A happy marriage between a spicy Turkish Imam Bayildi and a Provençal ratatouille, this deep-flavoured vegetable dish sings with intense, sunny flavours, and is just as good cold as it is pleasantly warm. I meant to add parsley when I made this the first time but, having none to hand, used instead a handful of the fresh mint that flourishes beneath my garden tap. I was instantly smitten by the combination of aubergine [eggplant], feta cheese, tomato and perky little mint leaves. Mint is a such an undervalued herb, I think, especially in savoury dishes.
Serve with plenty of good, fruity olive oil, and tearings of crusty bread for soaking up the tomatoey juices. You can use quartered big tomatoes in this dish - if they are very red, ripe and tasty - but I love the way that intensely flavoured cherry tomatoes stay almost whole in the sauce, and surprise your tongue with little bursts of acidy sweetness.
This dish improves upon standing. Cover it with clingfilm, and leave it at room temperature overnight. If you're serving it right away, allow it to cool for ten to fifteen minutes so that it's pleasantly warm.
If you'd like to turn this into a sustaining meal, add a tin of drained chickpeas to the mixture before you put it in the oven for the second time. And if you'd like a bit of crunch, sprinkle with a few handfuls of toasted pine nuts.
It's not strictly necessary to degorge the brinjals before you bake them (today's modern varieties are not as bitter as the brinjals yesteryear) but I have found that this process helps to prevent the slices from absorbing too much oil. Choose firm, tight-skinned brinjals with a dark glossy skin, and not too big.
Baked Aubergines with Tomato, Scorched Red Pepper, Feta and Fresh Mint
3 large aubergines [eggplants]
2 tsp (10 ml) fine salt
2 large ripe red peppers [capsicums], sliced
4 T (60 ml) olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
a large pinch of salt
750 g small, ripe cherry tomatoes (about 5 cups)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped or grated
2 tsp (10 ml) ground cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) red chilli flakes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 ml) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) water or stock
2 T (30 ml) tomato paste
salt and freshly milled black pepper
a cup (250 ml) of crumbled feta cheese
a handful of chopped fresh mint
an extra dusting of cumin
toasted pine nuts [optional]
Heat the oven to 190ºC. Top and tail the aubergines. Cut them in half, lengthways, and then cut each half, lengthways again, into four 'wedges'. Now cut each wedge in half crossways so that you have finger-sized pieces that are roughly equal in size. Place the pieces in a large colander, in layers, and sprinkle with salt. Weigh down with a plate and allow to degorge for 20 minutes.
Start on the tomato sauce in the meantime (see below).
Rinse the aubergine slices under running water to remove excess salt, and pat dry on a tea towel. Arrange the pieces in a deep ceramic dish or roasting tray, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and, using your hands, toss well to coat. Place in the hot oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown and just soft.
Put a large frying pan (a wok is ideal) over a high flame. When the pan is very hot, add the red pepper pieces (but no oil). Cook, tossing all the time, for three to five minutes, or until the pieces are beginning to scorch in places to form small burned 'freckles'. Pour 2 T (30 ml) of the olive oil into the wok, turn down the heat to medium and add the chopped onion and a pinch of salt. Cook for a few minutes, or until the onion has slightly softened, then add the whole cherry tomatoes, garlic, cumin, chilli flakes, bay leaves and sugar. Turn down the heat to low and cook gently for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now, using a potato masher, gently squash the cherry tomatoes so that they burst and release their juices. Add the water (or stock) and tomato paste, and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Simmer the sauce for half an hour, or until it has reduced and thickened slightly. Stir the sauce now and then to prevent it sticking on the bottom and add a little extra water or stock if it looks as if it's drying out. Turn the heat off under the sauce while you wait for the aubergines to finish cooking.
Remove the aubergines from the oven after 45 minutes and tip the sauce all over them, shaking gently so that each slice is coated. Return to the oven and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the aubergine slices are very soft, but still holding together.
Allow the dish to cool for 10 minutes. Crumble the feta cheese over the top and strew with freshly chopped mint. Drizzle with a little extra olive oil and dust with a little cumin (no more than a teaspoon).
Serve warm, or cold, with crusty bread.
Serves 8 as a starter or side dish.