The words “ready meals” suffer a bit of a stigma over here as one initially pictures the sad sweating plastic wrapped packets on the supermarket chilled shelves, ready for a nuking in the microwave. But the ready meals I’ve come across in Barcelona were always wonderful – freshly made croquetes, roasted chicken parts and meat stews, cooked legumes, and trays of prepared canalons ready for a cooking in the oven. Needless to say, you can pick all these up and more at one of the many fabulous markets scattered throughout the city. This is what London is missing!
Anyway, what I wanted to really talk about was what I recently encountered on my last trip there – stuffed aubergines. I saw trays of them ready for the oven – halved aubergines (usually the slim kind rather than the large bulbous ones) stuffed with a meat mixture and slathered in a rich bechamel. They looked fantastic and though I never tasted them, I knew I wanted to recreate something like that at home. But aubergines are not the only vegetable that’s filled; if you take a look at Colman Andrew’s fabulous book Catalan Cuisine, he has a whole section on stuffed vegetables.
It turned out to be quite straightforward – all the components can be cooked ahead of time and put together well before they need to be baked. The meaty filling was so flavourful with the onion and tomatoes cooked down until they were melting together in their sofregit; the silky aubergines, though quite lovely by themselves, were really just carriers for the meat! The bechamel was luxuriously rich and I dolloped it on with a generous hand – the recipe below does make quite a lot. The only things I’d change next time is to try the thinner Japanese aubergines and to be more generous with the Parmesan cheese on top!
Catalan-Style Stuffed Aubergines
serves 4 as a main course.
4 small-medium sized aubergines
For the filling
2 tbsps olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 medium or 1 large tomato
500 g minced pork
a large pinch of dried thyme
a large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
freshly ground pepper
4 tbsps fresh breadcrumbs
For the bechamel
500 mL milk
80g unsalted butter
4 tbsps plain flour
freshly ground pepper
a large pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
freshly grated parmesan cheese
Prepare your aubergines. Cut each in half lengthwise and scoop out the insides leaving at least a centimetre of flesh (I tossed the insides as mine had a lot of seeds). Arrange cut side up on a baking tray and brush liberally with olive oil. Roast in a hot oven until tender and set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Prepare your filling. First we’ll make a sofregit of the onions, garlic and tomatoes. In a frying pan, heat the oil over low heat and add the finely chopped onion. This has to cook until the onions have become soft and golden – this will take at least 15 minutes on a low temperature. When the onions are close to this, you can add the minced garlic and continue cooking until the onions are cooked and the garlic has lost its rawness. In the meantime, prepare your tomatoes – cut each in half around its equator and deseed them. Use your palm to push each cut half against a box grater and grate the tomato pulp, leaving behind the skins. Add this tomato pulp when the onions are golden and continue cooking over low heat until the tomatoes have melted into the onions and its redness is darker. That’s your sofregit. Add the minced pork and fry, stirring frequently so that the pork is crumbly, until the pork is all cooked (about 10 minutes). Add the thyme and nutmeg and season well with salt and pepper. Stir again and then turn off the heat. In a bowl, beat the egg and add the breadcrumbs to this. Stir together and then add this mixture to the pan with the pork. Stir to incorporate and there’s your filling.
Make the bechamel. In a heavy bottomed pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and whisk together until incorporated. Let cook for about 3-4 minutes, whisking from time to time. Pour in the milk about a quarter of the volume at a time (you could whack in the whole thing but then it always seems to take longer). Whisk very well after each milk incorporation and then continue adding once the mixture gets thick. After all the milk has been added, continue cooking over low heat and whisking often until the bechamel is thick. Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a little freshly ground nutmeg, give it a final whisking and turn off the heat.
Put it together. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Lay your roasted aubergine halves in a baking dish and fill them with the pork mixture. Really stuff them well – use all that filling up! Top each filled aubergine half with a good couple of spoonfuls of bechamel and then sprinkle with some finely grated parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes – the filling should be cooked through (that egg) and the tops should be golden brown.
Serve with a salad and bread on the side.