We love experimenting in the Bistro kitchen, and we’ve always found regional cuisine to be an excellent source of inspiration whenever we want to try something new. There’s indeed no reason not to try new things nowadays, with the endless array of TV shows, magazines and cookbooks teaching us new culinary techniques and innovative flavour combinations, but we’ve always found that anonymous country cooks will often surprise us by their unsurpassed creativity. They “just know” how to combine the most ordinary and often easily overlooked ingredients into amazing food that’s deeply satisfying and full of interesting flavour. Whether that is done through sheer genius or a solid understanding of seasonal produce and regional tastes is currently a matter for open debate in many circles. Chef Gerald and Mummy simply admire it for what it is and aspire to learn some of these enviable skills as we go.
Whenever we want to find a new source of inspiration for a dish or even an ingredient, Mummy turns to our regional cookbook collection – and she quickly finds something interesting, usually well before Chef Gerald starts nibbling at her hands signalling that he is now bored and it is time to get into the kitchen and do some real cooking instead of just reading about it. Mummy has learned by now that a leisurely browse through a cherished cookbook is mostly incompatible with your parrot’s attention span – you have a maximum of 2 minutes before your hands get bitten or the edges of your book start getting shredded…….
Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book is a recent addition to the Bistro library and, so far, it has managed to escape Chef Gerald’s inquisitive beak. This is a real treasure chest of wonderful ideas on what to do with various types of produce, and while it doesn’t focus on any specific type of cuisine, its vast recipe content hails from virtually all corners of the globe.
This intriguing Spanish aubergine dish sounded like the perfect opportunity to break out of our grilled eggplant habit. It’s an interesting combination of sweet, sour and slightly bitter flavours, using some typical Mediterranean summer ingredients. The rather unusual slightly bitter flavour comes from the unpeeled lemon slices. The original recipe called for two whole lemons to be used in the dish, however we feared this would be too overpowering and drastically reduced that quantity. However, if you are very fond of citrus flavours, feel free to use the original quantity.
The layering may seem a little daunting at first, but it’s actually not too time consuming. Rubbing the eggplant slices with salt and then letting them drain for half an hour is another controversial topic and ultimately a matter of personal taste. We have, however, managed to skip this step without any negative consequences on many occasions.
As you may have guessed, in the original recipe the eggplant was accompanied by saffron rice, and we went into a mild state of shock when we discovered that the Bistro pantry contained too little rice to make this a meaningful dish. After the initial panic, we remembered that this was all part of Mummy’s deliberate plan of getting us to eat different grains – if you have little or no white rice or pasta on hand, but plenty of other grains, then you have to experiment with what you’ve got…..
Most of us are familiar with bulgur used in tabbouleh and in various types of stuffing, but we have discovered that it makes an excellent rice substitute. In this case, it provided a very interesting chewy texture and it complimented the flavour of saffron, pine nuts and sultanas very well.
Spanish Style Sweet and Sour Eggplant
2 large eggplants, sliced lengthways 1 cm thick
1 large red capsicum, cut into ½ cm strips
2 red (Spanish) onions, thinly sliced
½ lemon, unpeeled, very thinly sliced
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp butter
3 tbsp raw sugar
5 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tbsp sultanas
(Omit this step if you are short on time – please see notes above) Rub the eggplant slices with salt, stack them in 2 or 3 piles and place on a sloping surface for about half an hour to drain. Rinse thoroughly, then pat dry and set aside until ready to use.
Lightly grease a large baking dish with the olive oil.
Lay the onion slices in the baking dish so that they cover the entire surface of the dish.
Place one layer of eggplant slices (use the widest slices for this layer, and leave the narrow ones for the top layer) over the onions, aiming to cover as much of the surface as possible, but without overlapping.
Place a lemon slice on each eggplant piece, then top with some capsicum strips.
Repeat with another layer of eggplant/lemon/capsicum and continue until you have exhausted all ingredients. Depending on the size and shape of your baking dish, you should end up with about 4 stacks of eggplant/lemon/capsicum. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
In the mean time, pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Place the butter, sugar, vinegar, crushed garlic, sultanas and about 4 – 5 tbsp water in a small sauce pan and simmer slowly for about 10 minutes.
Pour over the eggplant stack.
Bake, covered, for about 40 – 45 minutes, until the eggplant is soft. If there is too much liquid left in the baking dish, pour it into a saucepan and boil rapidly until it has reduced to the desired consistency. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
1 ½ cups coarse wholemeal bulgur
3 cups boiling water
Pinch of saffron
½ large red capsicum, diced
1 tbsp sultanas
40 g lightly toasted pine nuts
1 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
Mix the bulgur with the saffron strands, place in a bowl, pour over the boiling water and let stand, covered, for one hour. Check the consistency. We like ours with a bit of texture, however if you prefer yours softer, add a little bit more hot water and microwave for 2 minutes. Let it stand for about 5 minutes, before fluffing it with a fork. Repeat this step if necessary.
Add the remaining ingredients, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, place an eggplant stack in the middle of the plate, surround it with bulgur and then drizzle with some of the sauce. Best served cold/at room temperature. Serves 4.