Last week we had to do our first ever proper homework for The Natural Chef course. I spent the first ten minutes happily pottering away chopping vegetables and so on before I suddenly became wracked with guilt – I should be doing something WAY more productive, shouldn’t I? I had to remind myself, almost out loud, that this was homework. I was ALLOWED to immerse myself in cooking because that’s what the assignment is all about. I can’t believe that I’m able to spend so much time in my happy place.
This was the first recipe I’d ever had to really think up from scratch, and it was HARD. I knew I wanted to do soup (we had a choice of soup, sauce or stew) and I prefer tomatoey, chunky soups rather than a smooth, creamy and subtle soup. The problem was…we were supposed to use seasonal, locally grown ingredients. I was pretty overjoyed when I found British tomatoes in Sainsbury’s (non-organic, but I decided miles mattered more). Of course the aubergines are not local or seasonal but seeing as they are my favourite vegetable I’m hardly going to deprive myself forever am I?
Besides, this was one of the tastiest soups I’ve ever eaten. And I’m not just saying to blow my own trumpet. I was really impressed with this. I realised that as much as I love aubergine, I had never seen it in a soup either on a blog or in a restaurant – it features regularly in stews, but never in soups. Of course once I started doing research I found plenty of different versions, but none had the Ottolenghi-style smoked aubergine as a base. This one has the aubergine prepared in two ways: roasted and smoked. I absolutely love smoked flavours, but it works particularly well with aubergine. And best of all, it’s the quickest, easiest way to cook an aubergine whole right through. OK, it does make a bit of a mess on the stove but it’s not too bad. And once you’ve smoked an aubergine once and realise how easy it is, you’ll want to do it again for the Ottolenghi smoked aubergine and tahini dip, from which inspiration for this dish came.
Warning: there is quite a bit of prep involved here. This is one of those annoying recipes where you have to do a whole load of steps FIRST before you actually construct the dish. However, once you’ve got all your bits and bobs done, you just chuck it in the pan with the stock and whizz. I’ve tried to lay out clearly how you can do each component simultaneously but essentially you whack one aubergine and the garlic in the oven for 30 minutes; while that’s going you whack the other aubergine on gas burners for 20 minutes; while that’s going you skin the tomatoes (10 minutes), and then you put it all together and while the soup is warming you make the tahini sauce, so it shouldn’t be as fiddly as it might seem.
Ingredients. Serves three.
- 3 medium aubergines
- 1 small head garlic
- Roughly 100ml olive oil, divided
- 6 tomatoes
- 1 tsp whole cumin
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp chilli flakes (less if you don’t like chilli)
- 500ml stock (chicken, beef or vegetable)
- Sea salt and black pepper
- Sumac, to serve
- 40g tahini
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 25ml water (about 2tbsp)
Method. Preparation and cooking time: 1 hour
- Preheat oven to 200°C. Chop one of the aubergines into small cubes, around 1 cm. Place in a bowl, drizzle with copious olive oil (around 50 ml) and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Mix well until coated and place on a baking tray.
- Break garlic head into individual cloves, keeping the skin on. Place in an ovenproof ramekin and fill with olive oil to cover (around 50ml).
- Place ramekin of garlic on the same baking tray as the aubergine and place the tray in the oven. After 15 minutes, remove the ramekin (being very careful as the oil will be very hot) and set it aside. Give the tray of aubergine a shake and place it back in the oven for another 15 minutes until the cubes are soft and brown. Drain the garlic cloves but save the oil as we will use this later. Once the aubergine cubes are cooked, take them out of the oven and set aside.
- Meanwhile, smoke the other two aubergines. To do this, poke holes in the aubergines and place directly over gas burners on a medium heat. Allow the skin to char and burn, turning every 5 minutes or so for about 20 minutes. The aubergines will start to collapse on themselves when cooked enough.
- Place blackened aubergine in a colander
in the sink and slit in half lengthwise and leave to drain while you get on with the rest of the soup.
- Skin the tomatoes: cut a cross in the bottom of each tomato, place in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for a couple of minutes, then drain and peel off the skin. Roughly chop the flesh, saving the seeds and juices.
- Place a large heavy-bottomed saucepan on a medium heat. Toast the cumin seeds for a minute until they’ve turned a shade darker and start to smell warm and toasty. Remove and set aside.
- Heat a tablespoon of the garlic oil from earlier in the same saucepan and add the chopped onions. Add a large pinch of salt and gently fry for 10 minutes. Add in all the spices, stir well and fry for another minute.
- Add the chopped tomato flesh and stir well. Scrape out the aubergine flesh, being careful to avoid the blackened skin, and add to the tomato mix.
- Put three garlic cloves aside for the tahini sauce and squeeze the rest out of their skins into the soup. Bring the mix to heat and add the stock. Bring to a gentle boil and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
- Using an immersion or jug blender, blend the soup until smooth. Bring back to a gently simmer to heat through.
- For the tahini drizzle: Squeeze the remaining three garlic cloves out of their skins onto a chopping board and use the back of a knife to mash them. Add to a bowl or small jug with the tahini and lemon juice. Whisk and add water until you reach the consistency of runny honey. Taste and season with salt if necessary.
- Serve the soup in warmed bowls topped with a generous spoonful of roasted aubergine cubes, a swirl of garlic oil, a drizzle of tahini sauce and a sprinkle of sumac.
- Smoking the aubergines will make a mess on your stovetop so if you want to save it (or you don’t have a gas burner) you can roast all three of the aubergine as in Step 3 and puree two of them into the soup. The flavour will be less smoky but still very tasty. You do need quite a bit of oil to roast the aubergine because they’re like sponges the way they suck up all the oil. But that’s what helps to give them that silky smooth texture!
- I had a tip off recently about Lakeland Soup ‘n’ Sauce freezer bags. They are tough ziplock bags and come in 500ml or 1l size. I find them really useful because they standup in the freezer