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Aubergines - The Apple of Love

Introduced to by the Spaniards, who called them "berengenas" or apples of love, the aubergine is a supremely sensual vegetable with its curves, dark, glossy skin, soft, chewable texture and creamy taste.

Indeed, in and Medieval Europe, the aubergine was credited with remarkable properties as a love potion, while women in ancient Chinaa made a black dye from its skin to colour their hair and stain their teeth to a black lustre - a look that was deemed fashionable at the time. Thought to have originated in, the aubergine quickly found its way to fires, ovens and cooking pots in the Middle East, South - East Asia, and while the large, dark purple variety is now the most popular, the aubergine comes in all shapes and sizes, from the very small ones favoured in India, to white aubergines the shape and size of golfballs, green aubergines the size of pomegranates, and the slim pinkish - mauve aubergines peferred by the Japanese.

It grows on a tender, bushy plant that can grow as high as four feet and may live for more than a year, although it is usually cultivated as an annual. You can spot a good quality aubergine in the market because it is firm, heavy in relation to size and its flesh should be free from scars, spots or cuts. A wilted, shrivelled, soft or flabby eggplant will usually have a bitter or otherwise poor flavour. A member of the Solanacea or nighshade family that also includes the potato, tomato and sweet pepper, the aubergine is a useful source of iron, fibre and vitamin C. It also contains protein and carbohydrates, while it is low in calories and blissfully free of sodium and fat.

 

Some people even believe that aubergines - or eggplants as they are often called - can help prevent cancer and stop the growth of fatty deposits in the arteries. As far as taste goes, the flesh of the aubergine is brilliant at absorbing flavours, a kind of culinary sponge that easily soaks up garlic and spices. A versatile vegetable, it can be used in pasta sauces, salads, dips, stews and curries. It is also ideal for vegetarians who still miss the texture of meat, for it can provide a heavy fleshiness often missing from meatless meals. "Unfortuantely," says food writer Madhur Jaffrey, "oil is their natural partner - they turn satiny, attractively brown and positively sensous when stir - fried or, better still, deep - fried." The good news is that there are ways to stop them soaking up oil and plenty of oil-free cooking alternatives. They can be sliced and coated in salt or left to soak in salty water for between 30 and 40 minutes, methods that draws out some of their natural liquid and leaves them less sponge like. Or they can be grilled until they are lightly browned on both sides, roasted, poached or steamed. Today in many villages of South Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, aubergines are still roasted by burying them in hot ashes and removing them only when their skins are charred and their flesh has turned soft. In , Madhur Jaffrey even spotted a baker removing some from his bread oven. "Once the breads were done, the baker used the still heated oven to roast his own and his neighbour's vegetables," says Jaffrey in her book, Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. "An aubergine salad, the baker's fresh bread and some broad beans would probably be dinner for much of the village that night."

Jaffrey herself has been known to put hers in the fireplace of her country house while she reads or knits. Assuming you don't have your own woodfire, an electric or gas oven will do. Preheat the oven to 230 degrees celsius, 450 degrees fahrenheit or gas mark eight. Prick the aubergines with a fork to prevent them from splitting and splattering and lay them in a baking tray lined with foil. Turn every 15 minutes until they flatten and turn very soft inside.(450g or one pound of aubergines should take about an hour.) Grilling is even simpler. Cut in half length ways. Prick the skin side of each half and lay, flesh side down on a foil lined baking tray. Place under the grill and grill slowly. When one side is charred, turn over and grill until the flesh is also charred and the insides feel soft and collapsed. As far as recipes go, the world is quite literally your oyster, with the qubergine cropping up in everything from dips to miso soups or dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried.

BABA GHANOUSH

You can find variations of this dish throuhgout, and the Middle East. Serve it with pita bread as a snack or as a side dish to a main meal. You can also add yoghurt and serve as a dip with vegetable crudites.

1 large aubergine
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roast and peel the aubergine then scoop out the flesh into a bowl and mash until creamy (you can also use a blender or food processor) . Add the oil, lemon juice and garlic and stir. Season and serve.

MADHUR JAFFREY'S AUBERGINES WITH SPICY CHINESE PEANUT DRESSING
4 small Italian or Japanese aubergines, each weighing about 285g and 15cm long
4 tsp peanut butter
4 tsp soy sauce
4 tsp white vinegar
2 tsp Chinese Shao hsing wine or dry sherry (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4-1/2 tsp chilli paste with soya bean or garlic (available from most Chinese grocers)
1/2 tsp peeled and very finely chopped ginger
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves.
4 tsp finely diced fresh coriander stalks.

Quarter the aubergines lengthways, then cut into 7.5 cm segments. Steam over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender. Meanwhile combine all the other ingredients for the sauce, except the coriander leaves, in a ball and mix well. When the aubergines are tender, gently lift them out of the steamer and arrange them neatly in a single layer on a large platter. Stir the sauce. Add the coriander leaves to it and mix again. Pour the sauce evenly over the aubergines. Sprinkle the diced coriander stalks over the top. Serve at room temperature or chilled.