Given the time, I am happy to cook my aubergines over an open flame, holding the purple-black beauties one by one over the gas flame with kitchen tongs, turning them slowly until their skin has charred. It is the sort of kitchen task over which you can daydream as the aubergine flesh softens. If I haven’t set the fire alarms off, I will end up with an aubergine whose soul has taken on the deep, smoky notes that give the characteristic flavour to moutabal, the luscious cream that consists of nothing but charred aubergine and olive oil, though many will season it further with a little lemon and garlic.
On most occasions I forgo the grilling and bake my aubergines instead. A compromise, but one that works. I set the oven to high and ensure the skins are blackened before splitting and scooping out the silky flesh with a spoon. A deeply pleasing task. I then mash it with a fork, slowly introducing olive oil and lemon juice. Its uses are endless, though I tend to get through quite a bit with warm flatbread alone. This week we ate it with grilled lamb cutlets, letting the juices from the meat sink on to the aubergine cream, then adding a contrast of textures with a handful of crisp, lemon-spiked breadcrumbs.
On another note, there are some cracking cauliflowers about. I browned some plump florets in a pan this week, tossing them with lemon, spring onions and capers. We ate them both as a principal dish and again, the next day, as a salad. If the pieces had been smaller, it would have worked in a bun, too, the olive and caper dressing soaking through the bun’s soft, open crumb.
Grilled lamb, mashed aubergine and gremolata
You can grill or bake the aubergines or cook them over an open flame. The latter will take an age and makes much smoke, so do it in a well-ventilated room.
For the aubergines:
aubergines 3, large
garlic 4 plump cloves
lemon the juice of 1
olive oil 100ml
Aleppo pepper ½-1 tsp
For the gremolata
olive oil 3 tbsp
white breadcrumbs 80g
lemon grated zest of 1
lamb cutlets 6-8
olive oil a little
za’atar a little
If you are grilling the aubergines, place them on the bars of a hot griddle pan over a moderately high heat, then turn them as each side becomes charred. Expect smoke. Alternatively, you can bake them.
If you are baking the aubergines, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Put the aubergines in a roasting tin, leaving a little space between them. Put the whole, unpeeled garlic cloves among the aubergines, then bake for 50 minutes to an hour until the aubergines are soft and will collapse under gentle pressure. The garlic cloves should have darkened outside and be soft and silky within.
Slice the aubergines in half and scrape the flesh into a mixing bowl. Pop the flesh from the garlic skins into the aubergine. Beat lightly with a whisk to mash all the flesh to a coarse purée, then stir in the lemon juice. Beat in the olive oil until you have a soft, coarse texture, seasoning with salt and black pepper as you go. Set aside.
To make the gremolata, pour the oil into a frying pan over a moderate heat, then add the breadcrumbs. Let them cook, soaking up the oil, until crisp and golden. While the crumbs are cooking, roughly chop the parsley, then, once the crumbs are crisp, stir in the parsley and lemon zest.
Brush the lamb cutlets with oil, sprinkle lightly with za’atar, then cook on or under a hot grill, or on the griddle until the outside is dark and the inside is rose pink, turning once. Spoon the aubergine mash on to a serving dish, scatter over a pinch or two of the Aleppo pepper. Place the cooked cutlets on top, then scatter with gremolata.
Cauliflower, lemon and capers
I like to steam cauliflower briefly before I grill, roast or sauté it. The florets stay deliciously moist inside while the outside browns. Serves 2-3
cauliflower 1, medium-sized
garlic 2 cloves
olive oil a little
Aleppo pepper 1 tsp
spring onions 3
parsley a small bunch
capers 1½ tbsp
Bring a medium-sized pan of water to the boil and place a steamer basket or colander over top. Trim the cauliflower, break into large florets, then slice each in half. Drop them into the steamer basket and cover with a lid. Let the cauliflower steam for 5-6 minutes until just tender to the point of a knife, then remove the steamer basket.
Flatten the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, but don’t peel them. Heat a good glug of oil in a shallow pan set over a medium heat. Place the flattened garlic cloves in the oil, together with the cauliflower pieces, cut-side down in the oil, partially cover with a lid and leave until lightly browned. About 7 or 8 minutes.
Make the dressing: finely grate the zest from the lemon and squeeze the juice. Add the capers and the Aleppo pepper. Finely chop the spring onions, discarding the very dark green tips, then stir into the dressing. Roughly chop the parsley and stir in together with capers.
As the cauliflower lightly browns, pour the dressing over and toss the florets in it. Transfer to a serving dish.
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