Food Without Fuss: The Chicken or The Eggplant?By
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, was written with the spring selections of our Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Wine Without Fuss offers regular selections of delicious wines… with the minimum of fuss!
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Molecular gastronomy, you’ve had your moment! Dry ice, foams and fizzes, move aside for those useful ingredients that happily absorb any others you may throw at them, depending on which bottle in your recently arrived Wine Without Fuss case you are most impatient to uncork.
I like to call this vehicular gastronomy, and you won’t find a better chassis than a chicken breast or an aubergine.
In the case of the chicken, I’m afraid needs must. Unless you happen to live on an island that time forgot, where chickens do what comes naturally, or you can justify the cost of a bird defined strictly by labyrinthine rules on breed, feed and, probably, what it’s allowed to read, bring on the garlic, pesto and garam masala.
By contrast, the aubergine needs neither towing nor jump-starting. It has a flavour engine of its own, not turbocharged, but definitely ticking over. Its glossy sheen draws me inexorably to those artfully piled ‘obo’s’ (sic) at the greengrocer’s. It matters not whether or not they were ripened by the sultry sun of the Levant: the ones grown in a Benelux hothouse can still do the designer haulage thing very nicely, and I’ll take half a dozen, please.
‘Versatile’ barely conveys its myriad applications. Consider (I can’t) an Indian take-away without a soft and shamelessly oily brinjal bhaji, or a Chinese one minus sea-spiced aubergine. The nearer east has countless variations on the theme, from baba ghanoush to imam bayildi: there are hundreds of recipes in Turkey alone as there are in any book by Yotam Ottolenghi. Moussaka, caponata, pasta alla norma and melanzane alla parmigiano bring us west and north, to the sunny tians of Provence, and an unforgettable dish I once had in Bordeaux – slices of aubergine, simply dusted with seasoned flour and fried, served alongside lamb so tender you could eat it with a spoon, and washed down with good claret.
If this sounds familiar, this is not my first paean to the aubergine. In fact, I said as much to Fuss subscribers many years ago when blogs were back pages that came with case notes. Online, I have space to go to town so in this, my last official Food Without Fuss blog post, after more, after more than a decade at the Wine and Dine coalface, I’m bowing out with a proper tribute.
Aubergines are ubiquitous, inexpensive and – you want more? – ready to do business with whatever you may have in the fridge or store-cupboard.
And I do mean ready. Salting is optional these days, and, as Jamie Oliver says, a microwave will reduce an aubergine to melting tenderness in 8 minutes flat (prick the skin first). I give thanks for this top tip every time I crave a squidgy little boat with a cargo of flavourful toppings that can be quickly flashed under the grill.
The recipe challenge for Easter has been whittling the possibilities down to a manageable six of the best, for casual snacking, for serving with the paschal lamb as those Bordelais did, or for inspiration at a time of year when seasonal produce may be a bit betwixt and between. The asparagus may be tardy and the Jersey royals, if the flag of residence is, indeed, up, at their wallet-wrenching dearest. An aubergine will always be there for you. Isn’t it time you loved it back?
It’s time to thank all readers of Food Without Fuss, firstly for reading,and also for the truly invaluable feedback I’ve received over the years, whether a resounding thumbs-up, a frank appraisal in the other direction or an impressive display of vigilance, most notably when I sent my fellow-members out for 800kg of fish for my Languedoc seafood pie. It’s been a blast, and you don’t get many of those with a fan oven!
I’m delivering the honour of writing this blog, and our Wine and Dine notes for ‘Fuss’ subscribers into very safe hands. They are those of my colleague Steve Farrow, The Society’s Database Editor by day, accomplished and adventurous cook at all other times. You’re in for a treat.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
Inspired by Claudia Roden’s carefully curated Mediterranean Cookery (BBC Books, 1987) this fuss-free dip, a variant of Baba Ganoush requires merely that you bake an aubergine until tender and mix the flesh with tahini paste, crushed garlic, lemon juice, a dash of thick yoghurt and seasoning, all to taste. Finish with a little olive oil and some chopped parsley and serve with flatbreads and black olives.
Wine: Like hummous (it must be the palate—coating tahini), this has a rapport with the piquancy of sauvignon. Try Saleta Moscatel-Sauvignon Blanc (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.50) or Kaapzicht Chenin Blanc (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £7.95), accurately described by its producer as ‘chenin blanc for sauvignon lovers’.
There are countless throwaway recipes for this but the one I never discard belongs to Provence grand master Roger Vergé of Mougins, whose precision is palpable in Les Légumes de Mon Moulin (Flammarion, 1991). Slice your aubergine in half lengthwise and slice through the flesh to about a depth of about 2.5cm, stopping well clear of the skin,, in a diamond pattern. Rub in a lick of olive oil and a pinch of salt and bake, cut side down at 220C/Gas 7 for about 35 minutes, until tender.
Process the scooped flesh until tender, with a couple of peeled and deseeded tomatoes, half a clove of garlic, minced, and either a pinch of cayenne pepper or a few chopped basil leaves. Add a thin, steady stream of olive oil as for mayonnaise. About 150ml should suffice, unless your specimen is a veritable Titan from the Ray Harryhausen school of special effects. The texture should be luxuriously silky. I like to chill this slightly before bringing back to room temperature and serving with flatbreads and plump olives.
