Aubergine heaven

No, not the place where well-behaved aubergines spend their afterlife, but probably my favourite aubergine dish to date (although moutabal comes a very close second). It's recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, so I should have known it would be brilliant, though I'm sometimes sceptical of his recipes because the ingredients seem so disparate, it often appears that they could never work together. I should never doubt him, after this triumph. It features aubergine baked into a luscious softness, rubbed with a spice mixture for deep flavour, served with a fruity, herby bulgur wheat mixture and a dollop of yoghurt. Initially it might not sound all that great, but I can assure you that this is delicious.

I made this because a "North African" dish had been requested, but I didn't want to cook meat. It's quite hard to translate the pungent, fragrant aromas of North African cuisine into vegetarian dishes, because often those spices need something very strongly-flavoured like lamb to stand up to them. I needn't have worried, because the smoky aubergine is the perfect match for this spice mix, known as chermoula. It features ground cumin, coriander, paprika, chilli (I used cayenne pepper), salt, preserved lemon, olive oil, and crushed garlic. I bought two magnificent bulbs of smoked garlic from the Real Food Festival at the weekend (more on that in another post), and this seemed the perfect opportunity to use them. Smoke and aubergine go so well together, and I wanted to heighten that sensation. I crushed everything together in a pestle and mortar to make a rich, terracotta-coloured paste reminiscent of harissa, that other North African spice mix.

The preserved lemon is a nice addition to the mixture; I have a jar on my windowsill that I made myself. They're incredibly easy to make: you just quarter whole lemons, leaving them attached at one end, then stuff them with sea salt, pack them into a jar, cover with boiling water and seal. After about three months they're ready to use, and are a typical ingredient in all sorts of Moroccan dishes. I remember seeing huge jars of them for sale in the souks in Morocco, and was immensely saddened that I was unable to bring back liquids in my hand luggage. It's hard to describe their flavour; much more sour and salty than a normal lemon, they lack the zesty freshness of an unpreserved specimen, but have a deeper flavour that adds a sour kick to all sorts of dishes. The classic is Moroccan chicken, green olive and preserved lemon tagine.

I slashed the flesh of the aubergine in a criss-cross pattern and rubbed the spice mixture into the flesh, rather like you would do with meat. After drizzling over some olive oil, they went in the oven for about 50 minutes, until the insides had softened into silky deliciousness and the skin had wrinkled. When they emerged, I drizzled them with some of my oak-smoked rapeseed oil, to add yet another layer of barbecue flavour. If I had an actual barbecue, this might have been the ultimate smoky meal. I'm not sure why the chargrilled flavour works so well with aubergines, but whoever discovered this might be my number one food hero. OK, number three, after Yotam and Raymond Blanc. Oh and Tristan Welch. And Michel Roux. And Claudia Roden too.

To adorn the aubergine, bulgur wheat. This is best known as the key ingredient for tabbouleh, which I lived off in Syria; it's a bit like couscous, but with larger, more irregular grains and a bit more texture. You can simmer it in water for about 20 minutes to cook it, but you can also soak it in boiling water for about 30 minutes, which is easier. I also soaked some sultanas with it, to plump them up a bit. To the wheat I added chopped coriander, mint, halved green olives, salt and pepper, spring onions, toasted flaked almonds, and lemon juice. This is delicious on its own, and I could quite happily eat it as a salad with no accompaniment. The sweet sultanas counteract the sharp olives, the almonds give a rich crunch, and the herbs provide a beautiful citrussy freshness.

I spooned this mixture over the warm aubergines, and finished it with a dollop of yoghurt. This brings everything together, providing moisture and also taking the edge off the spicy aubergine (though mine wasn't that spicy, because I was over-cautious with the cayenne...). This dish is an absolute delight. I think it's a textural thing: the slippery, silky aubergine flesh against the nutty bulgur with its bursts of sweet sultana and tangy olive, finished off with the creamy yoghurt and crunchy almonds. The best bit is the top of the aubergine flesh, where the spices have burnt on and formed a crust. If you're sceptical, I'd urge you to try this. If you don't like aubergines, you'll be converted. Seriously, it was so good. Also, immensely filling, considering aubergine is mostly water. If you have vegetarian friends, cook this for them and make them love you. If you've carnivorously overindulged recently, cook this for yourself and detox. If you're hungry, make this and satisfy your stomach. I cannot think of a single reason why you should not cook this dish as soon as possible.

