21 July 2007: Grilled eggplant oh yeah

I had such an awesome day today. Good luck started at breakfast - I made my first ever really successful poached egg, and ate it with some left-over steamed green beans, standing up at the kitchen counter, while planning the food missions of the day.

First stop was Simply Espresso, a little cafe on Gladstone Rd, for the best macchiato I've had since coming back to Brisbane. Ah, it was perfect. A few minutes sitting in the sun there, then onwards to the railway station, where I strolled onto the platform just as the train for the Valley was pulling in. As the train passed over the river, I looked down and saw half a dozen long boats - sculls? I don't know the right term, long slender boats, with about 6 people rowing them - skimming along the river under the bridge like dragonflies.

In Chinatown, I stocked up on a bunch of kitchen stuff for our new place - bamboo steamer baskets, a wok, soy sauces, salted black beans, chinkiang and rice vinegar, dried spices - in between admiring the big fresh fish counter at the back of Yuan's and snacking on a fresh steamed red bean bun. My other Valley mission was to buy a pair of Blundstones, so I stopped in at Downe's and found boots, a shop assistant with gorgeous cartoon hair, and a recommendation for a good fish place in West End.

Back to West End - oh how I love West End, I really do - to go by that fish place, George's on Boundary St, for a snapper fillet for tonight's asian soup, some trevaly to go on the barbeque at Indooroopilly tomorrow, and some sardines for Monday lunch. Then, despite being completely hung around with bags by this stage, a final stop at the Vietnamese market on Vulture St for thai basil and snake beans.

Brisbane, your bounty is... bountiful. And beautiful! And so cheaply purchased.

Anyway, to the recipe. After a short recovery period of sitting on the balcony drinking cold water and sunning my pasty white Ireland-accustomed feet, I made this grilled eggplant for lunch, using eggplants and chilli from Yuan's, mint, lemon and garlic from another small fruit shop in the Valley, and feta cheese from Fresh on Melbourne St, all haul from the morning.

I was expecting to quite like this dish - I like all the ingredients, though eggplant is never in my top 5 vegetables (an ever-changing list with some recurring star favourites) - but it took me by surprise. When I put the first bit of eggplant in my mouth my eyes popped open and (I'm embarrassed to admit this) my mouth bypassed my brain and said "boo-yeah!", which is not something I believe I've ever said before. Anyway, it was good. The slight smokiness from the grilling, the softness of the eggplant flesh, the mint-plus-chilli-plus-lemon kick, gentled by the feta. Oh yeah. What a great day.

10 Japanese eggplants (aubergines), halved lengthwise
olive oil
juice of a large lemon
sea salt
1 long red chilli, seeds and membranes removed, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
1/2 bunch mint, leaves picked and chopped
feta cheese

Warm a ridged grill pan over low to moderate heat. Once it is warm, brush with oil. Place eggplant halves, cut side down, on the pan, and leave to cook for 5 minutes or so, until the skin on the upper side has changed colour from purple-black to chestnut brown, and the cut side is striped black or dark brown. Turn the eggplants on to their skin side at this stage, and leave to cook for another 4 or 5 minutes, until the skin side is striped, and the body of the eggplant is floppy and much thinner than it was before cooking - you can really tell that they collapse internally when done. All the cooking times will vary by how hot your stove is - go by the appearance of the eggplant, rather than by the minutes given here, because if they're underdone they'll be rubbery. Don't worry if the eggplants look dry as they cook - they will soak up the dressing and be fine.

Have a largish bowl ready to the side containing the lemon juice, a tablespoon of olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, the chilli and garlic, whisked briefly together. As the eggplants come off the grill, put them in this dish and toss them with the dressing.

Once all the eggplants are cooked and dressed, add the mint to the bowl and toss again. Crumble feta cheese over before serving. They are great warm, but could be left to sit and then eaten at room temperature.

These would be excellent as part of a mezze plate, but I ate them with a little bit of barley, chopped spinach and quartered roma tomato (I forgot to add the feta before taking the photo - but you should definitely include it).

After starting off with a (for me) nicely plated meal, I decided after a couple of bites that it would be better all mixed up. So I chopped the eggplant into bite-sized pieces and tossed. Much better! I abandoned the dining table and ate it on the balcony, admiring the view and sighing with pleasure.

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20 July 2007: Smoky chickpea and chorizo stew

I was really happy with this stew - you could taste the long cooking in the depth of flavour, despite the very simple ingredients list. Very nice indeed on a cool evening, served with a salad of spinach, blanched green beans and grilled zucchini, tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt.

2 brown onions, halved and sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
sherry vinegar
2 red peppers (capsicums), chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 heaped teaspoon of smoked paprika
pinch of chilli
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 400g cans of tomatoes
2 400g cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 links of chorizo, each about 12 cm long, cut into chunks

Cook the onions in the olive oil over low-medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then, until they are brown and very soft. When they start to stick, add a dash of sherry vinegar (and if it happens again, add either more vinegar or a dash of water, as you wish). Add the peppers, and cook another 10 minutes, then add the garlic and cook another 3 or 4 minutes, stirring to make sure it doesn't burn. Add the paprika, chilli and cinnamon, and cook until aromatic, a minute or so.

Add the tomatoes, and a couple of cans worth of water, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes or so, then add the chickpeas (unless they are already very soft, in which case add them somewhat later) and the chorizo. Cook a further 30 minutes, or longer, until the tomatoes have broken down completely and the sauce has thickened. You may need to add a little more water during the cooking process.

Taste, and add salt, pepper, paprika and/or chilli as you desire. Cook another 5 minutes to settle the seasoning, and serve.

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19 July 2007: Say yes to packed lunches

At least when they're this tasty. A salad of fresh herbs, tuna and borlotti beans containing:

1 400g can borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
1 200g jar good tuna in olive oil, drained and broken up
2/3 cup cooked burghul
1 large bunch mint, chopped
1 large bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 bunch dill, chopped
3 spring onions (shallots, Australians), chopped
1 small Lebanese cucumber, chopped
1 small yellow pepper (capsicum), chopped
100 g green beans, blanched
3 ripe roma tomatoes, quartered
1/2 small red onion, quartered and very finely sliced
teaspoon or so of olive oil
juice of one lemon

Toss together! Makes two lunches. Best the first day, but totally edible the second day too.

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10 July 2007: Veggie feast for Celeste

We've been back in Brisbane for a bit over a month now. Initially we stayed in a share house with a friend in Indooroopilly, and had an awesome time. But this weekend we moved out into a place of our own, a little studio in Torbreck. The apartment itself is fantastic: full of sunlight, with a great kitchen, a shower big enough for half a dozen people, and a little balcony looking over the city. We have the same view from the window at the foot of the bed, so when I wake up at dawn I can lie there gazing at rosy-tinted Brisbane. Other advantages: commuting to work by foot and ferry rather than bus, and close proximity to West End cafes. All good.

One of our lovely share-house-mates from Indooroopilly is moving back to Canada today after six months in Australia. So last night, to welcome in our new place and to farewell Celeste, we had a veggie dinner with Celeste, Tom, Ian and Lisa. It was all very easy food, of the kind that takes a bit of chopping and stirring but which is impossible to muck up. Couscous, some really delicious garlicky chickpeas with lemon zest and parsley, roast chunks of pumpkin, roast peppers with pine nuts, a long-cooked smoky tomato sauce to be spooned over the couscous, some herby yoghurt to go on the side, and a green salad (to celebrate the venerable institution of the Indooroopilly Monday Night Salad). Safe travels, Celeste - we'll miss you!

There was enough food here for all six of us to eat huge quantities and leave two leftover portions for lunch - so scale accordingly, should you chose to make any of this.

