I tend to avoid any social event that proudly announces it will include a barbecue. It’s a common phobia for the food snob, I reckon: the communal barbecue organised and presided over by people for whom the ethical sourcing of meat is not an issue, for whom a mass-produced supermarket bap does not induce a shudder of disgust, for whom cheese comes in a square plastic wrapper. ‘Barbecue’ is often sadly synonymous with ‘a load of pre-prepared low quality meat items from the supermarket that we will prod and poke while pretending to be cavemen and leave raw in the centre and carcinogenic on the outside’. I just can’t bring myself to participate in that sort of occasion. What a waste of an opportunity, when the lighting of coals offers such potential for an enticing variety of foodstuffs.Read More
Pomegranate seeds scattered over a salad has now become such a ubiquitous trope in the world of food that we perhaps take these ruby-like seeds for granted. The other day I was standing over a plate of salad - aubergines charred on the barbecue until meltingly soft and smoky and mixed with date-infused balsamic vinegar, pomegranate molasses, mint, watercress, olive oil and lemon juice - and it occurred to me that it could really do with a jewelled sprinkling of pomegranate seeds to lift it both visually and in terms of flavour. I didn't have any, but I did have a punnet of glowing, fat redcurrants in the fridge, and it occurred to me that their sharp, sour tang would work beautifully with the rich, sweet aubergines. It did, and redcurrants have now become my summer alternative to pomegranate seeds which, after all, most of us associate with Christmas. Add some thick slices of salty, squeaky, grilled halloumi, some toasted pine nuts, and you have an incredible summer salad, an immensely satisfying array of different textures and flavours - salty, sweet, smoky and sour. I'm very proud of this one. Head to AO Life for the recipe!Read More
Sometimes, you read a menu description that sends you into paroxysms of longing and desire, and has you practically gaping at the waitress as you urge her, wide-eyed, to come over and take your order instantly so that the kitchen can quicken the transition of your food from plate to mouth. These moments should be cherished, as they help to prevent that cursed state, the bane of many a food-lover’s life: menu indecision. It’s rare that I hand my menu over to the waitress feeling wholly confident that I’ve made the right choice; anything that can facilitate this state of total wellbeing is truly a blessing.Read More
Cambodian cuisine is often referred to as being “less sophisticated” than its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, which seems to me a highly unfair accusation. For me, Cambodian food is just as exciting as Thai or Vietnamese, particularly its curries. These are often based on a spice paste called kroeung, a heady mixture of galangal, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves and chilli, given a savoury kick by fermented shrimp paste. To this is added coconut milk, more lime leaves and a little sugar, resulting in the most delicious sweet-sour-salty-coconutty curry sauce, fragrant with lime and lemongrass, hot with chilli and deeply savoury from fish sauce and shrimp paste. For a delicious introduction to the cuisine, try out this stunning vegetarian curry recipe - my latest post on the Appliances Online lifestyle blog. For the recipe, and a little bit more about Cambodian food, click here!
I am heartily convinced that people who claim not to like aubergines have only ever experienced them in something like badly-cooked ratatouille or curry. If you don't treat a noble aubergine properly in such a preparation, it will be disgusting. It will be spongy and tough in the centre and slimy around the outside, watery and generally vile. An aubergine is not really a boiling vegetable. Stewing it in liquid will not do it any favours. The best way to treat an aubergine is to grill or bake it until its flesh turns from springy and spongy to molten, smoky and silky. Its skin will wrinkle and crisp, while its inside turns deliciously moist, full of rich, earthy flavour.
The only problem with this is that it takes a while. It's no real effort, but you do have to roast the aubergines for a good length of time to get the proper amount of molten-ness and smoky flavour. You then have to peel off the skin, and mash the flesh with your choice of seasoning to really bring out the best in it. Classic additions are garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and herbs - add these and you've got something approaching the middle Eastern dip, baba ganoush; add tahini as well, and you have moutabal.
