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Eggplant parmigiana

The one nice thing about a wet and cold Scottish summer is the tomatoes. No, it doesn’t make them grow better. (They either come from Spain or are grown in poly-tunnels.) Cold weather just makes it much more pleasant to cook luscious tomato sauces and bakes. If I were from a big Italian family, getting ready for the summer tomato-sauce bottling party, I’d pray for a cold day like today.

Craving warm sweaters and wintery food, yet with full access to summer vegetables, I decided that nothing could be better than baked eggplants, mozzarella and tomatoes.

Eggplant parmigiana

  • 3 eggplants/aubergines
  • several tablespoons of olive oil
  • 8 ripe tomatoes (or two400g tins of tomatoes if it really is winter)
  • 1 onion
  • 1/2 carrot – grated
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves
  • 2 balls fresh mozzarella
  • handful of grated parmesan

Slice the eggplants into 3/4 cm slices and lay them in a large colander, sprinkling a little salt over each layer. Sit this over another bowl, or the sink, to catch the juices. (You can skip this step if you like. I don’t find that the salting alters the flavour that much, but I do suspect that unsalted eggplants absorb more oil when fried. I’ll have to check this out with my food-technologist mother.)  After an hour or two, rinse the eggplants and pat to dry. Heat a frying pan or griddle, brush each side of the aubergine with olive oil and fry until soft and browned on both sides.

While the eggplant is salting, make the tomato sauce. Cut a small cross in the skin on the bottom of each tomato and place them in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes, leave for a minute and then refresh in cold water. Peel off the skins. Chop roughly. Chop the onion and sweat in a tablespoon of olive oil. Crush the garlic and add, along with the carrot, to the onion. Fry for one minute before adding the tomatoes and cinnamon.  Leave to burble and simmer for around half an hour.

Spread a thin layer of the sauce on the base of baking dish. Layer fresh basil leaves, slices of the fried eggplant and then slices of fresh mozzarella over the top. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Finish with a layer of sauce followed by a sprinkling of parmesan. Bake in a 180C pre-heated oven for 35 minutes or until the top is golden.

This dish is another of what is fast becoming a new sub-category of food for me: the mid-week-two-parter. These are meals that can be cooked in two sessions – the second being relatively short and uncomplicated, in order that a tired husband can assemble and feed it to a hungry toddler within half an hour.

This one didn’t even require assembly. On Monday, I fried the eggplant, made the tomato sauce, and layered everything together. All my heroic pair had to do on Tuesday was get it into a preheated oven and make a salad.

Nectarine tart

The Marchmont green grocers had huge boxes of Spanish white nectarines for £2 this week. ‘How is £2 possible?’ I asked. They didn’t know. After months of ‘ripen-in-the-bowl’ stone fruit – that slowly soften, but are never actually ripe – these were a real treat. We ate a whole box, just as they were – sticky and tart, with sweetness running down our wrists.

I scoured my books for nectarine and peach recipes and found an excuse to buy a second box inside Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion in a recipe that she borrowed from Marieke Brugman. Ila was asleep when I started baking so I couldn’t run out for the macadamias and Cointreau that I lacked. Below is my adaptation:

  • 1 quantity short crust pastry (makes 2 tarts)
  • 6-8 nectarines
  • 150 g butter
  • 200 g castor sugar
  • 150 g ground almonds
  • 50 g chopped almonds
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup gin mixed with lemon syrup

Take the pastry from the fridge, roll out, press into tart tins and return them to the fridge for an hour. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line the tart cases with foil, followed by baking beans or lentils, and bake blind for 20 minutes. Leave to cool.

Slice the nectarines and arrange, skin-side-up, in the cooled tart cases. Cream butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Mix in the ground almonds. Beat in the eggs one at a time, followed by the gin and sugar syrup. (I boiled sugar, water, lemon juice and lemon rind into a syrup and used about 2 tablespoons of it with the gin.) Fold in the chopped nuts and pour the batter over the fruit. Bake in a preheated 160° oven for 50 minutes – 1 hour. Allow tart to cool in oven.

