat bread, tabouleh and yoghurt make excellent sides.
4. Sesame & Soy Glazed Roasted Aubergines
These are super quick and easy to prepare but the result is amazing - sweet with honey, salty from the soy, and with a tang from the mirin / vinegar. They're incredibly moreish.
They sit well alongside stir fried veggies and fluffy steamed rice, or atop a bowl of ramen (check out the mushroom ramen recipe from last week) for a simple mid-week supper.
Recipe (2 people):
2 large aubergines
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
For the glaze:
4 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon of mirin (or cider vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon grated garlic
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes
1. Put all ingredients for your glaze in a small pan and heat gently over a low flame whilst stirring until they are well combined. Allow it to sit for 15 - 20 minutes for the flavours to infuse.
2. Cut the aubergines into long, thin wedges. Do this by slicing in half lengthways, then repeating to get quarters, and then again for eighths. Toss them in the glaze to coat, then lay them out skin side down on a baking tray.
3. Roast in the oven at 180 degrees until they have softened (around 12 minutes). Take them out, spoon over any remaining glaze and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Return to the oven for a further 5 minutes.
4. Serve immediately while they are still hot and sticky - you can garnish with a drizzle of extra sesame oil and a few chilli flakes.
5. Grilled and Confit Aubergines in Olive Oil
This method of cooking aubergines take full advantage of their love of oil and transforms them into a store-cupboard ingredient you can put on or into pretty much anything. If you take care to sterilise the jar you put them into they'll keep in the fridge for a month or more - although if you can keep from eating them that long you're a stronger person than me.
To use these (apart from just snacking on them out of the jar) try putting them in pasta or on a pizza, on toast or in salads or sandwiches.
If you've no intention of keeping them more than a week, you can cook these as per the recipe below and just store them in any airtight container in the fridge, but do give them at least a day in the oil for the flavours to properly develop.
400ml olive oil
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
3 cloves of garlic
1 red chili
1 preserving jar, sterilised.
1. Cut the aubergines into rough chunks - not too small. Salt them lightly and leave for an hour to draw out any excess liquid
2. Toss the aubergines in a little oil and sear them under a high grill or in a got griddle pan - just enough to colour the outside.
3. Put the aubergines into an overproof dish with all the other ingredients, making sure they are completely covered by the oil. Cover with foil and cook in a very low oven - no more than 150c - for 40 - 50 minutes.
4. Transfer to the jar and allow to cool.
This method of preserving food predates refrigeration by centuries and is used traditionally to store and preserve everything from tomatoes to meat. By heating to a temperature that kills bacteria, and then storing under oil to prevent contact with the air, food spoilage is prevented. It's a happy byproduct of this technique that by adding aromats such as herbs and garlic you can infuse flavours into the food you are preserving.