Home-grown harvest: aubergines

15 September 2017 by
Home-grown harvest: aubergines

The aubergine's velvety texture and ability to absorb spices makes it the perfect vehicle for intense, rich flavours. Russell Brown sings its praises

They are a reminder of Mediterranean holidays, of sunshine, of dishes rich with olive oil. The deep purple colour stands out on any vegetable stall; a colour associated with emperors and royalty and fitting for a vegetable that can be such a culinary star.

Technically, the aubergine is a berry, but it is used as a vegetable. With its origins in India, it marries particularly well with spices, yet it is truly versatile.

Aubergines can be baked, roasted, fried, braised, battered, chargrilled or cooked over an open flame, rendering them soft and smoky. The fruit comes in striped, white, pink, round and baby varieties, as well as the more usual purple. They are related to potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, all of which belong to the nightshade family.

The increasing interest in Middle Eastern food, along with a continued love of Mediterranean dishes, is boosting the aubergine's popularity and, as a result, it is being cultivated more frequently in the UK. The season runs from March to October and the crop is grown almost exclusively in greenhouses. The major advantage over the imported product is freshness.

The aubergine is considered relatively difficult to grow, as it needs high light levels and is susceptible to pests and diseases. Matthew Simons from growers Glinwell, said: "Aphids, red spider mite and white fly can be a real issue in the crop and cause serious damage if not controlled. With careful monitoring and the correct application strategy, all of the pests can be managed with biological control agents, meaning that no applications of pesticides are necessary."

The main UK production is of the pear-shaped, dark-purple aubergine. There is, however, increasing demand for the striped or graffiti varieties, and the other types are grown as niche crops. Despite its feel and appearance, the aubergine requires delicate handling, as it can bruise easily which, in turn, can cause internal rot spots. The aubergine keeps reasonably well if refrigerated UK growers are paying attention to the varieties they are planting, to give a high-quality end product. They tend to be slightly denser, which not only improves shelf life but also reduces the amount of oil or stock the aubergine absorbs during cooking, leading to a slightly firmer texture. In some older recipes, it is recommended that you salt aubergines to reduce their bitterness, however in modern varieties, much of this bitterness has been bred out, making salting for this reason unnecessary. Salting can firm up the flesh and intensify the flavour, though.

The aubergine features in many dishes: ratatouille, parmigiana, moussaka, aubergine bhajis, baba ganoush, miso-glazed aubergines and aubergine chermoula are just a few. Caponata, an aubergine dish that hails from Sicily, takes a different route with the flavours, offering a punchy, sweet and sour finish. It makes a perfect accompaniment to fattier cuts of meat or it can be served as part of an antipasti.

Bjørn Moen, chef-proprietor at Pattard Kitchen in north Devon, is charring aubergines and puréeing them with cumin to serve with lamb breast, sumac-spiced lamb rack and quinoa. And Simon Hulstone, chef-proprietor of the Elephant in Torquay, is turning home-grown aubergines into a purée for a dish of Down Farm lamb rump, hen of the woods, girolles and herb oil.

Buying and storage tips
• Aubergines are more delicate than they appear, so need gentle handling
• Keep refrigerated
• High humidity will increase the shelf life
• Aubergines should be firm and feel heavy for their size

Market report
British aubergines were originally harvested from July to September, but modern growing techniques have extended the season by about a couple of months at either end.

Expect to pay about £2-£3 per kg for regular aubergines and at least £1 more for the more exotic varieties.

Charlie Hicks totalproducelocal.co.uk


Caponata (Photography by Russell Brown)

l olive oil
1 small onion, ½cm dice
2 sticks of celery, peeled and cut into
½cm dice
1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
1 large aubergine approx 400g, 2cm dice,
lightly salted for 30 minutes in a colander
Oil for deep frying
1tsp chilli flakes
30ml sherry vinegar
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly
50g tomato passata
20g pine nuts
65g sultanas, soaked in boiling water
1tbs drained capers
1tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a deep sauté pan, heat the olive oil and add the onion, celery and garlic. Sweat down gently. While the onion and celery are softening, dry off the aubergine and deep-fry at 170ºC until golden and crispy. Drain on plenty of kitchen paper and season lightly. Add the chilli to the onion and cook for one minute, then add the vinegar and allow to reduce. Add the tomatoes and passata and reduce slightly. Stir in the aubergine, followed by the pine nuts, sultanas and capers. Season, remove from the heat and cover with clingfilm. Allow to sit for a couple of hours, so that the flavours meld and then finish with the parsley at the last minute. The dish is best served lukewarm and ideally shouldn't be refrigerated.

Aubergine dips
All these dips rely on the smoky notes of aubergine roasted over an open flame, either on a barbecue or over gas. The aubergines need to be cooked until they are charred all over and are completely soft. Allow to cool slightly before splitting in half and scraping out the flesh. Drain off the excess moisture before incorporating into the recipe.

aubergine dips
Aubergine dips (Photography by Russell Brown)

Baba ganoush
2 large aubergines, prepared as above
1 large clove of garlic, soaked in boiling water for 5 minutes and then minced
Juice of 1 lemon, the zest of half
50g tahini paste
50ml olive oil
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roughly chop the aubergine flesh and then add the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste.

Persian-style smoked aubergine
1tbs olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 small roasted red pepper, skinned, deseeded
and finely diced
1tsp sweet paprika
½tsp cumin powder
2 large ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
2 large aubergines, prepared as above
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley
2tbs plain yogurt
1tbs pomegranate molasses

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and sweat off the garlic. Add the pepper and cook for a further minute. Add the spices and then the chopped tomato. Roughly chop the aubergine flesh and add to the pan. Combine well and cook until the mix is fairly dry. Season to taste and add the parsley at the last minute. Serve drizzled with the yogurt and molasses.

Aubergine, spinach and cumin
2tbs olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 heaped tsp ground cumin
½tsp turmeric
¼tsp chilli powder
2 large aubergines, prepared as above
30g coconut milk
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon juice
100g spinach, roughly chopped
1tbs chopped coriander
Heat the oil in a sauté pan and sweat off the garlic. Add the spices and cook for 30 seconds. Roughly chop the aubergine flesh and add to the pan. Cook out for 2-3 minutes and add the coconut milk. Season to taste with the salt, pepper and lemon. Fold in the spinach and coriander at the last minute.

Coming up…
Over the next few months, I will be featuring quince and swedes in Home-grown harvest.

Do let me know how you use these products on your menus and what your seasonal favourites are.

Email recipes, dish suggestions and photographs to: russell@creativeaboutcuisine.com




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