Everything you really should know about ... eggplant
Well-travelled … chef Christine Manfield with an aubergine. Photo: Marco Del Grande
The owner of Sydney's two-hat Universal Restaurant, Christine Manfield, is a self-described perfectionist, an avid gastronomic traveller and an author whose award-winning books have spiced up the lives of keen cooks throughout the world.
Need to know
Eggplant, also known as aubergine, is a member of the nightshade family and is related to the potato and tomato. Though commonly considered a vegetable, eggplant is actually a fruit. It is a common staple of Asian, Indian, Middle-Eastern and European cuisines. ''Few ingredients have reached the level of veneration achieved by the humble aubergine,'' Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write in the cookbook Jerusalem, ''or have found their way to almost every table … for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everybody loves to be associated with the aubergine - it's like a little local celebrity.''
''I first discovered eggplant in Asian cooking decades ago when it was added to stir-fries, salads, preserves and curries, and also in Italian and Mediterranean food,'' Manfield says. ''Then my love affair with India began, as I explored its heady cuisine and broad use of eggplant, whether it's in a pickle or achar, added to a yoghurt relish, cooked in a curry gravy or smoked over coals and seasoned with cumin and chilli. The first dish I cooked for my partner in 1978 was eggplant moussaka. Love at first bite!
''It is impossible to visit the Middle East or Africa, even vicariously, without eating eggplant, from the seductive taste of smoky eggplant dips to salads. I have always been attracted to the universal appeal and diversity of eggplant, and my cooking would be the poorer for not using it. Thinking of eggplant can take you on a culinary tour of the world: visit Lebanon and the Middle East with babaghannouj; jump across to North Africa for aubergine chakchouka; go to Greece for some divine moussaka; dip into France for ratatouille; Italy for caponata, a gorgeous sweet and sour eggplant preparation; the classic Imam Bayildi of Turkey, where the eggplants are stuffed and baked; fly across to India for myriad brinjal pickles and preserves; journey to China or Vietnam for velvety steamed eggplant spiked with fresh ginger; to Thailand for assorted exotic tasting curries using the sour pea aubergines; then head back home for any of these and then some fabulous grilled or barbecued eggplant slices drizzled with fruity olive oil, a splash of aged balsamic vinegar and loads of chopped fresh basil leaves, or else some eggplant fritters dipped in grated parmesan and lightly spiced with roasted cumin seeds.''
''Eggplant's flesh so readily absorbs flavours: it can be steamed, fried, grilled, braised, deep-fried, baked, smoked and stuffed,'' Manfield says. ''It comes in myriad shapes and sizes, is brought to life with spice, has a most seductive appeal and yields a silken texture when cooked.''
Choose firm, smooth, heavy fruit and avoid soft brown spots or wrinkly skin, she says. They become bitter with age so use within a few days of purchase, and store in a cool, dry place. As they are porous, when frying in slices or chunks, lightly salt the cut eggplant and leave in a colander over a bowl for half an hour to draw out excess liquid so less hot oil will be absorbed. ''Whole eggplants can be cooked over direct flame on a gas burner or over hot coals until the skin has blackened and texture becomes soft with cooking,'' she says. ''Peel off the charred skin before using.''
Christine Manfield's harissa eggplant
2 large (600g) eggplants
100ml extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
1 small red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1 tsp ras el hanout
75ml lemon juice
3 tbsp Christine Manfield harissa (or any other brand of this hot pepper paste)
2 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded coriander leaves
1. Cut eggplants in half lengthwise, then into 2-centimetre thick slices crosswise.
2. Heat grill plate, brush eggplant slices with oil, reserving 40 millilitres for later, and grill eggplant for a minute each side.
3. Heat remaining oil in frying pan and fry garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin and ras el hanout for a minute until fragrant.
4. Add honey, lemon juice and harissa and simmer for 2 minutes, until mixture is slightly reduced.
5. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the eggplant slices and toss to coat well. Put the pan in the oven and bake for 3-4 minutes.
6. Stir through the shredded coriander and serve.