So the seasons have turned, and the weather is markedly cooler. As I write I see the shimmer of morning dew outside, which would have long since disappeared by this hour a couple of months ago. But the bumper crops of British produce available will be a reminder of our outstanding summer for a couple of months to come yet. Berries are still abundant, squash are plentiful, brassicas are booming, and orchard fruits are ready to drop…
One ingredient I think rides the transition of late summer into early autumn particularly well is the aubergine. A distant relative of both the potato and the tomato, the aubergine is originally a tropical plant, but is hardy enough to be cultivated here. The sunshine this year has meant there are loads of UK-grown varieties available, which is certainly something to be taken advantage of.
Aubergines are reminiscent of warmer, sunnier climes, so when cooking with them, I often look to the Mediterranean and beyond for inspiration. It carriers the agrodolce flavours of Southern Italy just as happily as it does the rich, aromatic spices of the Middle East. What better way to remind ourselves of a sun-filled summer, whilst enjoying the fruits of early autumn?
Sweet & Sour Aubergines with Preserved Lemon & Yogurt
(Serves four as a light meal, as an accompaniment to grilled meat or fish, or part of a meze)
This recipe references the Italian dish caponata, with the addition of some undeniably Middle Eastern flavours. The two compliment one another perfectly. You can make your own preserved lemons by packing lemons in salt with aromatics in a air tight container, but the flavour takes a few weeks to mature. Alternatively they can be found in Middle Eastern supermarkets and delis, along with the sumac.
- 2 large aubergines
- 2 red onions
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar, plus a bit extra
- a few slugs of sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon each freshly ground spices – cumin, coriander and caraway
- 1/2 teaspoon sumac
- a couple of preserved lemons
- a small bunch of dill and/or parsley
- olive oil to taste
- salt (for the aubergines)
- a pot of live yogurt
Slice the aubergines into 1.5cm cubes, and place them in a colander. Season them with salt, and leave them for at least 20 minutes to draw out some of the moisture. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Slice the onions and garlic, and place in a sauce pan with a pinch of salt and a little olive oil, and cook gently with a lid on, stirring occasionally so the onions don’t catch on the bottom. After ten minutes or so, the onions will be beginning to soften. Add brown sugar and a couple of slugs of sherry vinegar. Keep cooking but with the lid off now, stirring as you go. You want the onions to be slightly caramelised and sticky, with a nice sweet-sharp flavour. Add more sugar or vinegar if you need to. When done, leave them covered, but off the heat.
Place the aubergines in a caserole or baking dish. Sprinkle spices over the aubergines, and toss them in a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with a lid or tin foil, and bake in the oven for fifteen minutes or so.
Meanwhile, cut the flesh away from the preserved lemons, and slice the skin into small pieces. The flavour is quite strong, so the smaller the better. Pick the fronds from the dill, and leaves from the parsley, and roughly chop. Season the yogurt with a little salt.
Check the aubergines. They should have begun to soften. Cook uncovered for a few more minutes if they need a final blast, but you don’t want them to dry out too much.
Combine the warm onions with aubergines, preserved lemon, and fresh herbs, reserving a handful. Season with sumac, plus more salt, sugar or vinegar if required. Transfer to a warm serving plate, and top with the yogurt, another sprinkle of sumac, the remainder of the herbs, and a good drizzling of olive oil.
Thanks to Tim Mitchell for his food photography.