The Joy of Burnt Vegetables

Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s

It’s interesting how the taste of smoke can be so delicious. Indeed, I believe that it comes after umami as the sixth taste. I mean, it’s not sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savoury. It’s smoky. It’s a taste unlike others.

With smoke in mind, let me share with you what I have learned on my quest for proper baba ghanoush – and there have been detours into the realms of other such purées along the way – the Middle Eastern dish that starts with the immolation of aubergines.

Baba ghanoush I gather is a crude rendering of an Arabic phrase and it has been around for a very long time in what used to be called the Levant. Levantine cuisine seems to be centred, geographically, on Syria.

The recipe upon which I finally decided is born of a long perusal of books by Claudia Roden, Elizabeth Luard and Arabella Boxer; and of much experimenting.

The first thing that I learned, in practical terms, is that there is little point in sticking your aubergine in the oven and roasting it. Yes, this will produce flesh of the correct consistency and texture (sometimes, perhaps, a little too wet) but without actual incineration and charring, there will be no sense of smoke.

No smoke without fire. Literally.

So, at worst, you have to char your aubergine as much as possible over a gas flame and then finish the cooking process in the oven. At best, you use a very hot barbecue; and, believe me, this is how you get a proper tang of smoke.

I suppose it’s possible to use a gas-fired barbecue, one of those things that rely on lava rock to imitate the effect of charcoal, but they simply don’t get hot enough for optimum effect.

I use lumpwood charcoal and throw on the aubergine as the flames are dying down and there is a fierce heat. Not straight on to the coals, of course; on to the grill above. It may seem like a sacrifice, as if you’re making a burnt offering to the culinary gods, but fear not. Aubergines contain a great deal of water and it takes a lot of effort to turn them into carbon (but it can be done if you wander off and get distracted).

I turn the shrivelling aubergine a few times until the skin is blackened (hard to know, I’ll admit, given the colour of the average aubergine) and blistered and the whole thing has kind of slumped. It’s then removed and allowed to cool, sometimes overnight if I’m really organised.

I peel away the burnt skin and reveal the inside flesh which, after this treatment, is brownish. At this stage we can proceed to make the baba ghanoush. The following recipe produces enough for three or four people to eat as a starter with grilled pitta bread.

Baba Ghanoush

The flesh of 1 large aubergine, roasted and peeled, about 230g
35g garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp tahini
100ml lemon juice
½ tsp sea salt
1 tsp cumin, roasted briefly on a pan, then ground finely
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp paprika

Baba ghanoush

Put the aubergine flesh into a blender and pulse a few times until it becomes a mush. Add the garlic and pulse again until incorporated. Add the tahini (a messy business as it will stick like a limpet to the spoon), the lemon juice, cumin and the salt and blend until smooth.

Turn out the purée into a shallow dish. Mix the olive oil with the paprika and drizzle over the baba ghanoush. It’s really that simple.

The olive oil and the paprika add a bit of flavour (it’s worth using a strongly flavoured oil) but their real benefit is the addition of a little colour to what is, with the best will in the world, a very beige dish. I owe this trick to Elizabeth Luard and her recipe for the Lebanese version, muttabel, in her book, Sunshine and Saffron (Bantam, 2000).

 

The other culinary incineration that I regularly practice over scorchingly hot charcoal involves red peppers, the long, pointy sorts that can turn to carbon quite quickly.

The trick here is to put them on a barbecue that is so hot the skin blackens and shrinks from the flesh in a minute or two. Keep turning them so as to ensure an even effect and when each pepper is completely black (or pretty close to it), pop them into a bowl and cover with clingfilm.

At this stage your peppers, being mainly water, will be around the same temperature as molten lava. Okay, maybe not, but they will feel that way if you attempt to handle them. Have patience. Leave them for an hour or so and return to them when they are simply warm.

At this stage removing the carbonised skin is pretty easy; just scrape it off, in as a large pieces as you can, with a knife.

I won’t try to deceive you. This is a messy business and probably not for the fastidious. But focus on the flavour. And don’t follow the advice you get in some cookbooks to run the peppers under the cold tap. Are you mad? That’s how you wash away over half the flavour.

What you do now is up to you. Most people remove the seeds at this stage but there are those who like to leave them in. Usually, I serve the peppers just as they are and sprinkle a little sea salt on them. I have been known to anoint them with olive oil and some finely chopped garlic but this feels like gilding the lily to be honest.

Such peppers have some notable affinities, I notice. They are very happy with fresh goat’s cheese and with pink lamb. And they are not half bad with baba ghanoush if you can cope with the idea of an orgy of smoke on your palate.

I have been known to purée them and mix with an equal quantity of grated Parmesan. This makes an excellent stuffing for courgette flowers, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried.