Where do you get inspiration in your everyday cooking?
It is rarely one source only for me. Rather, I pick up elements here and there: it can be an astonishing course I had at a restaurant or cafe; or something I have seen on a cookbook, or on the web; or a trip to somewhere unfamiliar; a bountiful market stall filled with vibrant seasonal produce. It can be watching my mother, or my grandmother, cooking their favourite recipes. The best part of it all is, the cooking process I embrace can be romantic, and creative, and extremely inspirational, or it can start from the most trivial elements – it is just part of how things go.
This recipe is the least romantic kitchen story I could possibly tell you, but it is worth getting to the end of it. Here is how it goes.
I have been nursing a lot of recipes from Jerusalem by Ottolenghi for a while, postponing them mostly because they require ingredients which are strikingly seasonal and asked for a precise time of the year for their execution. In fact, I had mostly bookmarked summer recipes, and awaited for the warm season to come and bring tomatoes, peppers and aubergines along. I was especially mesmerized by the beauty of his aubergines recipes, in Jerusalem as much as in Plenty – hearty, spiced, burnt-y and luscious. I had had the confirmation of how solid and satisfying his aubergine dishes are upon my visit to Nopi, Ottolenghi’s restaurant – perfectly soft, perfectly seasoned, and simply, terribly good.
Yet, I had done only one aubergine recipe from his books so far. Perhaps it was the lack of time to turn me down, Ottolenghi’s recipes being all made from scratch and including a long list of ingredients that required dedicated and purposeful grocery shopping. Sadly, I often accumulate recipes only to postpone them, ending up cooking improvised dishes based on fridge and pantry availability, with the consequence of forgetting about said recipes.
A few weeks ago, though, I went grocery shopping on my day off, with a few recipes in mind – not by Ottolenghi but rather fished here and there on the web and ‘pinned’ in one of my gazillion mood boards. I got what I needed and headed to the self-check out. On the wall, as usual, there were some recipe cards: the British classic, the low-cal colourful salad with pre-made dressing, a berry pudding. And some pretty good looking aubergines.
I never do it, but that one time, I went back inside the grocery store and shopped for the aubergine recipe. I really didn’t think I was the right target for that kind of marketing material but in fact, with the aubergine thing, they really hooked me. The ingredients I needed were pre-made chermoula, aubergines, pomegranate, feta, salad onions. Pre-made chermoula? I remembered, just then, reading how to make chermoula from scratch on Jerusalem. Why didn’t I do it? What kind of foodie was I? I am lazy, I admitted. That’s the saddest, most truly true truth.
Back with three full bags, I dropped everything on the floor and run to open the book, looking for the chermoula recipe. Only then, I fully remembered: the recipe was actually for chermoula aubergines. I had bookmarked it, put a paper towel in between the pages, made an ear on the corner and tried to signal that page in all possible ways. But for much good that it was, it didn’t make me want to cook it. It left me with the wish to make it, without pushing me to the next step. And yet, it was very similar to the one on the recipe card found in the grocery store. The difference simply being the pre-made chermoula.
Have I officially started that descending route which ends with frozen or refrigerated meals? I hope not. Yet, this made me reflect on how my brain works when it comes to food and cooking. Perhaps, all I wanted to hear was that it is OK to make it quick, sweet and easy sometimes; that cooking has to be relaxing and relieving and joyful rather than a burden or a duty; that most of all, we set our own rules.
Roasted Chermoula Aubergines
(store-bought or home-made)
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (375F). Halve the aubergines lengthwise and score deeply in a criss-cross pattern. Spread the cut sides with chermoula paste and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tbsp oil and bake for 30–40 minutes until dark and tender.
Meanwhile, bring the water or stock to a boil, add the couscous, remove from the heat and cover. Let it sit for about five minutes, then fluff up wit a fork. Season with lemon juice and zest, salt to taste and the rest of the oil. Stir in the mint, salad onions, feta, and pomegranate. Scoop the centre out of each aubergine half, leaving the skin intact. Roughly mash the removed flesh and stir into the couscous, then spoon the mixture back into the aubergine shells. Serve warm.