The recipe, by Yotam Ottolenghi, is here.

Moutabal with Iranian 'stone bread'

It's the trendy thing at the moment for chefs to be championing long-lost or neglected ingredients. The Great British Food Revival, currently showing on the BBC, is one of my new favourite programmes. Each week chefs or prominent food lovers like Gregg Wallace, Clarissa Dickson Wright, Michel Roux and the Hairy Bikers discuss a humble British ingredient that is in danger of being outshadowed by sexier foreign imports, or just dying out due to lack of interest: proper artisan bread, cauliflower, rare breed pork, the potato... I find it fascinating, and a very worthwhile endeavour, to try and do something about this sad decline. As someone who cooks a lot, and loves experimenting with new and exciting ingredients, I too have a list of foods that I am determined to reinvent for people; foods that a lot of people claim they don't like, but I believe this is only because they haven't had them cooked properly. Near the top of this list would be the aubergine.

The poor aubergine. When treated correctly, it can transcend the heights of vegetability to become something bordering on the sublime. However, I think many people are put off by the kind of aubergine you find in badly-made ratatouille or vegetable stews: spongy, still tough and fibrous in the middle, but soggy and slimy on the outside. While you can braise aubergine very successfully, as the Sicilians do in their famous caponata, in my opinion it is best roasted or grilled. Specifically, chargrilled over the smouldering embers of a barbecue, so it takes on the most incredible smoky flavour. Smoke and aubergine are a flavour pairing that to me is as natural as beef and horseradish, pork and apple, or tomato and basil. When you grill or roast an aubergine, the outer skin shrivels and pulls away from the flesh inside, so that when you take a sharp knife and slit it lengthways, it's almost like you're undressing it. Inside, it is soft and silky. It isn't much to look at - a rather unappetising brownish grey, and with a rather slimy appearance, but blended with the right ingredients, it is heavenly.

Middle Easterners know how to treat an aubergine. Their cuisine is resplendent with aubergine dishes, such as baba ganoush or moutabal: two delightful purées, both creamy yet sharp and garlicky, the latter including tahini which works incredibly well with the smoky aubergine. I ate it by the plateful in Syria, mopped up with thick flatbread. It's hard to describe the taste, but even aubergine-haters will be converted, I think, by its creamy, smoky, mysterious flavour. The two aubergines I found languishing in the vegetable drawer the other day were a blessing: they inspired me to recreate this incredible dish.

There are many ways to make moutabal, but I (vaguely) followed Ottolenghi's recipe from his Plenty cookbook. I roasted two aubergines in the oven until soft in the middle, then scooped out the flesh and mashed it with a fork. To this I added tahini paste, pomegranate molasses, a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a crushed garlic clove, lots of chopped parsley, some quartered cherry tomatoes (not traditional, but they turn it into more of a meal than a dip), salt and pepper, the seeds of half a pomegranate, and then my secret ingredient. Which isn't so secret, because I'm about to extol its wonders now. It's oak-smoked rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil is pretty trendy with chefs at the moment: it has all sorts of health benefits, it has less saturated fat than olive oil, and a higher burning point, making it suitable for all sorts of frying. I picked up a couple of bottles at a farmers' market a few weeks ago, but it was the 'oak-smoked' variety that caught my eye. I tried a bit, and was hooked. The seller mentioned that it would be good with aubergines, and he wasn't wrong: using an oven, you can't quite get that chargrilled flavour in the aubergines as you could on a smoking griddle or a barbecue. A tablespoon of this oil, however, and you may as well have roasted them on hot coals.