I’ve never cooked with gin before, but I think nectarines and juniper berries are a combination worth revisiting.

Rhubarb blether

My guilty evening treat in early summer isn’t cake or ice-cream or biscuits. It’s a bowl of home-poached forced rhubarb, kept on the top shelf of the fridge. Poached rhubarb is completely different to stewed rhubarb. Stewed rhubarb is perfectly good in its place – which is in winter and covered in crumble. Poached rhubarb is soft, yet keeps its shape, and produces a delicate pink syrup that promises summer (or at least some sophisticated summer cocktails).

Most recipe books and food blogs (like this) make poaching rhubarb unnecessarily complicated. You don’t need to do it in batches or time the poaching exactly.

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Instead, bring to boil 150 grams of sugar and 180 millilitres of water to make a simple sugar syrup. Turn off the heat and straight-away pop in 2-3 stems of raw rhubarb, cut to about 1 inch lengths.  Pop the lid back on the saucepan and leave to cool. I don’t like vanilla with poached fruit, although I know many would add an old scraped out vanilla pod to the syrup.

If you’re lucky, like me, you’ll be the only one in your house with a palate for this amazing vegetable. And because it’s a vegetable, you can even pretend that your evening treat isn’t guilty at all.

Onion-skin Easter eggs

Last Easter, Ila was a tiny baby and I was barely able to leave the sofa. This Easter is very different. Ila is walking and talking and interested in everything. I want her to join in the egg hunt in our shared back garden, but I’m not very excited at the prospect of her eating lots of chocolate eggs. Traditional vegetable-dyed eggs seem like a better option and, unlike me, Ila is partial to a boiled egg in the morning.

Onion-skin-dyed boiled eggs

  • 6 eggs (using slightly old eggs will make them easier to peel)
  • red and brown onion skins, with pieces as large as possible
  • an old pair of stockings

Wrap an egg in onion skins, covering any gaps. Holding around the skins, gently insert the egg into the foot of a stocking. (You might need to rearrange the onion skins a little once the egg is inside.) Cut the stocking a couple of inches above the egg and tie a knot in the stocking so that it can’t move about. Repeat with the remaining eggs and knotted pieces of stocking.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and gentle lower the eggs-in-stockings into a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat so the water continues at a slow burble. Leave to simmer for 7 minutes. (The eggs will be slightly over-cooked, but the colours will be great.) Leave the eggs to cool in the stockings.

Once the onion skins have been removed, rub a little olive oil on the egg-shells to enhance the colour and make the shells shine. The onion colour sometimes seeps through to the egg-white making it very slightly tan. I like to imagine that the eggs have an oniony flavour as well. Keep the eggs in the fridge when they aren’t being hidden in the garden.

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Dhal and Hilsha

I’ve been living in Bangladesh for six months now, and since my arrival haven’t written a single word about food. It’s not that I’ve stopped thinking about it. Indeed, I’m just as greedy as ever and I’d say that about thirty percent of my thoughts still centre on dinner, and another thirty goes for lunch and breakfast. It’s just that it’s hard to fully appreciate a national cuisine when every other meal seems determined to produce a serious bout of food poisoning.

Indeed, I’ve experienced just about every possible stomach upset imaginable since coming here. My colleagues at work are convinced that I’m not used to chilli or spices. They don’t seem to realise that Bangladesh does not have a world-wide spice monopoly. (Besides, on my second day in Bangladesh, a fellow AYAD dared me to pop a green chilli in one go – local style – and crunch it down as an after-dinner snack. It made me cry, but my stomach did not seem to be bothered.)

