The Mediterraneans know how to do vegetables. Of course, they have an unfair advantage, with months of sunshine feeding them as they grow, making their produce sweeter, larger, shinier, more colourful – basically, just better – than anything we can grow at home.
Aubergines are always the ones that catch my eye; plump, purple, and piled up high on a market stall, they put our tiny under-ripe vegetables to shame.
I had the idea for this recipe while strolling round a Sicilian food market. I’d been looking for a good recipe for stuffed aubergines for a while, so even battling through a throng of hungry market-goers, my aubergine-radar must have been on high alert. Bubbling away behind the glass of a hot food counter sat a tray of roasted aubergine halves, over-filled with vibrant tomato sauce and dribbling mozzarella.
By that point the cheese wasn’t the only thing that was dribbling.
The first time I made them for myself I made a couple of critical errors; the sauce leaked and my aubergines were paddling in a pool of thin tomato water at the bottom of the baking tray. The trick is to reduce the sauce until it’s rich and thick – almost sticking to the bottom of the pan – which will make the flavours bolder. Also, find the best quality mozzarella to provide a creamy contrast to the tomatoes, rather than just a bland stringy top.
Since vegetables don’t transport in suitcases particularly well, I’ve had to make do with our thoroughly British produce. Nevertheless, I’ve found that roasting the vegetables, using good olive oil, and adding plenty of fresh basil brings a small amount of Mediterranean sunshine to a grey London day.
1 box cherry tomatoes on the vine
1 clove garlic
400g chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 ball mozzarella
- Preheat the oven to 180C / Gas Mark 4. Cut both aubergines in half lengthways (leaving the stalk on top intact). Place each half on a baking tray, with the flesh facing upwards.
- Using a sharp knife, slice around the flesh of each half, leaving about half a centimetre inside the skin, and being careful not to cut through the skin on the bottom. Score the flesh diagonally both ways, then pull out the cubes of flesh – it should peel away quite easily. Set these cubes aside on a separate baking tray. Add 2 – 3 vines of tomatoes to this tray and rub olive oil into all the vegetables liberally.
- Drizzle your aubergine shells with more olive oil and season. Put both trays into the oven for 15 – 20 mins. Watch the aubergines closely to make sure they don’t burn – catch them as they’re just starting to brown.
- Meanwhile, dice your onion and soften in a saucepan with some olive oil. Crush the garlic and add it to the pan. Cook for 1 – 2 minutes and then add your chopped tomatoes and tomato puree and cook on a medium heat.
- When the vegetables in the oven have finished cooking, take them out and set the aubergine shells aside. Add the diced aubergine to the tomato sauce and carefully pull the tomatoes off the vine and also add to the pan.
- Give the sauce a good stir to break up the roasted tomatoes. Tear some fresh basil and add to the sauce, along with the dried oregano. Season well and turn up the heat until the sauce is bubbling. Reduce until you have a very thick sauce – if it’s too watery, your aubergines will leak later.
- When the sauce is ready, spoon it evenly between your four aubergine shells on their baking tray. Tear chunks of mozzarella and place them all over each aubergine. Finally, tear some more basil leaves and scatter them over the aubergines.
- Place in the oven and cook for 20 mins, until the mozzarella is melted and bubbling.