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There is a season for aubergines but you could be forgiven for not knowing it. With the Dutch hydroponic farms pumping out purply black zeppelins all year round and the Sicilians seemingly capable of producing the pale “viola” variety from April to October, you could easily imagine that, as with French beans from Kenya and asparagus from Peru, the very idea of seasonality had been vanquished. Not for me, though. Just as I won’t eat asparagus outside the English season in April and May, I don’t eat parsnips in June or aubergines in January. Aubergines represent, like the most luscious tomatoes, the full and final flowering of summer.
The aubergine has a slowly evolving richness of flavour that makes it endlessly fascinating. Take this recipe for aubergine “chips”. They taste pleasant when first cooked: almost crisp and subtly savoury. Dress them with a little vinegar, garlic and mint and they are even better. When cool they are improved. Next day, served at room temperature, they finally reveal themselves as a sensation.
I wrote recently — in reference to Jonathan Meades’ The Plagiarist in the Kitchen — about the origins of recipes, how some are borrowed, some adapted and some the serendipitous result of happenstance. I do not often “borrow” from my contemporaries, and these days not often from my predecessors in the cheffing game either. Instead I borrow and steal from other cultures. If I am playing around with cuttlefish, for example, I will look to those people who are familiar with what, to most British, is still a strange ingredient — the Ligurians, say, or the Venetians.
So, unabashed and without shame, here are two recipes lifted in smaller or greater measure from Mary Taylor Simeti’s Sicilian Food (Grub Street). Born American but a native of the island for more than 50 years, she writes: “The range and fantasy of Sicilian aubergine recipes is quite overwhelming.” But she seems to cope rather well.
Aubergine chips with garlic, vinegar and mint and aubergine involtini
For the chips
This recipe, which Simeti more melodiously names melanzane alla’usticese (“the way they do it in Ustica”, a tiny island off the Sicilian coast), is blindingly simple. Serve with other antipasti or with a piece of fish. I salted the chips this time, in deference to the author, but remain unconvinced of the need to salt any aubergines, especially the viola variety.
|2||large viola aubergines|
|½ litre||of olive oil (which can be reused for frying)|
|1 tbs||white wine vinegar|
|Small bunch of mint leaves, shredded|
|2||cloves garlic, finely sliced|
- Cut off the aubergine stems and chop into thick slices (at least a centimetre thick), then into chips of the same width. Heat the oil in a deep sauté pan until hot but definitely not smoking, and fry the chips — best done in two batches — until golden brown. Drain very well on paper towels.
- Simply sprinkle with the remaining ingredients and toss together while still hot. Allow to cool. They improve after an hour or two.
For the involtini
There are different recipes for these aubergine rolls everywhere from Rome on south. In Naples I had them made with mozzarella but I thought them less good. I would not presume any originality with this but my version varies slightly from Simeti’s.
|2||large aubergines, black or viola|
|2 tbs||pine kernels|
|1 generous tsp||chopped rosemary leaves|
|50g||Parmesan or Pecorino|
|Good pinch of chilli flakes|
- Remove the stems and cut the aubergines into slices the length of the aubergine and just under half a centimetre thick. Brush with olive oil, season with salt and lay them on a hot griddle plate (or in a big dry frying pan) to brown in a lively fashion. Lay them on a tray to cool.
- Prepare the filling. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a little frying pan and gently fry the pine kernels (take care, they burn all too easily). Once they are coloured, add the rosemary leaves momentarily and then drain them and sprinkle with a little salt.
- Once cooled, mix with the ricotta and the Parmesan. Add chilli flakes and taste for seasoning.
- Place a spoonful of the mixture on one end of each aubergine slice and roll it up, letting the mixture fill out to the ends as you do so. Lay the rolled aubergine slices in an oven dish so that they are touching, baste with a little olive oil and bake in a hot oven for 20 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Photographs: Andy Sewell