Among the goodies I was recently sent to try by Belazu, producers of mediterranean ingredients and olives, is roasted aubergine paste. This is rather like an aubergine tapenade. It concentrates all that delicious smoky aubergine flavour into a spreadable condiment that can be used straight from the jar, rather than requiring faffing around with aubergines and seasoning. It's not the prettiest thing ever, being a sort of murky grey cement colour, but this shouldn't put you off, because it packs a deep punch of aubergine flavour.
The paste has a slight smoky bitterness, so is great combined with sweet or tart ingredients. I've used it to make a sort of mediterranean bruschetta, spreading the paste over toasted sourdough (homemade, of course), then topping it with roasted tomatoes. As with aubergines, roasting tomatoes concentrates all their delicious flavour. It also turns them slightly sweet and gooey, a perfect complement to the deep, earthy flavours of the aubergine paste. I added torn mozzarella for a light, fresh flavour to balance everything else, then a scattering of pomegranate seeds. Pomegranate seeds are more than just a pretty garnish (although I admit, I do throw them on just about anything to make it look a bit sexy): their sharp burst of sweetness works really well with aubergine. Finally, a few leaves of coriander, both for colour and for their slight citrus note.
This is a lovely light lunch or dinner, full of intense, bold flavours. It's also beautifully colourful, which is exactly what we need at this time of year. Make sure you get good bread and good mozzarella (the buffalo stuff in a pot rather than a bag, preferably), and you can't really go wrong.
Try it out on self-confessed aubergine haters. I reckon they just might love it.
Aubergine bruschetta with roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and pomegranate (serves 2):
- 20 cherry tomatoes
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 4 slices sourdough bread
- 1 jar Belazu aubergine paste
- 16 mozzarella pearls (or a ball of mozzarella, torn into chunks)
- Seeds from half a pomegranate
- Coriander, to garnish
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Put the tomatoes in a small oven dish and toss with the oil, salt and pepper. Roast for around 20 minutes, until charred in places and starting to burst. Remove and set aside.
Toast the sourdough slices and divide between two plates. Spread the bread with the aubergine paste, then scatter over the tomatoes, mozzarella and pomegranate seeds. Garnish with some sprigs of coriander.
In a bid to find a gluten-free alternative to all my favourite grainy lunchtime carbohydrates (couscous, bulgur wheat, pearl barley), I have fallen in love with buckwheat. Buckwheat, although it might look, cook and taste like your ordinary gluten-filled grain (and, of course, it has 'wheat' in its title) is actually a seed. In fact, it is related to rhubarb. It's not a grain and therefore is totally gluten free. You can buy it as flour, which is perhaps more commonly known - it's what the French use to make those gorgeous dark, nutty crêpes that they fill with savoury stuffings. This is ideal for a spot of gluten-free baking, although it has quite a strong flavour so is usually best 'diluted' with another more neutral gluten-free flour.
You can also buy it as groats, however, which is where it really comes into its own.
These are a funny little convex triangle shape, looking at first glance a bit like giant, angular couscous granules. They can be cooked in the same way as rice - boiled in twice their volume of water or stock - to result in creamy, nutty pellets of deliciousness. They have a similar sort of chewy texture to pearl barley, but not as dense. In fact, the closest similarity is probably with cooked risotto rice - tender and starchy, but still with a little bite. You can use them to make a risotto, and you can even cook them in water and milk to make gluten-free porridge. Incidentally, they are also packed with protein and other nutrients, so not only are they a lovely comforting carb-blanket, but they are even healthy, and very low in calories for something so squidgy and delicious.
I like to cook them simply in water or stock, and then use them as the starchy, comforting, chewy base of a delicious salad. The first time I tried buckwheat, I made this wonderful salad from Sonia over at The Healthy Foodie. The combination was irresistible: sweet, chewy pieces of dried fruit coupled with toasted nuts and tangy goat's cheese. Buckwheat works so well in salads because it has a slight nutty flavour of its own, which means it can assert itself well against both sweet and savoury ingredients.
