Learning to Love the Aubergine

On his 1987 album “The Art of Tea”, Michael Franks – the singer who single-handley provided the floating soundtrack to my late teens – confessed to his fascination for a woman who could cook an eggplant about 19 different ways:

Maybe its the way she grates her cheese,
Or just the freckles on her knees.
Maybe its the scallions. Maybe she’s Italian.
I can’t reveal her name but Eggplant is her game.

The glorious appeal of this purple fruit is only just beginning to dawn on me, a latecomer to the aubergine scene. As a child, growing up in Zimbabwe, we called it by its more colonial name, “Brinjal”.

Momma Aubergine
Momma Aubergine by Eran Finkle

Perhaps something in my young palate discerned that the crisp, fried slices of mauve edged vegetable in the moussaka were close cousins of the deadly nightshade. Maybe I just didn’t like the way it soaked up any grease available. Whatever it was, I didn’t take to it. It always seemed a tragedy to me, however, that such a beautiful, shiny and richly coloured plant should not taste as good as it looked.

It is only in recent weeks, as I have been getting a huge, shining  aubergine every wednesday in our Farmaround bag, that I have been learning to love it and wishing I could drop in on Micheal Franks’ freckle-kneed friend for some cooking tips.

“Raw with mayonnaise” is the only hint given in the song of the 19 different ways to cook an eggplant. That is a good start. I have tried a few more but I am a long way off 19:

  1. Raw: Yes, I believe this is one of the best ways to go. Keeping those nutrients intact and slicing it up to eat alone with a dash of worcester sauce, mayo, or salt and pepper.
  2. Ratatouille: It used to be a boring side dish in my house but if I get the seasoning right and it blows my mind. There are so many variants of this dish worth trying but most agree it should be slowly cooked. In my opinion it is even better a day later, cold, on toast.
  3. Oven Roasted: With a medley of other seasonal veg like onions and squash – salt,pepper, dash of olive oil, in a pan, roasty-roasty, lovely, serve on a bed of couscous.
  4. Grilled: Slice them up longwise like “minute steaks” and grill with a bit of seasoning.

I would love any further suggestions  for ways to prepare aubergine but have one thought in closing. Yesterday, as I sliced into my aubergine, I thought I saw some sort of pattern in the arrangement of the seeds. Ancient soothsayers used to read a great deal into these patterns. I could not make out anything very specific, maybe the shape of a bird’s wing, certainly nothing as obvious as Marisa McClellan’s Divine Eggplant. I wondered what it might be trying to say to me, nevertheless.

Maybe I was just reaching out for the mystical union we are all looking for with the things we eat, a fusion of physical and spiritual appetites?

Happy eating!

Here’s a Youtube video of Michael Franks singing “Eggplant”.

Complete Vegetarian (ed: Nicola Graimes) – at last a veggie recipe book that could be useful to me.

As it was literally going for a song (£3) in WHSmith yesterday, I surprised myself by buying a recipe book. For a start it seemed crazy to miss a bargain that had been reduced from £16.99 but the clincher that had me walking to the till after a quick flick through it is that Complete Vegetarian looked like the sort of recipe book I would actually use. I am not a lover of recipe books usually, especially if they have Jamie Oliver’s gurning mug on the front. I should explain that that is just a personal irritation I have with people who are younger than me and more famous (a bracket of the population that is getting larger every day). My trouble with recipe books with or without celebrity authorship or endorsment is:

  • They always require one or two ingredients you don’t have in stock – I tend to miss them out or switch in something similar but then, technically, I am making it up so what’s the point in having a recipe to follow.
  • The picky expressions of quantity (a teaspoon of this, an ounce of that) make me feel like I have a choice between being a culinary drone and measuring everything, or being a smart alec and pretending I know better.
  • There is also the total lack of global consistency in measurements and the need to convert depending on if the recipe is metric or imperial and American or British. I can’t be bothered.
  • Then there is what I can only describe as the “cultic” atmosphere of modern cooking, like these recipes are scripture, we are all supposed to worship food and only initiates can detect the shibboleth between freshly ground nutmeg and the stuff in the jar.

I tend, therefore, to use a recipe book by looking at the title of the dish and the photograph and then closing it and trying to cook something “a bit like that”. When I switched to an ovo- vegetarian diet earlier this year I did think that vegetarian recipe books might help me to get into my new lifestyle but only found a few more irritations:

  • Too much dairy in most of the recipes, every second one being “cheese and … ” For goodness sake, if you melt cheese into something it’s going to be delicious, that’s not a skillful combination of flavours it’s lacing your dishes with culinary cocaine!
  • Too much reliance on meat substitutes with Japanese sounding names among which tofu is the least offender (yes I even made my own “Seitan” one day; there’s a reason it is only a couple of letters different from “Satan”.) I gave up eating meat not to eat something that just reminds me of meat – enough said.
  • Everything that does not have dairy or tofu in it just looks very bland.

Lately I have got into a rut with rather a lot of ratatouille on toast, so I am pleased to announce that Complete Vegetarian, edited by Nicola Graimes and published by Lorenz Books, looks like the kind of book I could use.

  • There are 300 recipes in there from all over the world, inclusive of desserts, salads and soups.
  • A reasonable proportion of them do not appear to be dependent on dairy or fake meat, but nevertheless look pretty delicious – like the Breaded Aubergine with Hot Vinaigrette and the Beetroot, Wild Mushroom and Potato Gratin.
  • Every recipe is very well illustrated with photographs, making it easy to wing it without the instructions every now and then.
  • In the practical style of Good Housekeeping, it tells you how to just prepare the food without having to worship the author’s genius.

Anyone for Thai Vegetable Curry with Lemon Grass Rice?