To scoop up the aubergine goodness, I turned to my Iranian cookbook, Saraban, and tried out the recipe for sangak. This is an Iranian bread that is cooked on an oven with a floor of little pebbles, which give it a lovely dimpled surface. I was fascinated by the idea, though my mother drew the line at me going down to the pond and fetching some pebbles to bake on. Instead, I used a scattering of dried chickpeas and beans, which I normally use for baking blind pastry cases. Not quite as authentic, but the effect was the same: lots of little indentations in the bottom of the bread, while the top puffed up like pitta bread.

It's a delicious bread: the use of both white and wholemeal flour gives it a nutty, chewy texture. It's even better the next day, incidentally. Just right for scooping up huge mouthfuls of one of the most delicious mezze you're ever likely to sample. This is guaranteed to impress even those who claim to hate aubergine: it has none of that horrible spongy, slimy texture; just a wonderful combination of flavours that will delight and surprise.

Moutabal (makes enough for 2-3):

2 aubergines
3 tbsp tahini paste
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 crushed garlic clove
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 handfuls cherry tomatoes, quartered
Seeds from half a pomegranate
Salt and pepper
Oak-smoked rapeseed oil (optional)

Turn the grill up to about 250C. Place the aubergines on a sheet of foil, prick lightly with a knife, and place under the grill. Turn them occasionally, until the skin has shrivelled and they are soft inside (about 20-30 minutes). Remove and leave to cool.

Slit open the skins and scoop out the aubergine flesh. Mash with a fork, and combine with the other ingredients. Taste as you go - the above is just a guideline and you might want more lemon juice or molasses depending on the balance of sweet-sour-smoky.

Stone bread (makes 6-8 flatbreads):

2 tsp dried yeast
180ml warm water
270g wholemeal flour
500g strong white bread flour
1 1/2 tbsp sea salt
300ml tepid water

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 10 minutes. Combine the flours and salt in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Stir the yeast mixture into the tepid water, then gradually work into the flour. Knead for 10-15 minutes on a slow speed (or by hand) until smooth and shiny. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place to double in size (about 2 hours).

Preheat the oven to its highest temperature. Knock back the dough, then leave to prove for 20 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time, scatter some dried chickpeas or beans, or a lot of washed and oiled pebbles, over the base of a large baking tray. Heat until very hot.

Divide the dough into 6-8 portions and roll into thin oval shapes. Transfer to the baking tray and push firmly onto the pebbles. Bake for 5 minutes, until a rich golden brown (you can do this in batches if they won't all fit).

Aubergine cheesecake

Sounds bizarre, doesn't it? But when it comes from the pen (or rather, the keyboard, via the medium of Guardian Online) of the great Ottolenghi, one can't help but have faith. Faith did indeed pay off in this situation - the end result is delicious. A bit like a quiche, but without the pastry, and with the bonus of soft roasted aubergines and sharp tomatoes. 

Start by roasting two sliced aubergines with some oil and salt and pepper in a hot oven, until soft. Line an oven dish with oiled foil and arrange the aubergine slices across the bottom, filling the gaps with halved baby plum tomatoes. Sprinkle with fresh oregano (do you know how rare it is for a recipe to specify fresh oregano?! And how annoying this is, given that it grows completely wild in our garden, an untapped resource begging to be exploited?!) Then make the cheesecake mixture: whisk three eggs with some feta, creme fraiche (Ottolenghi says cream, but I had an open pot of creme fraiche that needed using), ricotta (Ottolenghi says cream cheese, but again, I had ricotta in need of use) and black pepper, and pour this over the aubergines. Bake for about 40 minutes until set, then leave to cool until it can be cut into pieces. I skipped this step as I was too hungry, but it is still nice with a slightly molten interior.

I reckon this basic recipe would work with most things - oven-roasted tomatoes on the top would be delicious, as would roasted red and yellow peppers (might try that one soon actually), bacon and spinach, caramelised onions...Lovely. Some sort of base, like a sweet cheesecake, might be nice too - made out of melted butter and breadcrumbs. Definitely a recipe to tweak at some point. Not that the original isn't yummy, of course.