Instead, I think that I’m just not used to the bacteria levels of much Bengali food. Perhaps that’s because I try to forgo the protective layer of oil that seems to coat many dishes. You think I’m joking – but really one sometimes needs a whole role of paper towel to sop up the grease that sits on top of a bowl of dhal.

Even so, it’s not like I haven’t discovered some amazing food since I’ve been here. I’m a little addicted to shingara, the vegetable-filled fried pastries that we get most mornings for elevenses. I’ve also come to appreciate the art of “smashed” cuisine. There’s often nothing better than a hot paratha and fresh omelette for breakfast. The sweet ginger tea, that I sometimes get in the office of a DPHE official (instead of the usual condensed milk chai) is always a treat and has never made me sick.

So, I’ve resolved that for my last six months I will resume writing Nutmeg and Anchovies (although those two ingredients will be on a hiatus for a while). Until September, I’ll rename my blog: dhal and hilsha.

Fennel and Blood Orange Salad

It wasn’t really salad weather, but sometimes you just need something raw and crunchy. This salad was a cracker. Raw fennel is my new favourite salad base.

1 fennel bulb, sliced thinly
2 blood oranges, segmented with all pith removed
1/2 cup (of so) of green olives, sliced
several sploshes of olive oil
several splashes of apple cider vinegar

Toss thoroughly. The olives that we bought at the market had been marinated in some kind of Italian herb oil (with oregano and basil I think) which was not a bad idea.

Salted Potatoes

Mum reinvented the baked potato last night. Well not really. She used to do salted potatoes a lot, but you know how it is with food. You’ll make something every week for two months because it’s on your brain and everybody liked it the first time. Then you’ll forget about it for years because, well, there are newer and more exciting things to try.

Wash potatoes well and prick all over with a fork. Rub with coarsely ground salt. There’s no need to add oil as the moisture from the fork holes will help the salt to stick. Bake as usual directly on the rack in the centre of the oven.

Cheat’s Italian Part One – Spaghetti

I’ve had some disgusting meals recently and many of them have been presented, in some for or other, under the label of “Italian cuisine”. Yet real Italian food bears no resemblance to the messes I have been offered. A cooking culture whose prime interest is in fresh ingredients prepared simply should inspire quick and lively meals. “Let’s grab an Italian tonight” is not a phrase that should send us running to the chilled ready-meals, the freezer or the local take-away. Yet this is precisely what I’ve experienced in the form of heat and serve pasta sauces, frozen lasagna and (shudder) dominos pizza. In response, I’ve decided on a three part set of cheaters’ Italian recipes. While not straight out of a Neapolitan cookbook, these recipes are about fresh ingredients and are quick enough to prepare in the middle of the week.

Here are two favourite spaghetti sauce recipes. (There really is no excuse to reach for a bottle of red slop with the odd onion or mushroom slice thrown in.) The most important ingredient here is fresh basil, so buy a live plant and keep it on your window sill. With water only, it will last a month or two.

Firstly, please cook your pasta properly. Heat the water to a rolling boil and add a little salt. Cook the pasta only until it is just cooked through – ‘al dente‘ if you want to pretend that you speak Italian. I often find that a minute less than the guide cooking time is a good way to go for UK packs.

LEMON BASIL SPAGHETTI

While your pasta is cooking, mix
a nob of butter
100 mls cream
1 tablespoon of lemon juice

in a small saucepan over low heat. (Don’t be tempted to add more lemon juice or it will sour and curdle – I tried it.) Stir until combined.
Drain you pasta but do not rinse, and leave a few tablespoons of cooking liquid sloshing around the bottom of the pan. Pour over the lemon mixture and add
the grated zest of 2 lemons
(Only take the yellow part of the lemon, as the white pith is bitter.)
Toss the pasta around and once it has cooled a little add
grated nutmeg
a handful of torn basil leaves
a handful of grated Parmesan.

(If you add the Parmesan while the pan is too hot, it will turn to a sticky glue on the bottom.)
Toss again and serve with extra basil and Parmesan scattered on top.

