tl;dr version: Roast two aubergines (egg plants), one red pepper and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Blend or chop to a coarse sauce. Gently fry garlic and another handful of cherry tomatoes then add sauce. Add herbs (and chili, if you like), season, serve.
I bloody love aubergines, it turns out, and I wanted to come up with some more ways to prepare them. The idea for this dish popped into my mind on my way to the supermarket – I don’t imagine it hasn’t been done before, but it’s original inasmuch as I thought of it without outside help – and I was astonished by how good and satisfying it is. I love when cooking is almost alchemical, when you put together a few simple ingredients in apparently unremarkable ways yet produce something complex and wonderful.
What’s more it’s cheap, easy, tasty and healthy*. That liar’s asterisk, as I like to call it, is because it’s only healthy by some measures. Actually, there’s a lot of olive oil, more salt than is wise, and a lot of burnt stuff in here, but on the other hand, it’s a great way of getting towards your 5-a-day, and it’s classic ‘Mediterranean diet’ stuff.
Here, basically, is the stuff you need to buy. I’m going to assume you already have oil (ideally a cheap extra virgin olive oil and a light olive oil, but no worries if not), salt, pepper, some dried herbs and some pasta – or some other staple you want to serve this alongside.
And here’s how you make it:
- Cover two baking trays with foil; use trays with lips, as there will be some olive oil sloshing around as you take the hot trays out of the oven. Put half the cherry tomatoes one one (put them with the dimple where the stalk was pointing down and they’ll roll around less) along with the roughly chunked red pepper. Slice the aubergine into thick slices – don’t worry about getting them all the same thickness. Arrange on the other baking tray.
- This is the step where we add most of the unhealthiness. Get your cheap extra virgin olive oil – I think you do need the robustness of the extra virgin’s flavour – and generously glug it over everything. Next be generous with salt – it will help pull out the moisture from these vegetables so that they roast up beautifully – and finally add plenty of pepper.
- Put your trays in the oven to roast. One of the joys of this dish is that this step can take pretty much as long as you need it. You can do a long, slow roast at 150° C/300° F/gas mark 2 to really bring out the sweetness, or blast the lot at 240°/475°/9 for just a few minutes if you’re pushed for time. I tend to give it a quarter of an hour or so at 200°/400°/6 and then whack the oven to full and just keep an eye on it; you basically want to get some nice charring on everything but not end up with a carbonised mess.
- Put all the roasted vegetables into a blender and blend to a coarse sauce. You might need to add a little water to stop the whole thing seizing. If you don’t have a blender, let everything cool a little so you can handle it, then chop with a knife.
- If you’re serving this with pasta, now’s the time to put your pan of water on to boil, and just make the pasta as usual alongside the sauce as soon as the water is boiling.
- In a saucepan, add some light olive oil, bring to a medium-low heat, then add the remaining cherry tomatoes and two or three (or four…) cloves of minced garlic. Pay attention; you mustn’t let the garlic burn, but it should also have a chance to fry rather than just boiling in the liquid from the cherry tomatoes. So, if the garlic looks like it’s browning, turn the heat down and maybe even smush a couple of the tomatoes down so there’s some liquid in the pan to retard the frying process, but if the tomatoes are in danger of breaking down yet the garlic has barely been in the oil, turn the heat up to give it a quick blast of frying before returning it to a medium heat.
- Juuust as the garlic is starting to colour, pour the sauce from the blender into the saucepan. You might next need to slosh some more water into the blender and give it another whizz to help clear the thick sauce out of it, but that’s okay because the whole sauce might need a little watering down in a moment anyway.
- Add some dried herbs – a generous pinch of oregano and a little less of rosemary, perhaps, but it’s up to you – as many dried chili flakes as you like (which could be ‘zero’), and more seasoning but only if it needs it. Now just cook gently till the whole cherry tomatoes you added in step five start to break down. You can add some liquid if you think the sauce is too thick; it’s packed with enough flavour that I just usually use water, but you could use wine (white, probably) or a light vegetable stock.
This serves four generously, and to be honest could stretch to six or even more without anyone feeling particularly hard done to. If you’re cooking for fewer, reduce the number of ingredients (though try to keep the proportions the same) or just put some sauce aside in the fridge to have the next night. It’s so good I’m happy to have it for a few meals running, but it’s a versatile sauce that you can do lots with to give repeat meals some variety. Here are some ideas:
- Form leftover risotto into balls with this sauce stuffed inside, coat them in panko breadcrumbs (dust the risotto balls with flour then egg then panko) and shallow-fry for some spectacular arancini.
- Use it to top breaded chicken; a great way to add vegetables and flavour to, and to dress up some bland, shop-bought breaded chicken.
- Get some fresh lasagne sheets then roll this sauce up inside them, adding some crumbled ricotta. Pour some passata over the top, then top with béchamel and parmesan. Bake.
- If you are or are cooking for a committed carnivore, then adding some smoked sausage is delicious here, and still pretty cheap. Plus since you’re only heating it through, you can just chuck it in in the last step.
- Or just freeze it – it freezes well. When defrosting and reheating it may seem to have gone extra-thick, but it should relax as you heat it gently; you can always add yet another a splash of water.