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Eggplant, or aubergine, used to be one of those foods I thought I should like, but every time I cooked it I just wondered what all the fuss was about.
It took years to come around, but I eventually discovered I was missing two things to make it sing.
Firstly, oil. Eggplant flesh is like a dry sponge and using a restrained amount of oil to pan fry or roast it is, much to my waistline’s disgust, not worth bothering with. If you aren’t liberal with your fat, the first one or two bits of aubergine the oil hits will suck up every last drop of the stuff, leaving all the other poor pieces to become dry, leathery and grey instead of browned and silky-textured, no matter how long you cook them for.
But. BUT. Here’s the second thing, which really changed my feelings about these giant purple orbs other people always seemed to get so excited about (I hope you know where we’re going with this by now):
Steam. Well, more accurately, combination steam ovens. Because it turns out eggplants + steam oven cooking = happiness*.
Some foods are just made for a steam oven, and eggplants are definitely one of those.
To take you back to the ‘dry sponge’ reference, cooking aubergines with steam means they never have a chance to become dried up and chewy, and renders the flesh soft, yielding and moist – almost creamy. It is definitely the best way I’ve ever found to cook them, and has the not-insignificant added bonus of needing far less fat than any other method requires to make them tasty.
Now I can slice or cube one, drizzle a relatively small quantity of olive oil over the top, throw on some kind of seasoning (maybe za’atar? Or baharat?) and put them in the steam oven on a hot combination steam setting (450⁰F/220⁰C). A handful of diced tomatoes or red peppers added in there won’t hurt either. Twenty minutes later I have a tray of fabulous vegetarian fare, ideal as a side dish at a barbecue or as the star of the show at dinner time with a fried egg laid over the top.
Or, if you want to appease the meat eaters as well, take a little extra time and make these gorgeous stuffed aubergines with lamb, lentils and feta cheese. Lamb, lentils and aubergines are the best of friends and every time I make these I wonder why I’ve left it so long to trot them out. A single half dressed with yoghurt and fresh mint leaves makes an excellent prep-ahead starter if you’re entertaining, though we more often have two each as a single course dinner.
If they’re in season and I can find them, I like to scatter a few pomegranate arils over the finished dish as it adds a sparkly jewel-like colour and slightly acidic fruity pop as you’re eating (ever wondered how to get all those little seeds out of the hard fruit? I like Jamie’s method, though I wouldn’t recommend you do it wearing a white shirt like he is! Ha).
Though the preparation might seem a bit finicky (twice-cooked aubergines, scooping flesh, pan frying, stuffing), none of it is difficult and you can make enough for 2 or 3 meals because they keep for a few days and reheat just as well as if you’d made them fresh. Even if (gasp) instead of using your steam oven, you reheat them in a microwave at work, should you want to do such a thing and make all your colleagues jealous of your bomb kitchen skills**. At any rate, I hope the preparation time won’t put you off, as they’re really worth the effort.
Happy steam oven cooking everyone, see you here again soon.
*Probably not a scientific formula, especially if you genuinely don’t like aubergines in any form.
**Though I do not have a regular workplace with a microwave, my husband does. And though his colleagues have long since figured out the bomb kitchen skills where his lunches are concerned may not actually be down to him, they are still jealous (maybe more so given he gets all the benefit with none of the cooking?!).
Stuffed Eggplant with Lentils, Lamb and Middle Eastern Spices
- 4 eggplants medium to large sized
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 onion medium, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1.1 lb lamb mince lean if you’re being particularly mindful, fattier if you aren't
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbs harissa paste optional but so good
- 1/2 cup tomato passata or puree, or 1 large tomato, finely diced
- 2 cans brown lentils 14oz/400g each, drained (or cook your own, see notes)
- ½ bunch mint leaves picked and shredded, plus a few extra leaves for garnishing
- 5 1/2 oz feta cheese crumbled
- 1 pomegranate seeds only, to serve, optional
- 6 tbs Greek yoghurt to serve, optional
- Set your oven to 400⁰F/200⁰C, combination steam setting. If your oven has variable steam settings, use 70-80%. If not, don't worry! Just set to combi steam at the correct temperature and the oven will figure out the humidity for you.
- Cut the aubergines in half lengthways and deeply score the flesh of each in a criss-cross pattern (be careful not to cut through to the bottom though). Put them cut side up onto a solid baking tray (I use both of my solid steam oven trays as fitting them all on one is usually impossible), and cook for 25 minutes – the flesh should be soft and collapsing. Turn your oven off for now.
- Let the aubergines cool slightly, then scoop the flesh into a bowl (taking care not to tear the skins, although you can always squash them together a bit later if that happenand set aside, leaving the skins in the trays.
- Heat a frypan over medium heat and add the oil and onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just starting to take on colour, then add the garlic, mince and spices. Cook, breaking up the mince for a couple of minutes, then add the harissa, tomato passata and reserved aubergine flesh. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes, mashing up any big pieces of aubergine with the back of your spoon, until the mince is cooked through. Stir in the lentils and shredded mint and remove from heat.
- Turn your oven back on to 180⁰C, combination steam setting. If your oven has variable steam settings, use 70-80% again.
- Fill the aubergine skins with the meat mixture, then sprinkle the feta over the top and cook to heat through and brown the cheese, about 20 minutes. Top with pomegranate seeds, if using, and a few extra mint leaves. Add a spoonful of Greek yoghurt and serve warm.
- If eggplants aren’t something you’re familiar with buying, look for ones which feel fairly light for their size, with taut, shiny skin. If they have wrinkles they’re too old (some might say the same about people but I prefer to think my fast-encroaching crow’s feet and the furrow line on my brow are signs of characterful ageing, and appreciate the same in others).
- In the interest of expediency, I used canned lentils for this dish. If you have the luxury of time and want to cook your own, they are easy to do in the steam oven. Just cover your lentils with double the quantity of water in one of your solid trays and steam at 100⁰C until they’re tender – anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes.
- Dried mint won’t cut it in place of the fresh here – if you must replace it with something I’d go with copious amounts of flat leaf parsley.
But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! You can make these in a regular oven, but you’ll need to liberally brush the scored aubergine flesh with olive oil before cooking them the first time, otherwise they’ll be spongy and squeaky instead of soft and collapsing. I’d add about 1/3 to 1/2 cup water to the filling before stuffing the skins as it will dry out a bit when you do the second cook. And, when you do the second cook, heat your oven to 200⁰C instead of 180⁰C.