I should practice a bit more of what I preach. I’ve been doing a swathe of radio interviews in Australia in the last week or so for the release of ‘A Suitcase and a Spatula‘. It’s been pretty entertaining trying to enact what I used to spend a lot of my previous life in PR nudging others to do. Here are some of the key elements; be ten minutes early for an interview. Much better than being three minutes late- particularly if it’s live. Have a few anecdotes stashed in your head and make sure you’ve got the name of what you want to plug down pat.
I haven’t yet gone to the lengths of drafting ‘key message’ documents, but old habits die hard.
Once I was inside the ABC more tips that I used to pass on to our ‘talent’ before I sent them into a Tardis came flooding back to me (Tardis being what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation calls their distance recording booths): Don’t forget to write the interviewer’s name at the top of a piece of paper in front of you, so you can say thank you properly at the end. Smile while you talk- for radio it’s one way of making the enthusiasm travel down a wire. Don’t speak too fast. Don’t swivel in your chair- talk straight at the microphone. Don’t fiddle with jewellery. Be sure to turn your phone onto airplane mode- even silent phones will vibrate. And while you might want to take a bottle of water in with you- make sure the lid is on while you’re talking. It’ll remove some of the temptation to take a swig- and nobody wants to hear someone swallowing on air.
One thing that lots of folk want to chat about is where my happiest food memories come from- it’s a topic that opens up like a book and becomes an easy one to chew over. Yet for me it’s hard. And it’s hard because there I am dithering on about recipes from the book- I’m currently tethered to reminiscences about Santorini and Maui- but what is floating top of mind is Istanbul.
As it would happen, there are no recipes from Istanbul in the book. We made it to Turkey after I’d handed the final draft of Suitcase to my editor. But my memories of the five days we spent in that city on the Bosphorus, straddling east and west still shine bright.
There were lazy twilights spent sipping mint tea and pink wine on rooftops listening to the call to prayer.
There were languid evenings sheltering in ancient baths of Çemberlitaş Hamamı, being scrubbed, while we debated the age old question; ‘hammam- indulgent pleasure, or thinly veiled interpretationof torture?’ (for the answer of to hammam, or not to hammam, go here).
There were quests to find the best baklava.
And more than a few of our mornings were devoted to tracking down the best Turkish coffee.
But the dish I can’t get out of my head, some fourteen months on is the aubergine/eggplant ‘Special Salad’ at Zubeyir Ocakbasi. The air in this historic terrace on a side street near the main shopping boulevard of Istikal Caddesi is thick with smoke care of the meats that are grilled directly over coals in the belly of the restaurant. The texture of the eggplant in the salad is sliperry and soft, but it’s bright with tomato and stickily sweet with pomegranate molasses. It’s the perfect friend to lamb and other salads that are boisterous with mint and parsley.
What I have below is not that salad. But it takes what I loved about that dish and the city and melds them together.
Instead of the molten innards of the purplish nightshade, here the discs of eggplant are griddled. This means the touch of smoke that twirls me back to that restaurant is present on the crust of the slices rather than in the air that you’ll breathe (or the fringe of your scarf the next day). The pomegranate here pops with cheeky beads of fruit. Then there’s the mint of the tea and the pistachios from the baklava that peppered my memories, except here they’re shown in gentle fronds of salad. And as for the cooling comfort you might have sought from breezes on roof terraces there’s dabs of labna- a strained yoghurt cheese (though you could substitute feta) and some snaking strands of vinegar-softened onion.
It’s the perfect thing to eat with grilled bread and a plate of olives, but it really shines when paired with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb.
When it comes to singing the praises of taking a holiday from the comfort of your kitchen- to me, this is about as good as it gets.
Griddled Eggplant with Labna, Pomegranate, Red Onion, Pistachio and Mint
Serves 4, or more as part of a collection of sides.
1 red onion, halved, peeled and cut into slim half moons
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 pomegranate, seeded
1/4 cup pistachios
4 tbsp labna
1/2 cup of mint leaves (from a small bunch, picked)
Here’s how we roll
1) Sprinkle the red onion slivers with the salt and steep them in the red wine vinegar. Set aside for at least 30 minutes- up to 2 hours. The vinegar will steal away some of the acrid burn of the onion, leaving it lightly translucent and sweeter.
2) Cut the eggplants lengthways into slices 1.5 cm thick.
2) Heat a griddle pan or a grill. Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and grill until there are burnished stripes and the slices lift easily from the pan. Turn over and grill the other side. Set aside on a plate lined with paper towel and repeat until you have grilled it all.
3) Remove the seeds from the pomegranate. The easiest way to do this is to place the pomegranate halves face side down in your hand over a wide bowl and use a rolling pin to bash the back of them until the seeds pop out. Careful, the juice may spray- and it can stain.
4) To assemble the salad lay the warm eggplant slices on a flat platter(if preparing ahead of time you can always warm them again in a low oven under foil for 15 minutes). Arrange over the top the labna in dobs, the pistachios, mint leaves and pomegranate seeds. Combine the red wine the onions have steeped in with any pomegranate juice and use that as a dressing. Serve immediately.