Funny we’re less than 24 hours away from 2012, in what should be the middle of summer (here in the Southern Hemisphere, at least), and I’m sitting wrapped in a blanket, drinking cups of tea, listening to the rain and wind beating against the side of my house. Really, what is this?! Bring back the sun!
I’m back now from Christchurch, where I’ve been sitting around at my grandma’s house, exploring what’s new and/or relocated (using Neat Places as my guide), eating turkey and leftover turkey and puddings and ramen and catching up with family, hearing funny stories for the first time about my grandpa mailing his beard to my grandma before they got married (she wasn’t going to marry him with a beard, she said), breaking into fits of giggles over the cheap plastic toys that come inside Christmas crackers.
And of course when my plane landed in Wellington this morning it was raining, and not the fitful blustery stuff that spits and blows but doesn’t get you too wet and miserable, but the full-on pouring-down rain that’ll hit you in big splotchy raindrops even if you’re just crossing the road or running out to your car.
So I wanted to eat something for an unseasonably cold summer’s day, something vegetable-based (and thus close enough to almost count as a salad) but hearty at the same time. I was thinking about summer vegetables (in particular, courgettes and tomatoes) and then I remembered that, somewhere in between daydreaming and looking at old family photos at my grandma’s house, I had written a little list of memorable meals I wanted to recreate at home.
Near the top of that list were these baked eggs I had about a month ago at Birdman Eating in Melbourne. The eggs were baked in a skillet with roast capsicum, tomato, red onion, courgette and big, chewy, pearl-like mograbieh. The whole thing was flecked with bits of rosemary and served sizzling hot with sourdough toast and the best bloody mary I’ve had in a long time.
That morning was the first time I’d tried mograbieh, and it was one of those wide-eyed revelatory moments where you want to tell everyone around how absolutely delicious the thing you’ve just eaten is, except in my case I was eating alone, feeling slightly less than 100 percent after a night out, trying to regain some semblance of vitality before meeting up with my mum who was flying in later that day.*
But anyway, the mograbieh was incredible, especially with those roast vegetables. And it was something I vowed I’d try recreating at home. So today, having returned from Christchurch and family Christmas and not having cooked anything for the better part of a week, I headed to the shop to pick up some mograbieh.
I found it all right, but after seeing the price (twelve dollars for a bag, sigh) and doing some mental calculations (and giving myself an internal lecture: you cannot buy a twelve dollar bag of oversized couscous after overspending at Christmas, no matter how good it’s going to taste) I was about to give up, when I remembered the bag of Palestinian couscous I had picked up at a Trade Aid event a while back.
It’s no mograbieh, but I enjoyed it just as much, maybe even more: it’s wholegrain rather than refined like most couscous, which makes it a darker tan colour, a bit nuttier, more textured, somewhere in between pearl barley, bulghur and Israeli couscous. Definitely worth trying if you can find it (I think it’s also called maftoul).
This is one of those immensely satisfying dishes which has so many different flavours and textures going on: the sweet-melty roast capsicum, acidic tomatoes, smoky charred courgettes, deeply earthy mushrooms, near-caramelised onions and garlic. It’s multifaceted enough that you almost don’t notice it’s totally vegetarian (and can be easily made vegan by omitting the feta and butter) but if you want meat it’d also be great with pieces of chicken or sausage mixed in with the vegetables.
*By the way, if you’re planning on a night out in Melbourne I can wholeheartedly recommend a trip down Gertrude St in Fitzroy the next morning, either for the baked-eggs-and-bloody-mary breakfast at Birdman Eating (only $20!), or for limeade and arepas from Sonido. Yes.
Preheat oven to 175C/350F.
Slice 1 capsicum* and 2 portobello mushrooms into strips, 2-3 cm wide. Cut a smallish red onion into vertical wedges and 6-8 cherry tomatoes into halves. Peel a few cloves of garlic (if you can get fresh, new season garlic, use it by all means!). Place on a baking tray (with the capsicums skin side up, tomatoes cut side up), drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and scatter rosemary leaves on top. Roast for 35-45 minutes, or until all the vegetables are cooked and the skin on the capsicum’s wrinkled and starting to blister.
Meanwhile, cook 1 cup couscous. Follow the instructions on the package**, but use chicken or vegetable stock instead of water, and stir in a handful of chopped parsley and 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin while the couscous is soaking. Once it’s done, drizzle with olive oil and stir in a chunk of butter; fluff with a fork before serving.
Towards the end of the cooking time, slice 1-2 smallish courgettes on the diagonal and grill until cooked through and a bit charred on both sides.
Peel the skin off the capsicum (it should come off easily) and place in a bowl, along with the other vegetables. Add a bit of olive oil to the vegetables if they look a bit dry. Add some torn mint and parsley and as much or as little chilli powder and crumbled feta as you like; toss to combine. Taste and season with more flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper if needed.
Serve the vegetables on top of the couscous. This is one of those dishes that’s great both hot and at room temperature.
*Any colour is fine, though you may prefer to use the sweeter red, yellow or orange.
**I used this one, which is whole wheat and needed a bit more cooking time than usual.