Aubergine and tomato salad

Our good friends Clare Whitmell and Caimin Jones came over for supper last night and Clare asked me to post this recipe; it was so good that Caimin, who doesn’t usually like aubergine, had second helpings.

It is an adaptation of a recipe that appears in Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Cuisine: she specifies coriander leaf, which is impossible to find in rural Italy, and paprika. I only have smoked paprika in the larder and it wasn’t an optimal pairing with the cumin when I first cooked this dish, so last night I substituted fresh thyme. It works. The key, though, is the quality of your vegetables: make sure you have the plumpest, heaviest aubergines and the juiciest, ripest, preferably home grown tomatoes.

I used a large frying pan to fry the vegetables in batches, transferring them to a casserole as they browned. There is no scientific basis for this (other than I didn’t want to steam the aubergine) and if you can think of a more efficient, uses-only-one-pan approach, do it! Like dust off that tagine lurking at the back of your cupboard. In the absence of one, I think a heavy bottom, well-seasoned cast iron casserole is important for this dish as no extra liquid is added; the vegetables stew in their own juices.

Serves 4 – 6 people as a side dish

Olive oil for frying

2 aubergines, about 500g each, 2cm dice

¼ tsp cayenne pepper

5 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 tsp cumin seed

1tsp rock salt

3 garlic cloves

1tsp fresh thyme leaves, approx 4 twigs stripped

Heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large non stick frying pan over a medium to high heat. Add half the aubergine cubes and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until the cubes have coloured and turned slightly soft. Scrape into a cast iron casserole dish, and then repeat this step with the remaining aubergine. Sprinkle over the cayenne.

Crush the sea salt, cumin seed and garlic together with a pestle and mortar. Actually, I use something called a chobbit that I bought in Jakarta many years ago. It is similar to a pestle and mortar but the heavy stone mortar and angled pestle make it ideal for creating pastes.

Add a little more oil to the frying pan followed by the garlic paste and tomatoes. Fry the tomatoes for a couple of minutes so it starts to look like a chunky salsa and then stir this into the aubergine along with the thyme.

Now cook the mixture over a very low heat and remember to stir it regularly, taking care to scrape the bottom of the pan – it will stick and burn if you don’t. The vegetables will eventually turn to a kind of mush and the tomatoes almost become indistinguishable. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes.

Leave the salad to cool to room temperature.

I served this with cold roast beef and a zucchini salad. I used the round pale green type of zucchini: slice 5 thinly and brush the slices with a little oil before dry-frying or grilling them so they catch a caramel colour but don’t burn. Arrange them on a plate. I then dribbled over more oil and squeezed the juice of half a sweet or Amalfi lemon – lime juice could be a good substitute – before scattered marjoram leaves over everything. Very simple and very good.