Aka the veggie braai
The aubergine looked like it could stand in for a big, glossy purse with a green clasp on top or a designer handbag that’s a statement piece. It became the reason for building a fire – and a lesson in working with its heat.
After harvesting this beauty of an aubergine, some green peppers, and young onions, I happened to be paging through Colman Andrews’ book* on Catalan cookery and came across Escalivada, which is made with all of the above.
The vegetables are cooked in hot ashes or over a wood-burning fire, to lend a smoky flavour, then seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly minced young garlic.
It is suited to early or late summer, but peppers are plentiful at this time of year and there are still some big, shiny aubergines to be found. We made this the starter and followed with braaibroodjies as a two-course braai.
The veggie braai
The joy of a veggie braai is that the question of ‘doneness’ isn’t quite as fraught as it is with meat, which makes it a great place to start because the pressure is off.
And with this dish, the cooking sequence works with the fire, in that each vegetable needs a different kind of heat so cooking happens as a progression as the fire burns down. (Except for the onions, which stay on from the beginning until they’re blackened all over.)
High heat. Quick and hot. When the wood has just burned down but the coals are still glowing orange, it’s a good time to roast peppers. Even with the grid at its highest height, it will still be extremely hot. This is an active kind of cooking in that you want to keep turning the peppers as they blister and char and keep moving them around to find where the hotspots are.
Medium heat. Moderate cooking, less movement. The coals are still hot but look more generally grey. It might be necessary to lower the grid to get the rate of cooking you need. This is a good heat for cooking thick slices of aubergine that need a little time at a lower heat not only to brown on the outside but to soften all the way through. At this stage give things a chance to cook, don't turn too quickly.
Low heat. Slow and steady. Once the hero vegetable or meat has been cooked and the fire is cooling down but still has enough heat to cook something, it’s the perfect moment to put on braaibroodjies. The heat is low enough so the cheese melts properly and at the same rate as the bread toasts. (If you have a resident carnivore, there should even be enough heat to cook a coil of wors immediately after taking the aubergines off.)
Peel one very large aubergine and cut into slices, almost like steaks, around 1cm thick and brush on both sides with extra-virgin olive oil. Once the fire is ready, place four small green (or red or yellow) peppers and four young onions on the grid. Cook the peppers, turning constantly, until blackened and blistered all over. Put the peppers in a brown paper bag and close tightly, allowing the peppers to steam and cool. Keep the onions on the grid, around the edges of the fire, and keep cooking and turning until blackened all over. Add the aubergine slices and if necessary lower the grid. Cook on both sides, until nicely browned and softened. Transfer to a board along with the onions, which should also be fully cooked. Peel the peppers, remove the seeds and cut into pieces about 2cm x 2cm and transfer to a shallow serving dish. Cut the aubergine into similar sized pieces and add to the dish. Remove the blackened outer layers from the onion, slice the bulb and add to the dish. Add extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and two cloves of fresh garlic, minced. Fold through gently and serve.
*Catalan Cuisine – Vivid Flavors from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast by Colman Andrews (Boston: First Harvard Common Press, 1999)
For a breakdown (and video) of the fire build and burn, click the link below.