TOMATO BASIL SPAGHETTI

While the pasta is cooking, rub
a few hundred grams of small or cherry tomatoes in
olive oil.
Place on a baking tray with short sides under a hot grill. Give the tray a little shake after two minutes so that the tomatoes grill evenly. Once the tomatoes have split, released some juice and turned a little brown on the edges, remove from the oven.
Pour the tomatoes and the juices over the drained pasta. Add
another slosh of olive oil
a generous handful of fresh torn basil leaves
a handful of Parmesan.

Toss and serve.

Birthday Books

April 24th was my birthday. Armed with a picnic lunch and intent on cycling to the Holy Isle, P and I caught the train to Berwick upon Tweed. Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle running for the train at Haymarket. By the time we reached Berwick, each malleaous ankle bump had transformed into a dent in the swollen purple grapefruit that now joined my foot to my leg. The cycle to Lindisfarne was replaced by a slow hobble around the city walls and lunch looking out to sea over the golf course. Walking back to the train station, we passed Berrydin Books, a second hand and remaindered bookseller. I limped through the door and soon spotted the cookery section.

Cookery sections in second hand bookstores and charity shops are rarely inspiring places, being generally stocked with encyclopedias of microwave gourmet that encourage the creation of entire Sunday lunches using only electromagnetic radiation. However, at Berrydin books I found a new set of titles from the Penguin Cookery Library. As a present to myself, I purchased the volumes Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David, English Food by Jane Grigson and A Celebration of Soup by Lindsey Bareham.
I’ve read the introduction to English Food and, while still a sceptic, I’m prepared to be convinced of the “wonderful inheritance” of English cooks. I’ve also read the introduction to the Bareham book, along with the first few sections on Stock-Making, Stock Recipes and Stock-pot Information. This book has so inspired me that I included a soup resolution in the usual list that I write on my birthday.
This year I will abandon stock-cubes and learn how to make quick and easy vegetable, poultry, red meat and fish stocks.
I think I might have to move to a flat with space for a fridge-freezer that is larger than a bread box.

One’s favorite book is as elusive as one’s favorite pudding.

P and I have been flicking through our dictionary of quotations recently, in order to find choice quotes that we can write Amelie-style, in window chalk, on our living-room window. (The people at the bus-stop below look so miserable every morning that we thought they needed some poetic inspiration or at least some humorous prose.) A few days ago I found the E. M. Forster gem which gives today’s title. Given that I had spent the previous hour trying to work out what to make for dessert at a dinner party the next day, I remembered how true it is.

I went for sticky date pudding. While I wouldn’t call sticky date my absolute favorite, it is right up there. Sticky date is probably the culinary equivalent of Jane Eyre on my favorite books list: sweet, dark and rich, but just a little too sugary at the end. Lacking an appropriate square tin, I made my puddings in muffin moulds which probably helps prevent the usual over-indulgent finale.

170 g stoned dates
1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
300 ml boiling water
60 g unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
2 eggs
170 g self-raising flour
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract


Chop the dates and mix them with the bicarbonate soda. Pour over water, stir and leave to stand. (I left my dates for most of the afternoon. As that seems to break them up really well.)
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each. Fold in the flour. Gently stir in the date mixture and the vanilla.
Pour the mixture into 10 greased muffin moulds. Bake in a 180°C oven for 30 minutes.

When the puddings are nearly cooked, make the sauce.

400 g brown sugar
1 cup thick cream
250 g unsalted butter
½ teaspoon of pure vanilla extract
(because I didn’t have a vanilla bean)

Bring all sauce ingredients to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
Once the puddings are cooked, use a butter knife to pop each pudding half-way out of its tin and spoon a little sauce underneath. Slip each pudding back into its tin and spoon more sauce over the tops. Return the tray to the oven for 2-3 minutes.

Serve with ice cream, cream and the remaining warm sauce.