Friday, October 12, 2012

Charred Eggplant Soup

I have acquired new cookbooks! Both are by the London-based Israeli chef Yottam Ottolenghi, who is famous for his restaurants and catering shops in London. I've never been to one, but he's also well-known for his eclectic and original recipes, often featuring vegetables in the starring role.

So my first recipe to try was using one of my favourite vegies—eggplant. He has a number of recipes that call for burnt aubergine, which means cooking them over a gas flame until they are charred  on the outside and soft and smoky-tasting on the inside. One of them is this soup.

This recipe is a bit labour-intensive but it a delivers a rib-sticking soup with a smoky, earthy, sweet and sour flavour that is really unusual. I liked it a lot, but the immediate hit of charred eggplant flavour might not be to everyone's taste.

The recipe also calls for a type of giant couscous that is difficult to obtain. None of the stores in my neighbourhood carried it under the names provided, but I did find some nameless pasta that was shaped  a bit like little balls, so I used that, since couscous is really a form of pasta. The soup would work very well without it, but it adds that extra heft needed for a main course soup.

Charred Eggplant Soup

Adapted from Jerusalem
(I reduced the amount of oil and increased the chicken stock.
I also didn't bother skinning and seeding the tomatoes.)

5 small eggplants (about 1.3 kilos in total)
3-4 tablespoons oil
1 onion
1 tsp freshly-ground cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4-5 medium tomatoes (350 grams), or used canned tomatoes
4 smashed garlic cloves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1.5 teaspoon salt
400 ml chicken stock
400 ml water
1 tsp freshly-ground pepper
100 grams pearl pasta (as I call it)
fresh dill for garnish

  1. Line 3 gas burners with tin foil to catch the juices and keep the stove-top clean. Place one eggplant on each burner and set the flame to medium or high (depending on the size of the burner). Cook for about 15 minutes, turning regularly until the outside is charred and the inside is limp and soft. The skin will burst and some juices leak out. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then scoop the flesh out or peel the charred skin off. Place the flesh into a colander, rinse to get the last charred flakes off, and allow to drain.
  2. Cut the remaining 2 eggplants into about 1.5 cm cubes.
  3. In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Add the diced eggplant, stirring thoroughly to distribute the oil over the eggplant. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the eggplant browns and turns soft. At first the eggplant will absorb the oil, but as it cooks, it will release it again. If it is not browning at this point, turn up the heat so that at least some of the cubes get some nice colour on them. If necessary, add a bit more oil.
  4. When the diced eggplant is brown and cooked, remove it from the pot and set it aside in a colander to drain, and sprinkle with some salt. Keep any remaining oil in the pot or top up to about 1 tablespoon.
  5. Now add the onion and ground cumin and sauté for 5-7 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for another minute.
  7. Add the tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, sugar, salt, stock, and water. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, cook the "pearl" pasta until al dente. Mine took about 10 minutes.
  9. Add the charred eggplant into the soup and purée using a hand-held blender. If the soup is too thick, add some more water or stock. Then add most of the cubed eggplant and most of the pearl pasta, reserving some of both for the garnish. Heat through for about 2 minutes and adjust the seasoning (sweet, sour, salt, pepper).
  10. Serve the hot soup in bowls garnished with the remaining diced eggplant, pearl pasta and fresh dill.
If you plan to freeze the soup, it might be worth omitting the pasta and only adding it just before serving, since pasta tends to expand and go mushy when left to sit in soup.
I think this soup would also be great with a bit of heat and might consider adding some chilli flakes the next time I make it.
If you don't have gas burners, put the eggplants under the broiler for about an hour, turning regularly. I haven't tried this; it's the author's advice.

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