The aubergine is the most controversial of vegetables. Most toddlers and teens revile it. Many adults do too. When raw, the texture is not unlike spongy polystyrene; when cooked and mashed, it can resemble gruel. The seeds can be slimy, the taste bitter. To its detractors, it is good for little other than a cheap erotic joke.
Yet, there are those who recognise its value and versatility. Cooked al dente in a gloopy garlic and chilli sauce, it makes a triumphant Chinese dish. If you roast it slowly for a long while, you can peel away the skin and mash to form the basis of any number of Middle Eastern dips. Stuff it with rice and you have a retro dinner-party classic. Its merits are not limited to the culinary: serve it alongside a dish of beans to benefit from its anti-wind properties. Little wonder the eggplant has, for vegetarians, all the cachet of a sirloin steak.
Nor is it only appreciated by full-time veggies. In recent years, the aubergine has had a resurgence, fuelled in particular by the new vogue for Levantine food. Ottolenghi is a magician with an aubergine in hand, combining it with puy lentils in a stew, making it the filling for kuku (a Persian frittata) or using it in a dainty vol-au-vent. He has even turned the aubergine into a cheesecake.
And that is all with only the standard globe variety. Take a smaller Black Beauty aubergine, stuff it with ground peanuts and spice paste, and you will have an impressive Indian curry. Use the Graffiti aubergine from Sicily for a superior caponata. Neglect to pop a bunch of pea aubergines in your Thai green curry and it will lack something essential in both flavour and texture.
The eggplant is also, for me, an immensely handsome vegetable, with its uniform gloss; indeed, in the northern hemisphere, it was first grown for its decorative qualities. Those of black exterior have an otherworldly feel – it would take a T-Rex to produce such a menacing-looking egg. Others come in varying shades of purple, green or even creamy-white.
As a child, what put me off was the texture. The specimens we brought back from the ethnic store often had more seeds inside than capsicums and, back then, the sponginess of the white flesh seemed off-putting. I know now that this very flesh will soak up any type of delicious marinade or sauce – hence the current wild popularity of miso aubergine (the Japan Centre, round the corner from Leicester Square, has a good recipe). Try it with other umami-rich concoctions too, such as oyster or teriyaki sauce.
This veg has an alarming tendency to drink up almost unlimited quantities of oil in the pan, but by combining it with a tomato sauce you can eschew at least some of the calories – try grilling centimetre-thick slices on a dry barbecue and layering them with sauce and parmesan, as Jamie Oliver shows in his recipe for parmigiana.
On the stove, aubergines can be turned into caponata or ratatouille, evocative of Mediterranean summers – in fact, they are at the best now, between July and September. But of all the methods of preparation, it is hard to think of any better than roasting in blistering heat. A wood fire or coal here come into their own, both by reaching the ferocious temperature required and by imparting that essential taste of smoke (Middle Eastern restaurants produce an unparalleled baba ganoush using this technique). But a decent enough result comes from roasting under the grill or on a griddle until blackened all over, and flaccid. Then simply scrape out the flesh, lace with salt, lemon, crushed garlic and olive oil, and use as the basis for 101 dips. Leaving in a little of the charred skin will save you time and improve the flavour by replicating the taste of the proper wood or coal treatment. Some call it gruel, others vegetarian caviar.