Garlicky chickpeas: Halve and finely slice two brown onions, then cook them very slowly in a little olive oil, stirring occasionally, until they are extremely soft and brown, about 30 minutes. Then add a whole head of garlic, cloves peeled and pushed through a garlic press. Continue to stir over low heat for about 5 to 10 minutes, adding a little extra olive oil if necessary. Taste to check for any remaining trace of raw garlic flavour. When just a trace remains, add a dash of sherry vinegar and a pinch of sea salt and continue to cook another 10 minutes. Add a dash of water, stock, or a little additional vinegar if it starts to stick. You can stop when the onion and garlic mixture is completely soft and intensely flavourful.

Drain and rinse 4 cans of good brand chickpeas (or cook your own, of course). Place the chickpeas in a large saucepan with about 250 ml of vegetable stock, and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the chickpeas are warmed and softened, and a lot of the stock has been aborbed or simmered away. Don't worry about any remaining stock - it will gradually disappear by some magic during the cooking and resting process. Add the onion and garlic mixture, and the zest of one lemon. Stir through, and remove from the heat for at least half an hour for the flavours to settle. When you're almost ready to serve, stir through a finely chopped large bunch of flat leaf parsley, and heat. There shouldn't be any remaining liquid, but if it starts to get dry add some additional stock - the dish should be moist.

Roasted peppers with pinenuts: Cut 6 or 8 large red and orange peppers into strips about as wide and long as your finger. Toss with olive oil, flakes of sea salt, cracked black pepper, sherry vinegar and half a dozen peeled cloves of garlic, and roast at 180 C for 30 to 40 minutes, tossing once or twice, until the peppers are soft and have blackened edges. Unless you have a gigantic oven, you'll need to roast them on a couple of trays or dishes - if you pile them all into one dish, they'll steam rather than roast, so try to spread them out. Once they're out of the oven, toss them with a cup of toasted pine nuts.

Roast pumpkin: I used a couple of large pieces (about 2 kg total) of jap (a.k.a. Kent) pumpkin - you can use anything with flavoursome and not too dry flesh, and thin skin. Seed the pumpkin pieces and wash the skin. Chop into chunks approximately 5 cm square, each with skin on one side. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast at 200 C for about 30 - 45 minutes, or until the flesh and skin are soft and the edges are dark brown. Turn the pieces once in the middle of roasting, to get even colour.

Smoky tomato sauce: Finely chop a large onion. Cook over medium heat, in a large saucepan, until soft and golden. Add a pinch of chilli flakes, a couple of teaspoons of smoked paprika, and a teaspoon of cinnamon, and stir 1 minute. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and stir another couple of minutes. Add 4 tins of tomatoes, a couple of tin volumes of water, a glass of red wine, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a strong simmer, and cook for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. The tomatoes will cook down to less than half their original volume, and will break down into an almost smooth sauce. After about 45 minutes (and again shortly before serving), taste, and add more paprika, cinnamon, salt or a pinch of sugar, and a little sherry vinegar, as desired to balance the flavours. The sauce should be very tomato-y and smoky, with just a tiny hint of cinnamon that you probably wouldn't be able to identify if you didn't know it was in there.

Herby yoghurt: Finely chop the leaves from a small bunch of mint, a bunch of coriander, and a few sprigs of basil, and the green parts of 3 spring onions. Mix through 500 g of thick greek yoghurt. (This is also good with a crushed garlic clove mixed through, but I'd run out of garlic by this stage.)

Couscous: put 700 g of couscous in a large bowl, and cover with 1 litre of boiling water. Stir through, together with a pinch of salt and a slug of olive oil. Let sit, covered, for about 7 minutes, then fluff well with a fork.

Green salad: As you wish, of course. I used chopped baby spinach, quartered Roma tomatoes, cucumber and avocado, dressed with oil, vinegar and seed mustard.

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