A recipe deconstructed step by step.
Yesterday I tried a new recipe. Or a new combination of ingredients. Or a new way to cook aubergine. Or a new magic sauce. Actually, all of these things!
In case this wasn't clear: I love recipes! I get a lot of inspiration from recipes that catch my eye for one reason or another. I love finding new ideas that way, though when it comes to actually making the food, I just follow the idea or general direction, and not necessarily the recipe. And I always, always make a note in my food memory bank.
How do I do that? How do I break down a recipe into elements that are basic enough that I can play around with, without getting lost in the details?
I use the 'gist, twist and turn' method. (OK, I totally made that up, but it works!)
So let's go back to those aubergines yesterday:
A few weeks back I stumbled over the idea of combining aubergines and anchovies, and to my ears, it sounded delicious right away (my other half loves anything with anchovies!). I can't even remember where I saw it, but it just stuck in my head.
I searched for the recipe, and came up with a few versions; they all mention Ottolenghi as the source. This is his version.
So, we have a recipe. But what is it? (the gist)
Usually takes me reading through a recipe a couple of times to 'get it'. At the most basic level, to me this looks like: baked aubergines with a sauce on top. So we have two steps here: slicing and baking the aubergines, and making the dressing/sauce.
Next, what is the stand out feature or trick here? (the twist)
The aubergine is a 'meaty' vegetable and loves soaking up oil: when cooked, especially baked/grilled it becomes sweet, creamy and rich. (How do I know this? From cooking and eating it, and paying attention to the experience.)
So it makes sense to contrast this with something strong tasting with a bit of sharpness. The dressing contains said anchovies, plus a few other savoury strong tasting ingredients like oregano, garlic and vinegar. Perfect match!
There is a bit in the recipe about frying up oregano leaves until crispy. I admit a contrast in texture (soft aubergine vs crispy topping) can be very nice, but for me this seemed like far too much faff so I ignored this bit. Taste comes first, in my mind.
Now to the actual cooking, step by step:
Baking the aubergines:
Aubergines love olive oil and are at their nicest when they have enough. So making sure both sides of the slices are brushed with oil is important here. They can also easily soak up too much for an oily result, so don't drown them in oil either. The thinner the slices the quicker they will cook. If too thin though the slice will crisp up all the way and loose the creamy texture. Up to you which side you want to err on. You really want them cooked through though (raw aubergine is not nice) so keep the heat to medium (180C or so) or they will burn on the top before they can cook through. (Again, how do I know all this? Trial and error.)
Making the dressing:
This is meant to be a chunky dressing, but chopping all ingredients finely will make them mix better. How far you go with that is up to you. And if you prefer, you could blitz the ingredients into a smooth sauce too. (No this isn't in the recipe. But who says you can't?)
Olive oil: this one is obvious. Add as much as you need to get the right consistency.
Anchovies: Meant to be the star of the show here. Super savoury to contrast the sweet aubergine flesh. Used mixed in as an ingredient, like here, they don't add fishiness, just savouriness. I love them so always use more than any recipe tells me. But you could substitute with something else that is similarly salty, savoury and strong tasting: miso paste, olives, capers, sundried tomatoes, or a dash of fish sauce... (Just search for miso aubergines... it's a thing too!)
Vinegar: Provides the sharpness to cut through the aubergine richness. Different types of vinegar all have a different shade of taste but they are all acidic and will do the job. Use what you like or what you have. Lemon juice would also work. Or pickling juice. Or finely chopped gherkins. Or... you get the idea.
Garlic: Everything is made better by garlic! In this case the garlic is not being cooked so go easy on it.
Oregano: a punchy Mediterranean herb with an affinity to aubergine. I'm Greek, so I always have dried oregano in the house. But other herbs would work too: thyme, marjoram, basil, mixed herbs... Remember dried herbs are punchier than fresh ones.
Fresh parsley: adds earthiness and freshness. I didn't have any parsley but I had some coriander in the freezer. (I like coriander, maybe you don't.) Or you could leave this out.
I added some chopped fresh tomatoes just because. An extra bit of fresh.
Other things you could add: finely chopped onions or pickled onions. A spoonful of tomato paste or leftover tomato sauce. A heap of pickled or fermented veggies. Crumbled feta cheese (might be an overkill though). Anything else you think might work (remember to complement or contrast the flavours you already have).
I made the dressing while the aubergines were baking. All in all this took less than 30 mins to make. (It took far longer to write it all out step by step.) And yes, it was delicious!
Last step in the process: the turn.
This is for future reference, mostly. So that the fact that you made this recipe once, can inform future meals. How can you turn this recipe on its head? How else can you make use of the elements?
Baked aubergine: Did you like it? Was it too soft or too crispy? Would you cut the slices differently next time or were they just right? What else would go nicely with the taste and texture? (I quite liked the tomato bits I added. Maybe I'll just use tomato and crumbled feta cheese next time, and drop the anchovies. Or even add the tomato and feta cheese on top before baking them...)
The dressing: Did you like the punch or was it too much? How could you adjust it next time? What else might you dress with this? (If you have any leftover, try it out!) I immediately thought of boiled potatoes and pasta. Both do well with punchy sauces. Broccoli and cauliflower both go well with anchovies so I might use this kind of dressing to jazz up some steamed or roasted florets.
Variation: Make the aubergines stuffed, rather than dressed.
Cut in half lengthways, make criss-cross cuts into the flesh on the cut side (so it cooks through) and bake until soft and and just charring. Carefully scoop out the flesh, chop up and mix with the dressing ingredients above, and scoop back into the skins. Same flavour, fancier looks. Personally, I'm not sure it's worth the extra faff, except for a dinner party maybe.
Just my 5 cents. My dinner, not yours.
What can you think of?