I could barely bring myself to plunge the knife into its skin. For a day or two, it just sat there on the windowsill like some exquisite netsuke. A picture of serenity, of exquisite and ephemeral beauty, too perfect to touch let alone make into supper.
I take pleasure in watching fruit - a pear or a peach perhaps - ripen on the kitchen shelf, giving it a daily stroke or a respectful squeeze to gauge its readiness. But it is a rare treat to have a vegetable so beautiful to gaze upon, to want to cradle in your hand like a precious bird's egg. The fact that I will eat it at some point only adds to its value and brings with it a sense of excitement and longing.
I had no intention of letting such a thing - botanically it's a fruit, but is only ever eaten as a vegetable - end up lost in a lurid sea of tomato sauce, reduced to a pulp in layers of garlicky mince or pasta, or mashed to a cream. My white aubergines, bought from Fern Verrow's organic stall in London's Borough market, deserved more. A simple roasting with other fruits and vegetables of the season - tomatoes, garlic, scarlet and vermillion peppers - was the plan. A recipe where the ingredients lose nothing of themselves yet work in harmony with the other ingredients.
I had others too; some everyday black fruits and my own deepest purple egg aubergines, the size of a golf ball, grown in the back garden. Assembled on the table they were as graceful as food could ever be, in their shades of cream, mauve and intense midnight blue. Could they ever taste as beautiful as they looked?
It is rare to come across a bitter aubergine, the streak of mouth-puckering unpleasantness being bred out of them long ago. But the ones growing in pots on the back step packed an unexpected punch. It was time to dig out those obsolete recipes that tell the cook to first salt their aubergine.
Salting still has its uses with the modern bitter-free hybrids; it allows them to lose water and relax, in which case they take less time to grill or bake. I do it from time to time, but it is not essential with the workaday versions. The egg-shaped ones I grew myself knocked me for six with their bitterness. So unless I am using the bog-standard purple dongs from the greengrocer, I will take a slice off in future and quickly cook it in a nonstick pan with a little olive oil and taste it first. It's the only way to tell, really. (For the last word on the subject, you might like to take a look at Nicholas Clee's fascinating paperback Don't Sweat the Aubergine, £9.99, Short Books.)
To follow a meal of roast autumn vegetables scoffed with toasted, open-textured bread, or maybe a parsley-bespeckled salad of cracked wheat, I was at first tempted to use the last of the season's blackberries. Then I fell for a fig or two. The fruits in the shops at the moment are as softly tempting as a cashmere scarf, their skins carrying a dusky bloom, their flesh crunchy with thousands of seeds that crackle under the teeth. As always, I buy more than I can honestly eat, knowing full well there is a chance that some will be left to bake with red wine and honey.
Roast aubergines with chillies and thyme
A sort of lazy guy's ratatouille, this - but better, I think, for its freshness and clean taste. I keep the chillies large here, which is partly why I've suggested using the milder varieties, but as always, it's up to you. This works hot as an accompaniment to so many main dishes (roast lamb comes to mind), as a warm salad, and indeed, piled on hot toasted ciabatta as a weekday supper. Serves 4.
2 medium-sized aubergines
2 large handfuls of cherry tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
2 medium-sized ripe peppers (red or orange)
chillies (2 or more large, mild ones)
6-8 sprigs of thyme
150ml olive oil
To serve: toasted ciabatta
Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Wipe the aubergines and cut them into thick slices or segments (salt them if necessary, but shop-bought ones are unlikely to need it). Put them into a roasting tin or baking dish with the cherry tomatoes, halved if on the large size.
Peel and crush the garlic and add it to the aubergines. Cut the peppers in half, scrape out and discard the seeds and central core, then cut the flesh into thick pieces. Cut the chillies in half, then remove the seeds and slice the flesh into thick pieces (cut it too thinly and it will burn). Add to the aubergines with the sprigs of thyme and olive oil and a generous seasoning of salt and black pepper, then toss gently until everything is glistening with oil.
Bake for 40-50 minutes, turning once or twice, till everything is sweet and tender.
A little black here and there will only add to the deliciousness.
Serve, piled up on the toasted ciabatta, drizzling over any remaining sweet, garlicky roasting juices.
Aubergines with mint and feta
Slice the aubergine thickly, brush them with a little oil and grill them on both sides till tender. Make a dressing with four parts olive oil to one of red-wine vinegar, a little salt and plenty of freshly chopped fresh mint. While the aubergines are hot from the grill, toss them gently with the mint dressing and serve with thick slices of feta cheese and warm flatbread, such as pitta.
Baked figs with red wine and honey
There are some rather irresistible figs in the shops now. Once I have had my fill of them au naturel, I like to stew or bake them with wine, vanilla and orange peel and maybe a little honey. The result is not too sweet, and is good warm or chilled. Curiously, I have eaten them with a slice of blue cheese on the same plate - Cashel Blue is a good one to use - and it made for an original and delightful end to an autumn meal. Serves 4.
500ml fruity red wine
3 tbsp golden caster sugar
1 tbsp (or more to taste) thick honey
short-length orange peel
a vanilla pod
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Place the wine, sugar, honey, orange peel, the split vanilla pod and the cloves in a stainless-steel saucepan and bring almost to the boil. Gently wipe the figs and place them snugly in a shallow ovenproof serving dish. (They look wonderful in earthenware.) Pour the hot wine over the figs then bake till they are soft and full of juice - this will take 30-45 minutes. Turn the figs over and baste during cooking.
Pour the juice through a sieve back into the original saucepan, bring to the boil, turn down the heat, then simmer till the liquid starts to thicken. It should end up the consistency of thin syrup. Pour over the figs and chill thoroughly before serving.