I’m finally back in New York – a little weary, but also dieing for some healthy food to make up for the minimal vegetables I ate while I was away (and the huge amount of mayonnaise I had in Belgium). So, the night before last, when I offered to cook for Friede (who was staying with me, just as I stayed with her in London over the summer), I had it in mind that I wanted to make something not too rich, using seasonal vegetables that I was going to pick up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. It was, therefore, a rather pleasing moment when I just happened to open Feasts: Food for Sharing from Central and Eastern Europe by Silvena Rowe to a recipe that not only met my requirements exactly, but surpassed them – I was going to be able to use some of my “Special Vegetable Blend” spices which I bought last weekend at the spice stall at the Hester Street Flea Market. (It contains paprika, sesame seeds, and thyme – you could just make this meal with paprika and thyme, though).
First you cube aubergine (eggplant), and then put them in a sieve over the sink, sprinkle them with salt, toss them so the salt is evenly spread, and then leave them for an hour or so. This is to get all the acidic juices out of the aubergine, but there will be a lot of liquid produced, so it is wise to keep them in or over the sink. Before you add them to the dish, you must rinse off the salt – I ruined a meal once by not doing this, leaving it inedibly salty.
While the aubergine is doing it’s thing preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Now you can cut up the great pile of vegetables you have (it doesn’t matter too much what vegetables go into it, but it works better if the pieces they are cut into remain quite large). I had an amazing hall from the Union Square Greenmarket so used: 2 (enormous) courgettes (zucchini) sliced [you should cut these up first as you will be using them first – mine were so big that you might want to put in three or four if you can only find smaller ones]; 1 red pepper (capsicum), cut into large squares; 2 red (spanish, purple) onions, cut into eight wedges; 5 very large tomatoes, roughly diced; 5 cloves of garlic, halved; and 2 handfuls of okra. I have never cooked with okra before, and I was a bit concerned about it because whenever they use it on Top Chef, people complain about it being slimy. It was, however, a really fun part of the meal – all you have to do is cut off just the very tip of the ‘cap’ leaving most of the cap on, and you can throw it in whole.
When the aubergine (eggplant) is ready (you can be a bit rough about this) you heat a decent sized glug of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and throw that in with the courgettes (zucchini). Let them brown a little while making sure not to burn them – I did this part in two stages as I had a lot of vegetables, and not a massive frying pan.
While the frying up is going on, pour another large glug of olive oil into a really big pot (an earthenware dish was suggested in the original, but I didn’t have one) and put that in the oven for a little while to allow the oil to heat up. When you bring the pot out again, you can just fill it will all your vegetables, including the ones you have just been frying. Sprinkle with three teaspoons of the vegetable blend (or variation), season with salt (this is quite a sweet dish and so can take a bit of salt), toss everything together, and place back in the oven to bake for an hour. And you are done.
Dinner was very good (it also smelled amazing), but, as often happens with these kinds of meals, it was even better the next day when all the flavours had had more time to stew together. As we had significant quantities of left-overs, I divided the rest into a bunch of jars to eat later. Jars are a great way of packing left-overs to have for lunch at work – for this meal I just took off the lid, put the jar in the microwave on high for 1 minute, and it was ready to enjoy. To the lunch box, I also added some sultanas (raisins), toasted almonds, a banana, and a twist of salt in brown paper. I was very glad of it the next day.