I was walking around the garden trying to decide on a recipe for this month. My first thought was the quinoa, which we have harvested and have stretched out to dry in the tunnel. Then of course there is also an inviting collection of pumpkins, which we’ll be eating for most of the winter. But when I walked into the tunnel and saw our mighty crop of aubergines it became obvious that this was the vegetable of the moment. We grew three different varieties of aubergines this year. Long mauve Thai ones, long skinny dark purple Chinese ones and chunky stripy Spanish ones and they are all ready to eat.
One of my first culinary adventures was to make a moussaka in a domestic science class at school. It’s a Greek dish that uses minced lamb and aubergines. I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing but was I was curious, it sounded so exotic.
My mum scoured the town for aubergines, which were relatively uncommon at that time, and I carted all the ingredients into school on a bus. The instructions must have said something like ‘fry the aubergine in oil’ which I followed to a T, pouring in more oil as the aubergine drank it up like a sponge. The resulting dish was quite disgusting and nobody wanted to eat it.
I have since learnt to salt the aubergines, not so much to eliminate any bitterness, but to slow down the oil absorption. And for a dish like moussaka I now brush the aubergines with oil and roast them in the oven rather than fry them in the pan..
Aubergines cooked this way have a wonderful velvety ‘meatiness’ which paired with Puy lentils makes a great vegetarian dish.
Puy lentils are King in the lentil world. – also known as the caviar of lentils. They are grown in the sunny volcanic region of Auvergne in France and are protected with a designation of origin status (AOC).
They are more expensive than the other lentils but the beauty of these little blue/green gems is that they hold their shape when cooked.
Saying that, do cook them carefully. They don’t require any soaking and will take about twenty minutes. I start checking just before the twenty minute mark – just pop one in your mouth and if it’s tender they are done..
125g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 sticks celery
2 cans tomatoes
fresh basil or oregano
75g grated parmesan
Put the lentils into a pan and cover them with water, add the bay leaf. and bring to the boil. Turn down to simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 20 mins, until the lentils are tender. Drain off any remaining liquid and discard the bay leaf.
Slice the aubergines lengthwise , not too skinny as they’ll shrink slightly whilst cooking – a little less than a centimetre thick. Sprinkle with a little salt and leave them to sweat for about half an hour
Pre heat the oven to 180c.
Dab the liquid that will have accumulated on the aubergines with kitchen paper or a clean t-towel to dry them off.
Oil a large oven tray. Slice the aubergines lengthwise and lay on the tray. Brush the tops of the aubergines with olive oil.
Bake in the oven for about 15=20 mins. The aubergines should be soft but not crispy.
Peel and chop the onion, chop the celery and sautee together in a little olive oil When they are soft and translucent add the chopped garlic and cook for a couple of minutes longer then add the tomatoes and cook for about 30 mins. Stir in the drained lentils and season with salt and pepper. Add the chopped basil or oregano.
In a bowl mash the ricotta together with the eggs then beat in the cream. Stir in the grated Parmesan and season.
To assemble the moussaka pour 1/3rd of the tomato lentil mix into an oven proof dish. Cover with a layer of aubergines then 1/3rd more of the tomato lentil mix, another layer of aubergines and then the remaining lentil mix. Pour the egg mix over and bake in the oven for approx 25 mins, until the topping has risen and is golden.
Feeds 6 hungry people