Aubergines with king prawns

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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.

‘I‘ve ‘bean’ fed!’

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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!’.

Cambodian curry with Hannah and Trevor

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For the past couple of weeks I have had the privilege of lovely Ms Hannah Briggs staying with me. Around the table Hannah and I (sometimes joined by my lovely Dan) have already shared many moments, impromptu dinners, and cups of tea after the long tiring days that have been typical of this last season.

But tonight is special as Hannah’s boyfriend, Trevor, is added to our company. Hannah and I join forces in the kitchen to cook up a feast. Hannah and Trevor love the flavours of the orient, so I decide to prepare Amok fish, the Cambodian curry that stole the culinary limelight during my recent stay in Siem Reap. And Hannah is making a chocolate and pear tart for desert (for which she credit’s Jamie Oliver).

Focaccia and humus are spread on the table to silence our rumbling bellies, whilst we cook and savour every moment of the easy atmosphere and effortless interaction.

The preparation

While Dan and Trevor fill the house with music and chatter, Hannah’s preparation of the tart distracts my senses with the aroma of melting chocolate, butter and eggs (and is that almond? Yum!). She lays and precooks the short crust pastry in a silicon cake tin (because we have not tart tin), and then she prepares the sauce skilfully.

In the other corner, ginger, chillies, lemongrass, lime rind, kaffir lime leaves and garlic are chopped and blitzed into amok curry paste together with fish sauce, shrimp paste, sesame oil, paprika, turmeric and peanuts. I mix a bit of the paste with a couple of tablespoons of coconut milk to marinate the chunky pieces of river cobbler in preparation of the dish. Next I put on the Thai fragrant rice to slowly shimmer to its sticky consistency. And after that I partly boil some curly kale for the curry.  Finally, I prepare the curry sauce. I decide to add to the flavour by frying an onion in sesame oil and then adding the well strained kale. Before I let the sauce simmer, I add the rest of the curry paste and coconut milk and cream. My secret ingredients are Campot pepper and an amok fish curry powder that I brought back from Cambodia. I think it mainly consists of turmeric and dried galangal.

Whilst the sauce simmers on low heat, I cook the marinated cobbler in a non stick pan for no more than 4 minutes and remove from heat. The heat of the pan continues to cook the fish and I don’t want the fish to flake when I add it to the curry sauce.

I love mixing up the spices into a familiar concoction, whilst listening to the conversation around the table. Trevor’s design project, Dan’s Big Little City, Hannah’s stories of old mariners and barges.

At the same time I travel back to the moment that I taste the best amok fish curry cooked by Auntie Pow at the Arun restaurant in Siem Riep. I close my eyes to bring up the memory of its flavour and then dip a spoon in the sauce to test the match. I add some fresh organic spinach to change its consistency and some more paprika and turmeric to adjust the flavour. Mission accomplished: the flavour is a match.

Finishing touches

Dan’s kiss lures me out of the creative bliss. He then whips two eggs and stirs them in the sauce to thicken and complete it. As I add the pre cooked fish we gently stir, cover and remove from the heat.

Hannah’s pear and chocolate tart looks beautifully spread. Slices of pear adorn the chocolate sauce. As we are ready to tuck into our main course, the tart enters the oven for 45 minutes.

Good conversation and new friends broaden our horizons and confirm that the world is a wonderful place to live in. I look at those two unexpected strangers that share their stories and time with us at our intimate gathering. I admire their ventures.  I will not reveal anything about Trevor’s design project but I am sure it will be a big and much sought after success. Don’t forget that I would love to test it on my bicycle Trevor!

Hannah’s current job is to interview people and through documenting the lives and work to trace the living history of places. Her work in various interesting documentaries and programmes fascinates me and so does her anthropology background and past work with women with HIV in Africa. Her genuine interest in sustainability, arts and the world makes me hopeful and inspired. And I have not even started on her warmth that wins you over instantaneously.

Dan’s Big Little City project joins our conversation and together with his contagious authenticity and enthusiasm it adds to the recipe of a good night.

Between conversations and stories, we clean up our main course and devour our slices of chocolate and pear tart. We indulge in good food and company and feed on the positive energy.  And hoping that our quartet meets again, we part to dream wonderful dreams.