This is what happens when I am forced to eat out day in day out for a longer stretch of time – I overcompensate when I get the chance to cook again. Delicious as the food at the Malmaison was, I sorely missed the act of cooking. So when I was having a friend over for tea before cinema on Wednesday, I went all out. It really was meant to be a quick affair, just something to fill the hole before going out. Unlikely – the combined effect of pent up frustration and Claudia Roden’s mighty influence. I bought this little book some time ago and it is probably the most heavily used cookbook I own right now, its well thumbed pages splattered with tomato juice and who knows what delicious stuff. So what started off as meatballs and couscous turned into posho meatballs and jewelled couscous with a starter of babaghanoush, see below.
Boys love meatballs. This is a law of nature that holds as strong as the second law of thermodynamics. Luckily making meatballs is easy peasy, which means most boys are easy to please – but don’t we all know it. I keep debating whether it is worth to go to such ends to impress someone who will essentially eat anything, will they be able to appreciate the effort and the result? But that’s not what it’s about I hear you cry, it’s about the joy of cooking. Agreed. Anyway, meatballs are a menu staple in my imaginary restaurant, altering only slightly with the season. Hopefully my imaginary restaurant will one day become my real future restaurant, and the male half of my punters will be happy with their tummies full of meatball goodness.
My relationship with couscous is not one of happy acceptance and go-to comfort whenever I need, like most people’s probably is. Shock horror, I don’t really like couscous. This might seem surprising, after all, couscous is a staple of student diet, and my lifestyle has not evolved much past my student days. I would normally opt for bulgur wheat which I think is simply delicious, and the imaginary restaurant definitely serves the bulgur version of this dish. However, I have a wheat intolerant housemate who I want to keep happy, so couscous it was. Call me ignorant, it never would have occurred to me that couscous is wheat-free – but there you go! Had I not freaked out and added some bread crumbs to the meatball mixture to keep them firm it would have been a completely wheat free meal so keep that in mind if you ever need to entertain wheat intolerant friends.
And on to babaghanoush. This is one of my favourite snacks, and I cherish every moment I eat it homemade because it’s only a matter of time before Tesco rolls out a bastardised version in a tub for 99p, thus ruining the pleasure. I normally obtain best results by burning the life out of an aubergine on my gas hob (health and safety…), but this is not very practical if you have more than one aubergine to grill. My grill does not get very hot, but we got there in the end. I simply love the smoky flavour of the aubergine combined with zingy lemon juice and the nuttiness of tahini. I do recommend the hob method as it accentuates the smoky flavour. I used yogurt this time around to bulk it up a bit, this is by no means set in stone (or traditional even). It is also very tasty sprinkled with sumac.
I don’t think I need to dwell on the success of this meal too much…
The poor quality of these photos is down to two factors: my laziness in date food styling and rubbish energy saving lightbulbs – yes I can only cook after dark these days…
Meatballs with Pine Nuts and Tomato Sauce (serves 2 plus 2 packed lunches and 1 portion for supper the following day…)
500g lamb mince
salt & pepper
handful of breadcrumbs (optional)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground cumin
2 onions, halved and sliced
60g pine nuts
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp harrissa (or to taste)
juice of 1/2 lemon
Knead the mince together with the breadcrumbs (if using), seasoning and cinnamon. Don’t go all out with salt at this point, the meatballs with cook in a tomato sauce and will absorb salt from it. Roll into cute little marble sized balls and set aside.
Heat some oil in a large pan with a lid and gently fry your onions – no browning please! Depending on the size of your pan you might need to remove them before adding the meatballs to brown (or even brown them in batches), you don’t want to crowd your meat. Add the pine nuts and continue cooking for a couple more minutes before adding the tomato puree and chopped tomatoes. Add the harrissa at this point, as well as the lemon juice and more seasoning. Bring to the boil, then turn down, stick a lid on and find something to do. This will need to simmer for at least 20 minutes.
You want the sauce to reduce by about a half but keep checking that it is not getting too dry, if it is help it by adding a splash of water.
Jewelled Couscous (will feed an army – see quantities above)
couscous – a handful per person
enough veg stock to cover it
several saffron stamens
100g flaked almonds
seeds of 1 pomegranate
finely chopped mint
Place your couscous in a large bowl and cover with the hot stock. Add the saffron, mix well and cover. Leave to stand for 5-10 minutes, depending on quantity. In the meantime toast your flaked almonds in a dry pan (watch them like a hawk and don’t let neighbours distract you because that leads to burnt batches!), extract the pomegranate seeds and chop the mint so that you’re ready when the couscous is. Transfer the couscous into a serving bowl and fold in the pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds and mint.
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed to a paste
150 ml tahini (again depends on taste)
juice of 2 lemons or more
1/2 tsp ground cumin (optional)
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
Cook the aubergines on a hob (straight on the fire) or under a hot grill until they are blackened, then leave to cool and remove the skin. When they are cool enough squeeze out as much juice as possible. Add the garlic and blitz with a blender. Add the tahini, seasoning, cumin and lemon juice. Keep tasting it as you go, making this really is a matter of preference. I mentioned earlier that the slightly sour sumac would complement the smoky flavours nicely, otherwise just fold in your chopped parsley
Serve as a dip with some pitta bread and olives.