Couscous-crusted aubergine, pan-fried, with an almond, chilli and scallion filling, sweet pepper concasse and spinach with chickpeas, lemon and cumin

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This is the big aubergine dish on the summer menu as I write. There’s always a striking aubergine dish and they’re usually successful, but this one takes the biscuit. If poor Tamzin has to trim and roast one more aubergine we’ll lose her... oops, there she goes. I was very tempted to try and make up a new version of this recipe to disguise the fact that it gets its inside colour and a special part of its flavour from sambal oelek, a commercial Indonesian chilli sauce and one of my favourite tastes. But here, opposite, is the truth of the matter. If you can, try a few different brands, they have varying chilli-heat levels and other flavours. I have a preference for one with a distinctly sweet and medium-hot taste, and that is what this aubergine dish should have. The chilli shouldn’t mask the other subtler flavours of the almonds, the scallions or the aubergine itself.

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Ingredients

  • 4 medium aubergines
  • 4 scallions
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • a little olive oil
  • 80 g cream cheese
  • 100 g whole almonds, lightly toasted and finely chopped
  • 2 tsps sambal oelek
  • 1 tblspn chermoula
  • 300 g cooked couscous
  • 50 g flour
  • 1 egg
  • 100 mls milk
  • 2 yellow peppers
  • 2 tomatoes, seeded
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • approx. 100 mls olive oil
  • 4 large handfuls of spinach
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • rind and juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 tsps cumin seeds
  • 4 tblspns of cooked chickpeas

Method

TRIM THE AUBERGINES by cutting thin slices lengthways off opposite sides. Now cut the remaining piece of aubergine in two. If the aubergines are fat, you may get three slices from each one - each slice should be about 15mm thick. Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil and roast at about 350°F (Gas Mark 4) in an oven until lightly browned and cooked through.

Meanwhile, chop the scallions into thin rings and fry them with the garlic in a little olive oil for half a minute, no more. Mash the cream cheese, by hand or in a food processor, then stir in the almonds, scallions and the sambal oelek - it should have a thick, spreadable consistency. Spread a generous layer on an aubergine slice, put a matching slice on top, and repeat with the rest of the aubergine slices.

Stir the chermoula into the couscous and put it in a wide dish. Coat the filled aubergines by tossing them in flour, dunking them in the egg-milk mix and, finally, tossing them in the couscous. Make sure they are well coated. If you have time, put the finished aubergines in the fridge for a little while to firm up again.

Chop the peppers and tomato into small dice, finely chop the onion and garlic, and put the lot in a small pan. Add seasoning and enough olive oil to just come up to the top. If your peppers are merely yellow and not summer-sweet, add a large pinch of sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Place the pan over a very low heat and allow to heat through slowly for about ten minutes - it’s best if the vegetables cook a little while the oil never quite boils.

Prepare the ingredients for the spinach before you start to fry the aubergines. Tear the leaves into pieces. Put the rind and juice of the lemon in a jug and add an equal quantity of water.

Fry the aubergines at a fairly high temperature, in enough cooking oil to come halfway up their sides, turning them once or twice, until they are crisped and lightly browned. Keep them warm in the oven while you cook the spinach. Heat some olive oil to quite hot in a pan large enough to take the volume of raw spinach, and cook the onion in it for half a minute, then add the cumin, chickpeas and spinach. Keep stirring over a high heat as the spinach wilts. When the spinach seems almost cooked, tip in the lemon and some seasoning and stir for a few seconds more to allow the water to boil off. About two minutes is all it should take.

Place a pile of spinach and a fried aubergine on each plate, and spoon some of the concasse, including the liquid, over the aubergines.