There is always that takeaway dish that we all keep ordering again and again in the most unadventurous repetitive manner. That Indian takeaway dish for me is not a balti or a korma and I even managed to overcome my obsession with chicken shatkora, a Bangladeshi specialty flavoured with the exotic shatkora fruit, otherwise known as citrus macroptera or as I prefer to call it ‘ wild orange’.
But I am not going to talk about the culinary potential of the shatokora and its tantalizing combinations with chicken and mutton today because most recently my favourite takeaway dish and inspiration for this recipe is king prawn nawabi bahar. Apart from its taste I am also intrigued by its name. Nawabs were the regional rulers of East Indian provinces and from the little information I can find on the internet they are described as connoisseurs of fine dining. I am not quite sure about the meaning of bahar butin Persian the word translates to ‘spring’ and it also seems to be used as a name in Iran and Turkey. The word also seems to have been used to describe a unit in the trading system that stretched from the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa. To me bahar sounds like the words μπαχάρι (bahari) or μπαχάρια/μπαχαρικά (baharia/baharika) the first one of which we use in Greece to describe allspice or pimento berries , which should not be confused with the allspice powder mixture used in Britain or the red pimento peppers of Spain. The second word, μπαχάρια/μπαχρικά (baharia/baharika), is used to describe (aromatic) spices in Greek. So there could be a connection as I imagine that there was spice trade in the ports of China, the East Indies, India and eastern Africa that someone I am sure had to measure in some unit possibly called bahar? Any views on this? In my mind, and in the context of food and this recipe, it may be that the word bahar signifies the generous amount of fragrant spices used in the dish.
Whatever the secret spice recipe of my local takeaway may be I am mostly taken by the combination of aubergines and king prawns in a light sauce dish that is almost ‘dry’ but moist enough to flavour the meaty prawns in their shell. So when a couple of days ago I stopped at ‘World foods’, my local corner store and cornucopia of spices and exotic foods, a basket full with small light violet aubergines, fresh, firm and about 10 centimeters long , caught my attention and had me thinking about making my own version of nawabi bahar. I love this tiny little shop that is always busy but somehow still fits all of us in at the same time. In its tightly but neatly packed space World Foods also fits a halal butcher, a greengrocery corner and a fish and seafood freezer something that made things really convenient last Wednesday as I grabbed all my essential ingredients, the ‘baby’ aubergine 8-10), king prawns (500gr net weight), tomatoes, onions , and was ready to cook a few minutes after leaving the shop.
I committed two ‘crimes’ in preparation of this dish that I would like to confess. First I bought frozen king prawns the destination of which I cannot confirm and that makes me feel bad about the possible unacceptable method in which they were caught. But I have chosen to be honest in this cooking journal and despite my best intentions I do not always buy as local and green as I should and would like. My second confession is about the quick defrosting method of the prawns that many cooking experts will frown upon. I simply had to fill and refill a pot with warm water and immerse the bag of prawns in it to defrost. If you are not too careful with the water temperature this could par cook your prawns that could lead into over cooking them later.
When I started cooking I was not in the mood for generous doses of baharia (spices) as I wanted to focus on the tender aubergine and prawn combination. So when I fried a large onion in a bit of olive oil in low heat I only added a bit of salt and some ground coriander. I tossed in the small walnut size aubergine chunks I cut the fruit in, fried for a few minutes with the onions and then added four crashed garlic cloves. I added the 4-6 medium sized ripe tomatoes, especially ‘soft’ and selected for sauce, blitzed in my minipimer blender (otherwise known as my kitchen chopper!) before the garlic burned. Sugar (not more than a tablespoon), more salt, some ginger power and more ground coriander also went in. I would have loved some lime in this but as I had note the juice of a lemon was a great substitue and an addition that I think is essential. In terms of sauce quantity, I simply aimed to have enough to give the thirsty aubergines some juice to cook in and be left with enough to quickly cook the prawns in. I don’t think this is one of the rich and plentiful sauce dishes that you dip your naan bread in.
Despite my initial instinct to keep this dish simple, I was suddenly convinced it needed cinnamon and something else, but what? I dreamingly gazed over my racks of spices and the colorful jars decorating my wall as well as taking up most of the space of one of my small kitchen cupboards. Allspice, the kind that is used in Britain and mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, appeared boldly behind a harissa jar! Tata! It joined the sauce with a bit more coriander powder. By the time the aubergines had simmered in the tomatoes and onions sauce (for about 15 minutes or maybe 20) it was time to add a taste of the sea. In less than 10 minutes after the shell-on king prawns went in (about 20 of them or about 500gr) my desired aubergine and prawn meal was ready, satisfying and tasty, and served on a bowl of white and red quinoa, as a healthier alternative to rice.
