The Latin meaning for the word focus, the point at which all things come together, is fireplace. I loved reading this fact: focus = fireplace, or hearth, or that small circle of stones filled with combustible materials around which humans have gathered for millenia to keep warm, or to eat.
Until these last few months, where eight-hour power cuts have become the norm in Zambia, I felt intimidated cooking over fire. Where I grew up the braai, or barbecue, was the “stone circle” around which only men gathered; it was a place where women, bar a few intrepid souls, feared to tread. When I later moved to the United States it wasn’t much different. And though I heated my old stone Virginian house each winter by lighting fires, the main one being the original kitchen fireplace, I’m ashamed to say I never once cooked on it.
According to primatologist Richard Wrangham, in hunter/gatherer societies the sexes each sought out different types of food: women foraged and handled ingredients that required the most preparation, while men went out to find foods that were more difficult to come by—namely, meat. As a result, Wrangham says in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, “the rule that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” … Since the beginning of time, that is. Yikes.
Chris is certain there is little out there that beats the smokey flavor of an aubergine cooked over a fire. It made sense, therefore, that my first step towards the mbaula was taken with aubergines in hand, especially as we are reaping so many right now. The first time I did this I made baba ganoush, echoing the memorable dish Chris ate at the Emerson Spice Hotel in Zanzibar. It was so good I wanted to use smokey aubergines again, this time in a risotto, and the chef to whom I turned for inspiration was Yotam Ottolenghi. No surprises there.
In his aubergine risotto, Ottolenghi uses fresh lemon, but because our citrus trees stopped fruiting a couple of months ago, I used preserved lemon instead. This worked well, especially chopped finely into the fresh herbs. All these backstage flavors, set up to showcase the smokey aubergine, amounted to one of the tastiest risottos we’ve ever eaten.
Mbaula-smoked Aubergine & Preserved Lemon Risotto
Yield: 2-4 servings
- 2 medium aubergines
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided 1 + 2
- 3 shallots, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 cup arborio rice
- 1 cup white wine
- 5 cups vegetable stock
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon preserved lemon
- a mix of fresh basil, mint and dill, about a 1/4 cup when finely chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- black pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese, after grating
- Roast the aubergines whole over hot coals, or over a gas hob on the stove (the smokey flavor will be enhanced over a fire, but either works well). While they are roasting turn with tongs regularly until all the skin is blackened and the flesh is soft, about 10 minutes depending on the intensity of the heat. You will know they are ready when the aubergine “deflates.”
- Remove the aubergines from the heat, cool, peel off the skin, and chop into bite-size pieces. (I do this by carefully cutting the aubergine into 1/2-inch rounds across its middle, and then cutting them in 1/2 inch squares lengthwise.) Set the aubergine squares into a colander over the sink or a bowl, coat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and press them down with a weight to allow for the excess water to drain out.
- Finely chop the preserved lemon with the fresh herbs, and set aside.
- Bring the vegetable stock to the boil, and then turn down the heat for a low, slow simmer.
- In a heavy-based saucepan heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, add the shallots and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further two minutes.
- Turn the heat right up, add the rice, stirring well to make sure it is completely coated with the oil, about three minutes. Add the wine and continuing stirring until it has all been absorbed by the rice, about three minutes.
- Stirring all the time, start adding the hot vegetable stock one ladleful at a time, making sure the liquid is all absorbed before adding more. When the stock has been used up, and the rice is soft and creamy, remove from the heat. Gently combine the butter, lemon juice, and chopped preserved lemon and fresh herb mix (saving 1 tablespoon for garnish) into the risotto. Carefully stir in the aubergine squares, the salt and pepper, and all but two tablespoons of the grated parmesan cheese.
- Sprinkle the remaining fresh herbs and grated parmesan on to the risotto, and serve immediately.