I regard the aubergine – that great, glossy, globelike sex organ of the nightshade – with something akin to worship. I didn’t always feel this way, however. Growing up in pre-culinary revolution New York, I only ever encountered the aubergine in eggplant parmigiana, in Bronx Italian restaurants. There, sliced thin, breaded, fried, and concealed under masses of garlicky tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, the aubergine was flabby and insipid. Why order it when you could have pasta? Or clams casino? But the aubergine crept up on me. I first comprehended the Power of the Aubergine (American detractors, aubergine sounds soooo much better than eggplant) when I ate, and then started to make, ratatouille. Far from being a mere ‘vegetarian option,’ I realized, the aubergine had a meaty density and complexity all its own. It could be the backbone of a dish. Then at some point I had Szechwan style eggplant. In the spicy sauce, the dainty Asian eggplant – so much more tender and delicate than its brawny western cousin – became lasciviously silky and unctuous, its hot soft flesh exploding with chili and salt and garlic. Oh. My. God. I was hooked. I cook with aubergine a lot now. I do not fear it, I revere it. (And my eggplant parmigiana is a thing of beauty.)
In this dish, chunks of meaty aubergine are slowly caramelized with spices, then combined with tomatoes that have been roasted in a low oven until their flavour has become dense, rich, sweet and syrupy. Courgettes (zucchini, if you prefer) are added for texture, roasted peppers give a little extra sweetness, and the whole thing is combined with the lovely chickpea, one of the few legumes with the chutzpah to stand up to the aubergine. This dish is intensely, vibrantly tasty. There are three must-dos, however. (1) It’s a dish that requires slow-cooking. Don’t try to hurry it along, as these flavours need time to develop. (2) The vegetables need to be cooked separately before they’re combined at the end. This way they retain their individual character and (important!) texture. (3) Don’t be timid with the olive oil. In food, as in life, fat equals flavour.
For the tomatoes
About a kilo of medium-sized ripe juicy tomatoes, such as Italian plum or any other flavourful tomato
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Several sprigs fresh thyme and (optional) fresh rosemary
Coarse salt and pepper
For the tagine
2 medium aubergines
2 medium courgettes (zucchini)
5-6 small or 2 large sweet bell peppers (red, orange or yellow, whatever you fancy)
250-300 grams (about a pound or so) tomato confit (recipe follows)
3 large or 4-6 small cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
250 grams (about a pound) cooked and drained chickpeas (it’s fine to use tinned; if using dried, presoak 1/3 cup overnight, rinse, and cook for 2 – 2 and ½ hours or until tender)
1/3 – ½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon espelette pepper (I like the flavour of this pepper, but if you can’t find, you can substitute with ½ teaspoon crushed red chili pepper)
2-3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon caster sugar
Chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
For the tomato confit:
(I really can’t take credit for this method. Rather, it’s (barely) adapted, with thanks, from Thomas Keller‘s gorgeous Bouchon cookbook, one of my absolute faves.)
Preheat oven to 140 degrees Celsius (about 285 degrees Fahrenheit). Wash tomatoes and slice in half. (Thomas Keller also blanches off the skins; I rather like the texture and flavour of tomato skin in some dishes, particularly hearty rustic ones like this one.) Line a baking tray or roasting pan with foil and spread tomatoes in a single layer, cut side up. Sprinkle with thyme sprigs, coarse salt, and pepper, and roast, uncovered, for at least three and a half to four hours, or until tomatoes have reduced in bulk by half and are shriveled but not dry. Transfer to a bowl or container (with the olive oil from the pan) and set aside. You can do this step up to a few days in advance.
For the tagine:
Peel the aubergine leaving strips of skin on all sides (it’s prettier this way!), and slice into 1 cm rounds and then quarter these. Salt liberally with coarse salt, transfer to a strainer, and leave to drain for 30 minutes. Rinse off the salt and dry.
Roast the bell peppers under your grill (broiler) until blackened on all sides, and transfer to a cling-film covered bowl or paper bag to cool. Then peel, and cut or tear into coarse pieces.
Slice the courgettes into half moons 1 cm thick, and fry in about 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat until lightly browned and crisp-tender. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large clean pan, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat and then stir in the ground spices. Cook until they start to release an aroma, then stir in the garlic and cook for a further 1-2 minutes, or until garlic starts to soften. Add the aubergine and 1 teaspoon salt, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, until aubergines are a rich brown and completely tender, about 30-40 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes, courgettes, bell peppers, chickpeas and caster sugar (do so gently, to avoid breaking up the tomatoes), and simmer over low heat, covered, until chickpeas are heated through and flavours incorporate, about ten to fifteen minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.
Serve garnished with chopped parsley, with couscous or warmed flatbreads.
Serves 6-8 as a main dish.