Portabella mushrooms filled with lentils and beans.
For Hannah Briggs with whom I have been ‘full of beans’ most of the winter gone!
When I started this blog I had every intention to give out ‘real time’ recipes and to record the wonderful moments of congregation at the end of a week day and at the waking of the weekend.
Well I have not done it and recently I had a random conversation about this blog and my idea of how it was going to work. I think I laughed out loud at the sound of the words describing yet another regime that I was imposing to myself! (as if there are not enough constraints structures, rules and norms in life). “What about sharing memories, recipes and stories of now and then?” I thought, and my mind was immediately greeted with beautiful memories like the ones I had just shared in my conversation.
So the first memory I want to share is one of a late February midweek evening, during the period of what I call the deep winter ‘blues’ , when I usually have had ENOUGH of the dark and cold days. Perhaps I am sharing a winter story to help you appreciate your UK summer, however rainy it has been today, or to cool down those of you suffering in heat. Or perhaps I am just doing it because I am very fond of this particular moment and the people I shared it with.
It was the end of a long tiring day, one of those when you don’t see the sunrise because you left for work too early and you don’t see the daylight because you return home too late from meetings in dark rooms and stuffy spaces. Inexplicably last February I switched to a detox ‘spring clean’ mode with real cravings for pulses, ‘meaty’ mushrooms, spinach, strong cheese and an aversion to red meat and poultry. I’d stopped at the green grocer on Albany road on my way home where the glimpse of some beautiful portabella mushrooms got me salivating. Suddenly, I was in THAT special place where my mind, heart and stomach come together to dream up a recipe and soon I was happily heading home stocked up with fresh basil, two tins of organic cooked cannellini beans and puy lentils, some Welsh goats cheese, a wedge of parmesan, ripe tomatoes, onions and peppers. Filled mushrooms with yummy pulses was the vision!
Dan, Hannah, my lovely friend who was staying with me at the time, and I arrived at my house one after the other within a couple of minutes with impeccable timing. We all looked tired and famished. It had been the kind of cold day that made you desperate for comfort and warmth. We turned on a dimmed light and started cooking to Richie Havens’ soothing deep voice and guitar strumming.
For our ‘feel good’ mushroom dish we fried an onion (or 2?) in low heat until translucent and then added a sliced red pepper, followed by many cloves of garlic (at least 3) and chopped ripe tomatoes (2 medium tomatoes or 6 or so cherry or small plum tomatoes). Once all of these were stir fried we added the strained beans and puy lentils and stirred in the heated pan until all the juices evaporated. Before we added the Welsh goats cheese we reduced the temperature to very low , added a generous amount of young spinach leaves, watched them ‘wither’ before deciding whether we should add more, more of which we did add, and finally seasoned with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper.
Next we grilled the large portabella mushrooms. I picked large and ‘deep’ mushrooms so that I could fill them with a generous amount of the bean and lentil mixture. Before the mushrooms were grilled we removed the stem – and placed carefully in our mouths. To make preparation faster we grilled the mushrooms in a non-stick pan. Adding a little bit of olive oil and some water (a couple of teaspoons) avoided burning the mushrooms and helped cook them quicker until soft enough to eat but firm enough to hold a good portion of the filling.
In the meantime to make this dish even more interesting in texture and to add a crunchy finish I decided to prepare a top crust with the parmesan, basil and some breadcrumbs. In a chopper I whizzed most (at least half) of the parmesan wedge, a whole bunch of basil, and breadcrumbs together.
And finally it all came together in a baking tray where we placed the mushrooms (about 6) with their bottom side up for filling, added the lentils and beans mixture and topped it with the parmesan crumble before placing under the grill for a golden and crunchy finish.
Dan roasted some sun flower and pumpkin seeds for our mixed leaves salad whilst I prepared the usual balsamic vinegar vinaigrette, with olive oil, honey or maple syrup, salt and pepper. Don’t ask me about measurements it is a real weakness of mine. Just add the ingredients in a jar, shake joyfully, taste and adjust. I usually go overboard with the balsamic and always have to adjust but it works nonetheless. We tossed the salad leaves to mix the dressing and topped it with the roasted seeds and with a good serving of the golden mushrooms filled with bean and lentil goodness we shed our tiredness and frustration.
What took half an hour for the three of us to prepare was gone in a just a few minutes. And with a big sigh of relief, after humming to the music and enjoying the experience of eating in her usual jovial manner, Ms Briggs smiled at me and said: ‘ I ‘ve bean fed!’.