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.