Just before Christmas, a friend asked me for this recipe, and I realised I’d never actually posted it.
This was a bit of a surprise, as it’s something I’ve been making for years. I had to send him the draft, and it was, let’s say, a little rough…
I’ve tidied it up now.
So, what exactly is “three cup aubergines”? It looks pretty questionable if you try to express it in emoji, but it’s just a veggie take on a Chinese classic: Three Cup Chicken.
I don’t think there’s a recipe in Every Grain of Rice– which has become my go-to for Chinese food – but that Serious Eats one is decent, and it’s pretty simple in any case.
The three cups in question are, historically, one each of soy, rice wine, and sesame oil, all cooked down to a sticky sauce. Although if you actually use three cups of each you’ll need to serve it with a generous side of blood pressure meds.
Both the aubergine and chicken versions are quick to make, succulent, and incredibly comforting served with a bowl of rice and some simple greens.
So, I’m doing “Veguary” again. It’s what it sounds like: a horrifying portmanteau, and 28 days off the meat. It’s great fun, more about shaking up my cooking habits than any kind of health-nut hand-wringing. I am, as a friend put it, “in it for the pies not the piety”.
Accordingly, I like to use Veguary to do two things: explore exciting vegetable flavours, and work up veggie hacks of meat dishes to see what I can get away with. This is the latter.
Peposo is a Tuscan beef stew I first had cooked from Jamie’s Italy years ago by a friend. It’s stuck with me – feisty and warming, and so satisfying. It takes balck pepper, and punches it up to curry levels of spicy impact.
But at its core, it’s a simple stew. You can do it with just wine, beef, pepper, and about four hours. There’s a pretty good recipe here. For the mushroom version, I’ve had to cheat a bit and nudge some flavors around for body.
I love making starters, particularly fussy little pastry contrivances. But Christmas dinner can be an all-out onslaught on the digestion, so something lighter seemed necessary. After an hour or so spent building a fort out of recipe books and looking for something that fit the bill, I failed completely and settled upon caponata. It’s vegetarian, certainly. But it is not light.
Caponata is a rich stew of aubergines and tomatoes, with handfuls of capers and olives. It’s what you’d get to if you spent months trying to re-engineer tapenade into a casserole. It has a sweet and sour edge, and looks lovely – like a rougher aubergine caviar, and just as richly savoury.
So obviously I put goats’ cheese on it. Obviously.
Baingan bartha (bharta?) is a dish I first had from Inder’s Kitchen. At least, I think it’s called baingan bartha, and Google vaguely corroborates that. Anyway, Inder’s is probably the best Indian food in Cambridge – their menu riffs on home cooking and regional authenticity. It’s not the parade of stumbling-out-of-the-pub curry house generics it’s so easy to associate with Indian food, and when they do put on a cliché/classic it tends to reflect a real respect for quality ingredients.
They’re also lovely people. And they’re lovely people who make a mean smoked aubergine mash.
I’ve been trying to replicate it for some time, with a variety of techniques, and just not nailed it. The simple explanation is that you really need a tandoor. I don’t have one, but I have managed to come up with a passable impersonation of Baingan bartha.
On Thursday night, feeling lazy, I shoved a bunch of tomatoes in the oven with some onions and a few cloves of garlic, roasted it, and dumped it over pasta. It worked broadly, but didn’t quite cohere. The presentation was pleasingly caricature-rustic, and the roasted garlic flavour gave the whole thing a rich backbone. There was a faint smokiness from the slightly-singed tomato skins, the garlic, and the onions (which also retained some crunch). But it wasn’t there yet.
The obvious thing to add would probably be peppers. Courgettes would work, too. Throw it all in the oven, maybe add some wine at the end and mush up the tomatoes a bit. But again, that doesn’t feel quite right to me.
So here’s the plan: switch out the pappardelle for orecchiette, I was just using up leftovers anyway. That changes the texture breakdown, and opens up different structures of sauce, and size and shape of ingredients. Keep the roasted tomatoes, garlic, and onion pieces – the garlic can be peeled and fine-chopped back into the sauce at the end. Go with the wine to let it out a bit. To make it richer and more substantial, throw in baby aubergines and Merguez sausages. I’m keeping an open mind on the peppers. I’ll see what I impulse buy at Al-Amin.