For dinner this evening, I was really craving a favourite salad of mine: pomegranate-glazed roasted aubergine with couscous, mint, feta cheese and pomegranate seeds. Obviously, couscous was out of the question, but then I had the brainwave of replacing it with buckwheat.
I think I actually prefer it. Buckwheat has a creaminess that you don't get with couscous, which can be quite dry if not drenched in oil. It also has that deliciously moreish risotto-like consistency, so can easily be voraciously ingested, mouthful by starchy mouthful.
To my base of cooked buckwheat, I added broad beans - I can't get enough of them at the moment, and wanted something green and something with a crunchier texture than the soft aubergine - chopped fresh mint (goes so well with aubergine), aubergines tossed in a mixture of olive oil, honey and pomegranate molasses then roasted until soft and squishy, crumbled feta, and fresh pomegranate seeds. I dressed the buckwheat with a little tahini paste, for added creaminess and because in my mind nothing works better with aubergine, and Dijon mustard, for a bit of a kick.
Basically this was a salad born of my cravings and of what I had in the fridge or just thought might work well if I chucked it into the mix. It ended up being utterly delicious, a simple meal with simple ingredients that tasted perfect and wonderful. It's super-healthy, but in an utterly satisfying, starchy way. You'd never believe something gluten-free could be so creamy and delicious. I'd highly encourage any gluten-free dieters out there, if they haven't already, to give buckwheat a go - it could be the answer to that empty, couscous-shaped hole in your life, and is the basis for so many wonderful and versatile recipes. If I can get my hands on some buckwheat flour, which I've totally failed to do so far, though I've been trying for months, I'd be really interested to experiment with some gluten-free baking.
Other than this pretty and perfect plateful, my gluten-free eating today has been as follows: porridge with grated apple, sultanas and blueberries for breakfast; more of yesterday's creamy smoked trout pasta salad for lunch, with a nectarine; a post-teaching snack of a mango and a banana. I've had a great day, feeling very energised throughout despite desperately not wanting to leave my bed when my alarm went off early this morning. I wouldn't say it's a hugely dramatic difference, but I definitely feel cleaner and healthier somehow. It might all be in my head, but it's still a pretty good feeling. I'm not even that happy it's the final day of my gluten-free challenge tomorrow; in truth, there's nothing I've really missed.
Apart from couscous.
But now I have buckwheat, so even that doesn't haunt my gastronomic dreams any more. Hurrah.
Buckwheat salad with pomegranate-glazed aubergine, feta, broad beans and mint (serves 3-4):
- 3 medium or 2 very large aubergines
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or balsamic vinegar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp honey
- Salt and pepper
- 180g buckwheat groats
- Two large handfuls frozen broad beans
- 3 tsp tahini paste
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 20g fresh mint, leaves shredded
- 100g feta cheese, crumbled
- Half a pomegranate
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the aubergines into 1-inch cubes. Mix together the olive oil, molasses, honey and some seasoning, then toss the aubergine in this mixture and spread the pieces out on a baking tray. Season again and roast for 30-40 minutes until soft and sticky. Set aside.
Put the buckwheat in a pan, add 400ml water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 10 mins. After this time, add the broad beans to the pan, cover, and cook for another 5 mins or so, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the buckwheat is tender (if there's any liquid remaining, drain it off). Mix the buckwheat and beans with the tahini and mustard, and season well.
Mix the buckwheat with the aubergine pieces and most of the mint. Crumble in the feta cheese. Using a rolling pin, bash the seeds out of the pomegranate over the bowl and combine gently. Serve garnished with the rest of the mint.
No, not the place where well-behaved aubergines spend their afterlife, but probably my favourite aubergine dish to date (although moutabal comes a very close second). It's recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, so I should have known it would be brilliant, though I'm sometimes sceptical of his recipes because the ingredients seem so disparate, it often appears that they could never work together. I should never doubt him, after this triumph. It features aubergine baked into a luscious softness, rubbed with a spice mixture for deep flavour, served with a fruity, herby bulgur wheat mixture and a dollop of yoghurt. Initially it might not sound all that great, but I can assure you that this is delicious.
