Rosemary and basil aubergines in za'atar
One of the books I'm most enjoying at the moment is Mark Diacono's Herb which is perfectly suited to a man who is a great gardener as well as a cook (and the most engaging writer as well as taking all his own photographs. Sickening, really!)
This recipe is for one of my favourite ingredients, aubergines, and is wonderfully simple.
Mark writes: This is my favourite way with aubergines, and one that shows how they take beautifully to so many herbs. The oregano in the za’atar and the rosemary lend flavour to the cooking aubergines, while the fresh basil scattered to serve completes the picture. Adding the rosemary for the last few minutes aromatizes the aubergines;
I know ‘aromatize’ sounds like the sort of unwelcome thing a garage unexpectedly does to your car when you’ve taken it for an MOT, but I promise it is the best word for it. It is as if resinous smoke has been blown through every pore of the aubergine, without a trace of the bitterness that comes with roasting rosemary sprigs until they resemble the skeletons of sparrows’ legs.
Try this with roast lamb, griddled courgettes, couscous and pretty much any cold cuts.
Rosemary and basil aubergines in za'atar
4 aubergines (eggplant), quartered lengthways
4 tbsp olive oil
a few good sprigs of rosemary, broken into 3cm (1in) pieces
4 tbsp za’atar (see below)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing
50g (2oz) tahini
1 tbsp yoghurt
juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
hot sauce or chilli flakes
handful of Greek basil leaves, or other basil finely shredded
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
Lay the aubergine quarters in a single layer on baking sheets, brush with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, turn the heat down to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4, and cook for 20–25 minutes until tender and brown.
Make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients together with 2 tablespoons water; use a little more water if required, to reach a consistency of double (heavy) cream.
Mix the rosemary, za’atar and a heavy grinding of pepper in a bowl. Remove the aubergines from the oven, top with the za’atar mix, drizzle with more oil and return to the oven for 5 minutes.
Drizzle with the tahini dressing, pomegranate molasses, hot sauce or chilli flakes and scatter with basil.
Depending on your threshold for authenticity, you may be frustrated in searching for the one true herb at the heart of za’atar. Hyssop, wild oregano and savory are among the prime suspects; all create a wonderful version of this classic blend. I usually go with the lightly citrus zing of Mexican oregano in summer, and hyssop or winter savory in the colder months. As with chaat masala, once you start making and using this, you’ll find yourself sprinkling it on everything from oily flatbreads to eggs on toast.
Makes a small jarful
3 tbsp sesame seeds
1½ tbsp ground cumin
2 tbsp sumac
2 tbsp dried Mexican oregano, dried marjoram, oregano, savory or hyssop
1 tbsp salt
Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a pan over a medium heat, shuffling them around a bit to ensure they don’t turn too dark. Combine all the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle, as much as anything to encourage the flavours and scents to be released as they mix.
Store in a sealed jar, where it will keep for a few months, losing intensity over time.
What to drink: I'd be marginally inclined to go for a bright, fruity red like a young syrah or grenache with this but a herby Italian white like a verdicchio or a vernaccia or even an orange wine would work too. Or a strong dry rosé. Probably in the natural wine spectrum.
Extracted from Herb by Mark Diacono (Quadrille, £26). You can read more about Mark - and indeed buy herbs from him - on his website Otter Farm.
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