This week’s book is Diana Henry’s ‘Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons’. Ooh, I was excited about this one. I love this book. Not only is it full of exactly the kinds of things that I want to eat for dinner, but her writing is wonderful: so elegant and so evocative that I feel like Alice in Wonderland tumbling into a daydream world, only it’s filled with rosewater and lavender and figs instead of rabbits and mad hatters and the queen of hearts. The pages are covered with post-it notes marking things I wanted to make the last time I took it down from the shelf, but this time I found a completely different set of things caught my interest – a demonstration of how your taste for what you want to eat changes by the day, the week, the month. Among the things that caught my eye: lemon and rosemary cake; greek herb pilaf with prawns and feta; catalan chicken with picada; sausages and lentils with sweet and sour figs; chocolate, hazelnut and sherry cake with sherry-raisin cream; fig anchoiade…frankly, there’s not much in this book I don’t want to make.
This one recipe, however, I knew was going to be a great dinner to start the week, and I knew because I’d made it before. It’s a good example of how Henry’s recipes pile in as many delicious things as possible: sauteed spinach, fresh, creamy cheese, spicy-sweet tomatoes, caramelised onions, all tangled about and set off perfectly with the softness of the starch. The original recipe used bulgur wheat, but I’d run out so used mograbiah – the large-sized couscous, also known as (I believe) pearl couscous or Israeli couscous. I also happened to have roast tomatoes and roast onions in my fridge from my Skye Gyngell experiments, so dinner was on the table with almost no effort at all, but I’ve included the notes for the original recipe’s chilli roast tomatoes and cinnamon onions below.
Mograbiah with spinach, labneh and roasted tomatoes Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a side
Recipe halved from the original as other half has issues with ‘small textured’ starches so had cheese on toast instead. I initially thought what I ended up with a bit small for a main, but it is unexpectedly filling – if you’re really hungry, up the quantities.
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
100g mograbiah or bulgur wheat
200-300ml chicken or vegetable stock
small bunch of mint, leaves chopped
for the labneh:
200g greek yoghurt (I used the fat free yoghurt I had in the fridge – worked fine)
1 garlic clove, crushed
pinch of salt
for the tomatoes: (quantities for a full batch as they’re good to have around)
12 plum tomatoes
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1-1 1/2 tsp harissa
2 tsp soft dark brown sugar
for the onions: (also full batch)
2 onions, very finely sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp soft dark brown sugar
juice of 1/2 small lemon
You need to start the labneh the day before, but it’s no trouble. Line a sieve with cheesecloth or muslin (I normally just use the cut off foot end of an old pair of tights, which Tom thinks is disgusting, but I promise they are clean) and set it over a small bowl. Dump the yoghurt in the cloth and tie the ends up over the top. Put it in the fridge for 24 hours. That’s it! Excess moisture will drain out and leave you with a firm, cheese-like texture. When it’s done, add the garlic and salt.
For the tomatoes, preheat the oven to 180c. Halve them lengthways and put them in a small roasting tin. Mix together the olive oil, vinegar, harissa and a bit of salt and pepper and pour over the tomatoes. Turn them over to coat them in the mixture but turn them back cut side up for the oven. Sprinkle over the sugar and cook for 40-45 minutes until shrivelled somewhere between a normal and a sundried tomato, and sweet.
Now the pilaf. Saute the chopped onion in half the olive oil until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Tip in the bulgur or mograbiah, pour on the stock, and season. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let the grains simmer in the stock for about 15 mins – if using bulgur it should have absorbed all the stock and you can cover the pot and leave it to fluff up for another 10 minutes. If using mograbiah, you may need more stock as it’s less absorbent and doesn’t cook as well in small amounts of liquid, so use a larger amount and boil off any excess liquid if necessary. Or you could cook it separately, drain it, and add back to the onions and garlic.
Meanwhile, take the stalks off the spinach, wash the leaves and chop. Cook the leaves in a covered pot with the water still clinging to them (although it occurred to me after the fact that you could possibly wilt the spinach leaves in the stock for the grains and save yourself a pan and a few oil calories). When wilted, cool slightly and squeeze out any excess moisture. Then saute in the remaining oil from the first step and season. Stir into the bulgur/mograbiah.
Quickly cook the sliced onions in very hot olive oil until golden brown and starting to crisp. For the last minute that they’re cooking, add the cinnamon and sugar. Stir until the sugar melts, then add a squeeze of lemon juice and season.
Layer up your pilaf in a shallow bowl or receptacle of your choice. Bulgur/mograbiah first, then half the mint, then the tomatoes, then the other half of the mint. Break the labneh into lumps and scatter over the top, then finish with the onions.
Adapted from Diana Henry’s ‘Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons’.