I made this because a "North African" dish had been requested, but I didn't want to cook meat. It's quite hard to translate the pungent, fragrant aromas of North African cuisine into vegetarian dishes, because often those spices need something very strongly-flavoured like lamb to stand up to them. I needn't have worried, because the smoky aubergine is the perfect match for this spice mix, known as chermoula. It features ground cumin, coriander, paprika, chilli (I used cayenne pepper), salt, preserved lemon, olive oil, and crushed garlic. I bought two magnificent bulbs of smoked garlic from the Real Food Festival at the weekend (more on that in another post), and this seemed the perfect opportunity to use them. Smoke and aubergine go so well together, and I wanted to heighten that sensation. I crushed everything together in a pestle and mortar to make a rich, terracotta-coloured paste reminiscent of harissa, that other North African spice mix.
The preserved lemon is a nice addition to the mixture; I have a jar on my windowsill that I made myself. They're incredibly easy to make: you just quarter whole lemons, leaving them attached at one end, then stuff them with sea salt, pack them into a jar, cover with boiling water and seal. After about three months they're ready to use, and are a typical ingredient in all sorts of Moroccan dishes. I remember seeing huge jars of them for sale in the souks in Morocco, and was immensely saddened that I was unable to bring back liquids in my hand luggage. It's hard to describe their flavour; much more sour and salty than a normal lemon, they lack the zesty freshness of an unpreserved specimen, but have a deeper flavour that adds a sour kick to all sorts of dishes. The classic is Moroccan chicken, green olive and preserved lemon tagine.
I slashed the flesh of the aubergine in a criss-cross pattern and rubbed the spice mixture into the flesh, rather like you would do with meat. After drizzling over some olive oil, they went in the oven for about 50 minutes, until the insides had softened into silky deliciousness and the skin had wrinkled. When they emerged, I drizzled them with some of my oak-smoked rapeseed oil, to add yet another layer of barbecue flavour. If I had an actual barbecue, this might have been the ultimate smoky meal. I'm not sure why the chargrilled flavour works so well with aubergines, but whoever discovered this might be my number one food hero. OK, number three, after Yotam and Raymond Blanc. Oh and Tristan Welch. And Michel Roux. And Claudia Roden too.
To adorn the aubergine, bulgur wheat. This is best known as the key ingredient for tabbouleh, which I lived off in Syria; it's a bit like couscous, but with larger, more irregular grains and a bit more texture. You can simmer it in water for about 20 minutes to cook it, but you can also soak it in boiling water for about 30 minutes, which is easier. I also soaked some sultanas with it, to plump them up a bit. To the wheat I added chopped coriander, mint, halved green olives, salt and pepper, spring onions, toasted flaked almonds, and lemon juice. This is delicious on its own, and I could quite happily eat it as a salad with no accompaniment. The sweet sultanas counteract the sharp olives, the almonds give a rich crunch, and the herbs provide a beautiful citrussy freshness.
I spooned this mixture over the warm aubergines, and finished it with a dollop of yoghurt. This brings everything together, providing moisture and also taking the edge off the spicy aubergine (though mine wasn't that spicy, because I was over-cautious with the cayenne...). This dish is an absolute delight. I think it's a textural thing: the slippery, silky aubergine flesh against the nutty bulgur with its bursts of sweet sultana and tangy olive, finished off with the creamy yoghurt and crunchy almonds. The best bit is the top of the aubergine flesh, where the spices have burnt on and formed a crust. If you're sceptical, I'd urge you to try this. If you don't like aubergines, you'll be converted. Seriously, it was so good. Also, immensely filling, considering aubergine is mostly water. If you have vegetarian friends, cook this for them and make them love you. If you've carnivorously overindulged recently, cook this for yourself and detox. If you're hungry, make this and satisfy your stomach. I cannot think of a single reason why you should not cook this dish as soon as possible.
The recipe, by Yotam Ottolenghi, is here.
Middle Easterners know how to treat an aubergine. Their cuisine is resplendent with aubergine dishes, such as baba ganoush or moutabal: two delightful purées, both creamy yet sharp and garlicky, the latter including tahini which works incredibly well with the smoky aubergine. I ate it by the plateful in Syria, mopped up with thick flatbread. It's hard to describe the taste, but even aubergine-haters will be converted, I think, by its creamy, smoky, mysterious flavour. The two aubergines I found languishing in the vegetable drawer the other day were a blessing: they inspired me to recreate this incredible dish.
There are many ways to make moutabal, but I (vaguely) followed Ottolenghi's recipe from his Plenty cookbook. I roasted two aubergines in the oven until soft in the middle, then scooped out the flesh and mashed it with a fork. To this I added tahini paste, pomegranate molasses, a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a crushed garlic clove, lots of chopped parsley, some quartered cherry tomatoes (not traditional, but they turn it into more of a meal than a dip), salt and pepper, the seeds of half a pomegranate, and then my secret ingredient. Which isn't so secret, because I'm about to extol its wonders now. It's oak-smoked rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil is pretty trendy with chefs at the moment: it has all sorts of health benefits, it has less saturated fat than olive oil, and a higher burning point, making it suitable for all sorts of frying. I picked up a couple of bottles at a farmers' market a few weeks ago, but it was the 'oak-smoked' variety that caught my eye. I tried a bit, and was hooked. The seller mentioned that it would be good with aubergines, and he wasn't wrong: using an oven, you can't quite get that chargrilled flavour in the aubergines as you could on a smoking griddle or a barbecue. A tablespoon of this oil, however, and you may as well have roasted them on hot coals.
It's a delicious bread: the use of both white and wholemeal flour gives it a nutty, chewy texture. It's even better the next day, incidentally. Just right for scooping up huge mouthfuls of one of the most delicious mezze you're ever likely to sample. This is guaranteed to impress even those who claim to hate aubergine: it has none of that horrible spongy, slimy texture; just a wonderful combination of flavours that will delight and surprise.
Moutabal (makes enough for 2-3):
3 tbsp tahini paste
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 crushed garlic clove
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 handfuls cherry tomatoes, quartered
Seeds from half a pomegranate
Salt and pepper
Oak-smoked rapeseed oil (optional)
Turn the grill up to about 250C. Place the aubergines on a sheet of foil, prick lightly with a knife, and place under the grill. Turn them occasionally, until the skin has shrivelled and they are soft inside (about 20-30 minutes). Remove and leave to cool.
Slit open the skins and scoop out the aubergine flesh. Mash with a fork, and combine with the other ingredients. Taste as you go - the above is just a guideline and you might want more lemon juice or molasses depending on the balance of sweet-sour-smoky.
Stone bread (makes 6-8 flatbreads):
2 tsp dried yeast
180ml warm water
270g wholemeal flour
500g strong white bread flour
1 1/2 tbsp sea salt
300ml tepid water
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 10 minutes. Combine the flours and salt in an electric mixer with a dough hook. Stir the yeast mixture into the tepid water, then gradually work into the flour. Knead for 10-15 minutes on a slow speed (or by hand) until smooth and shiny. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and leave in a warm place to double in size (about 2 hours).
Preheat the oven to its highest temperature. Knock back the dough, then leave to prove for 20 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time, scatter some dried chickpeas or beans, or a lot of washed and oiled pebbles, over the base of a large baking tray. Heat until very hot.
Divide the dough into 6-8 portions and roll into thin oval shapes. Transfer to the baking tray and push firmly onto the pebbles. Bake for 5 minutes, until a rich golden brown (you can do this in batches if they won't all fit).