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):
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).