Here’s one I made last night, which I hadn’t had for quite some time. It’s a recipe from the deep South (Saudi Calabria, in fact) and features what is actually quite a difficult beast – the aubergine (or eggplant if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic). Difficult, I say, because there’s not actually an awful lot you can do with the buggers; indeed much of their use seems to be that of “filling out” dishes. They are great for absorbing fats and juices. They have a somewhat tobacco-smoky taste, which may or may not be due to the fact that the aubergine plant is a close relative of the tobacco plant; indeed the seeds contain nicotine, though you would need 9 kilos of aubergines to get the same nicotine as you would from 1 cigarette.
There are several varieties of aubergine: the classic purple (in standard, round and long varieties), black, white, green and so on. You will most likely find the standard ovoid, dark purple variety, which is more than satisfactory. If by any chance you do run into the round, pale purple variety, do try it, though.
The bitter taste of aubergines can be difficult for some people (particularly the chisellers), but there is a remedy. Half an hour before you start cooking the aubergines, dice them and put them in a dish. Sprinkle them with salt and then cover with a heavy plate (maybe even put a heavy pot, a nearby laptop or your eldest daughter on top). After half an hour or so, tip the dish into your sink and you’ll find a dark liquid running out. At this stage give your aubergines a quick rinse and a roll in a clean teacloth (clean means one you’ve taken out of the drawer!) to dry them. Be aware that salting the aubergines also reduces their capacity for absorbing oil and sauces. Lastly, it’s best not to peel your aubergines – you gain nothing and lose only flavour and time.
The type of pasta used for this dish can quite happily be changed at will, but basically you want something that will “capture” the sauce. Now, as it’s a chunky sort of sauce you need a type of pasta that can hold it. I’m suggesting penne as they’re easy to find, but you just as easily use rigatoni, pipe rigate or best of all, reginette (aka mafalde, both of which are disgusting royalist names but never mind).
So here goes for Merven’s Penne con le Melanzane.
- 200 g penne rigate (or mezze penne rigate)
- 1 aubergine, diced
- 200 g large ripe tomatoes, diced and drained
- 1 clove of garlic, squashed
- 4 thin slices of onion, cut in half
- 1 small, dried chili
- extra virgin olive oil
- parmigiano reggiano, thickly grated
- fresh basil (2 or 3 leaves)
Take a deep, non-stick frying pan and add about 2 generous tablespoons of olive oil. Bung in your garlic, onion and chili. Bring to the boil and “sweat” for about 5 minutes on a low heat (the onions should sweat, not you… stand back from the cooker). If it looks like things are going to burn, add a little warm water. On second thoughts, add a bit anyway. You never know when the phone will ring. Then add the diced aubergine and cook for about 5 minutes over a medium flame, turning it regularly so that it cooks evenly on all sides.
Next add the chopped tomatoes (you can use the tinned variety) and give the mixture a good stir. Bring it to boiling point, turn the heat down and allow to simmer gently for about 10 minutes. At this stage add a good pinch of salt.
Fill a large pot with water and bring it to the boil, covered. When it is boiling, chuck in a good handful of coarse salt closely followed by the pasta. Give it a stir (and don’t forget to come back to it every few minutes for more!!). Once the pasta is cooked (remember, 1 minute before the time indicated on the pack!), drain it, plough a dash of cold water through it (a dash, not a shampoo and rinse) and dump it in a grave, ceremonial fashion into the pan where your aubergines have been bubbling away. Mix it all up, ensuring you coat the parts that even Heineken can’t reach.
Dole the result out into suitable containers (dishes are ideal) and serve with a generous sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano and a few shreds of fresh basil. And unless you’ve made some serious cock-ups along the way, it should look something like this: