Aubergine – known as eggplant here in the US – is just one of those vegetables (strictly a fruit) that I don’t often cook with. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s also the case that almost every time I do, it ends up in a ratatouille. So, having picked-up some great aubergine at the market this week, I decided that it was time to be a little more adventurous.
One of the characteristic things about aubergine is the texture of its flesh, which soaks up moisture from whatever it’s being cooked with – from olive oil to tomato juice. This not only has a direct effect on taste, it also makes well-cooked aubergine meltingly soft, rich and silky. When included in stews and curries, its shiny dark purple skin is often removed, allowing it to relax down into the dish. Other recipes make the most of this relatively thick, strong outer layer, and aubergines are commonly halved, stuffed and baked. They can also be sliced, grilled or roasted and then filled and rolled.
Some sources and recipes recommend that aubergines are salted prior to use – primarily to draw out any bitter juices – although this is certainly not considered to be mandatory, not least because a tendency towards bitterness seems to have been largely been bred out of modern varieties. However, this does also help to reduce the amount of oil (or other fat) an aubergine absorbs during cooking, so it’s probably worthwhile considering your cooking method before deciding whether you’re going to do this (I didn’t – and actually never do – salt my aubergine).
Drawing inspiration from several sources – and relying on what I had in my fridge and cupboards – I came up with the following recipe, which was bursting with both flavour and colour. It includes several of the ingredients considered to go particularly well with aubergine (olive oil, garlic, tomato, onion, mint), and the halloumi works really well with the other Mediterranean influences here.
Accompanied by a fresh salad these parcels make a great appetizer or light lunch. Alternatively, they can be served as a main dish together with some pasta (orzo works really well) topped with more of the tomato sauce.
Recipe: Aubergine, Halloumi and Spinach Parcels
2 medium aubergines (eggplant)
Juice of 1 lime
A handful of spinach leaves
1 batch of tomato sauce (see recipe above)
A tbsp of fresh mint leaves, chopped (optional)
Serves 2-3 people as a main dish
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4. Cut a slice from each side of both aubergines, then cut the rest into long slices about ¼ inch thick. Brush them lightly on both sides with olive oil and roast them on a baking tray for 10-15 minutes until cooked through and lightly coloured. You’re aiming for 8 slices altogether, but make a couple of extra to allow for any that break when you’re making the parcels.
Cut the halloumi into 8 slices. Heat a griddle (or frying) pan over a medium heat and gently fry the halloumi for about 5 minutes on each side until lightly golden brown. Squeeze the lime juice over the cooked halloumi.
Place the aubergines with the best-looking sides down, and spread a thin layer of the tomato sauce on each. Put a piece of halloumi in the centre of each aubergine slice, cover it with spinach and fold over the top and bottom of the aubergine slice to form a tight parcel. Place the aubergine parcels, folded-side down, on a roasting tray lined with baking parchment and bake for 5 minutes, until they are heated through.
Sprinkle some chopped fresh mint over the parcels before serving (optional – but lovely).
For the tomato sauce:
1 onion, diced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 small glass of white wine
1 (14 oz) can of chopped tomatoes
Salt to taste
This makes enough sauce for the eight aubergine parcels, as well as an accompaniment for pasta if you’re serving as a main course.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, bay leaf, oregano and garlic, and cook until the onions are soft – about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, then add the white wine and allow it to simmer for a further 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and stir until the sauce comes back to the boil. Lower the heat and allow the sauce to simmer for 1 hour, stirring every few minutes.
Taste and season with salt, if desired. Remove the bay leaf.