Wine: M Vergé is persuaded that the aubergine is a red wine kind of chap, recommending fruity southern Rhônes No shortage of this style in Easter Fuss, and I’d especially recommend Cairanne, Domaine Romain Roche 2014 (French Classic Reds), especially if you’ve gone the cayenne route. However, I love this with a, fragrant but upstanding white like Auzelles, Costers del Segre 2015 (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £9.95).
Simon Hopkinson’s Grilled Pesto Aubergines
The acknowledged Chefs’ Chef and my own personal pin up naturally preroasts his aubergines and makes his own superior pesto. Dare I suggest that this is such a glorious combination that you might get away with the quick Jamie method and a handy jar? I freely admit that I have.
To do it by the book – the seminal Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury Press, 1994, and never, I think out of print since) – prepare and cook your aubergines exactly as above, but for a little less time, say 20-30 minutes. Remove for the oven, spread lavishly with your home-made pesto and grill until golden brown and bubbling. Mop up joyfully with a good baguette.
Wine: White is best here, and by all means play the Italian card with the concentrated, herb-friendly Orvieto Castagnolo (Buyers’ Premium Whites), but another good match is Limoux, Dédicace, Chateau Rives-Blanques 2014 (French Classic Whites & £11.50).
Steamy Oriental Aubergines
This light but natty roadster is fuelled by a five-star dressing comprising a couple of tablespoons each of rice wine (or dry sherry) and soy sauce, a teaspoon each of toasted sesame oil and clear honey, and a thumb of fresh root ginger, finely grated. Whisk all these together and put in a wide frying pan.
Steam two big aubergines, wedged into eighths, over a pan of simmering water for about 15 minutes. Let the steam subside before adding them to the dressing, on a low heat. Braise gently for five minutes or so until the dressing is absorbed. Scatter with toasted sesame seeds. The wedges will cool to a slight stickiness, lovely with chicken, lamb or fish, and equally toothsome in a salad with crunchy leaves or blanched mangetout.
Wine: on the guiding principle of a bit of grapy richness with salt, especially if there’s some honey about, I’d plump for Australia, where they know a thing or two about fusion cuisine, and go for Felix Swan Hill Victoria Chardonnay-Viognier 2016 (Buyers’ Premium Whites & £8.75). If serving with lamb, I’d plump for the sweet fruit of Wakefield Promised Land Shiraz 2015 (Buyers’ Everyday Reds & £7.75).
This bold dressing for grilled aubergines kicks off with a good pinch each of cumin and coriander seeds, dry-toasted with a couple of black peppercorns until they are dancing in the pan. If you bought a bag of dried poeja (pennyroyal) while on holiday in Portugal and are wondering what to do with it, now’s your chance! Lovers of smoked paprika or pimientón could add a pinch of that too, sweet or hot as you like.
Transfer this rhythm section to a small saucepan with a tablespoon of top-notch sherry vinegar, a dash of lemon juice and 5 tablespoons of fruity olive oil. You’ll need some coriander or parsley later on, so separate the leaves and pop the stalks into the dressing. Apply heat and as things begin to sizzle, take the pan off the hob and leave the contents to infuse for as long as it takes for the oil to cool.
Strain the dressing over your grilled aubergines while they are still warm and serve at room temperature with country bread and perhaps a platter of Ibérico ham.
Wine: an embarrassment of Iberian and hispanic richesse awaits in the Easter Wine Without Fuss selections. Our appealing Alentejo find Monte da Ravasqueira Tinto 2015 (Buyer’s Premium Reds & £8.95) will do admirably and my favourite white with these bold flavours is the intriguing Boplaas Cape Portugese White Blend (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.95).
An Effortless Easter Curry
Aubergine is heavenly curry fodder, whether with lamb, or leftover turkey or, best of all in a vegetarian subzi dish. You can feed four people on one big aubergine, a large onion, thickly sliced, and a fat clove of garlic supplemented with pumpkin, sweet potato, green pepper and okra – about 600g in total, and all cut into generous bite-sized pieces as the aubergine should be.
Starting with the onion, simply brown everything in a bit of groundnut oil, stirring in a good pinch of your favourite spice mix and a crumbled red chilli to taste, remembering that you want to taste the wine too. Add can of light coconut cream and a generous squeeze of tomato puree. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently until the vegetables are tender and the juices thickened. At this stage you might wish to add a few cooked chickpeas for extra crunch, a generous scoop of thick yoghurt and some chopped coriander leaves. Serve with your favourite flatbread or rice.
To make use of that surplus Easter turkey, replace the extra vegetables with 500g cooked meat along with the coconut cream, bring to the boil and bake for 40 minutes or so at 190C/Gas 5, until the turkey is piping hot.
To give it a Greek or middle-eastern vibe, brown 500g generously cubed lamb neck fillet first, before adding your onion, garlic and aubergine. Instead of coconut milk, use stock or wine, and instead of curry spices, try dried oregano, za’atar and sweet, mild spices like ginger, cumin and cinnamon. Bake at 180C/Gas 4 for a couple of hours until tender.
Wine: Step forward multi-tasking Zarcillo Bío-Bío Gewürztraminer 2015 (Buyers’ Everyday Whites & £6.50) but I was also impressed with the spice-busting savvy of Boplaas ‘Tinta Chocolat’ Tinta Barocca (Buyers’ Premium Reds) which put in me in mind of the sweetness and layered spicing of Cape Malay cuisine. If you’re making the Greek or middle-eastern version, try the The Little Prince Cretan Red, Karavitakis 2014 (Buyers’ Premium Reds).