Monday 25 February 2013

Vegetarian Aubergine Burgers with Poached Eggs & a Paprika-Garlic Dressing

Here is my new recipe for vegetarian burger patties made from aubergines. These are juicy, satisfying and flavoursome, and they contain neither soy protein nor any of the similar sawdusty meat substitutes so often added to vegetarian dishes. These do, I admit, take some time and effort to make, but I promise you won't be disappointed by the result. Start this the day before, and your vegetarian friends will be putty in your hands as they chow down.  

Vegetarian Aubergine Burgers with Poached Eggs & a Paprika-Garlic Dressing
Serve these hot in stacks, topped with a soft-poached egg, or slap them between burger rolls
with all the usual toppings - cheese, lettuce, pickles and tomato sauce. 

Why aubergines? Two reasons. One of my sisters is a life-long vegetarian, and many years ago I asked her, just before a Christmas feast, what she would consider an excellent dish for a special occasion. 'Anything with brinjals and cheese,' she replied without skipping a beat ('brinjals' is what we call this vegetable in South Africa).  I hadn't hugely appreciated aubergines before I heard this, but my interest was piqued, and I've been a devotee ever since.

Also, when it comes to a burger, aubergines are a great choice because they have a unique texture and a deep savour that isn't found in any other vegetable I can think of  apart from fresh and dried mushrooms. I'd describe this quality - sorry, vegetarians - as 'meaty', and I've tried to enhance it in this recipe by adding an umami-rich punch in the form of grated Parmesan.

The challenge with making a good veggie burger is, first, to make it look as tempting and toothsome as as a chargrilled meaty one, and not like the sad khaki-coloured flaps of mush that pass for vegetarian burgers.  I've tried to accomplish this by making big, thick, well-coloured burger patties that look every bit as tempting, and I've used top-quality paprika to hint at a fiery, chargrilled taste.

The second challenge is to achieve some of the bounce and spring that make a juicy beef burger so good.  After some experimentation, I realised that this just isn't possible, because no cooked veggie has the resilience of ground beef. You could, if you like, add some cubed halloumi to these patties to give them a bit more rubberiness, but I think that's a bit of a waste of good cheese.  If you're looking for an extra kick of cheese, top each burger with a nice slice of smoked provolone.

Vegetarian Aubergine Burgers with Poached Eggs & a Paprika-Garlic Dressing
The reason this picture looks so misty is because I forgot to clean my cell phone's
camera lens. I think Iwill call this effect my 'vinaigrette' filter.
In this recipe I've used some of my favourite spices to bring out the flavour (aubergine, being meek-flavoured, gracefully accepts help from many quarters), but these are a rough guide. You can add anything you fancy: chopped fresh green or red chillies, grated raw onion, finely chopped preserved lemon, fresh herbs, extra garlic, and so on.

My plan, when photographing these, was to slap them between toasted rolls and add all the usual burger toppings, but of course the packet of fresh rolls I'd bought that morning had been demolished by my hungry teens. So I served them for dinner with fresh rocket, poached eggs and a perky paprika, garlic and lemon dressing.

I've tested this recipe using both unpeeled and peeled aubergines, and the peeled ones produced the best patties. If you look out for flat, sleek, bouncy aubergines at the peak of their ripeness, you won't find them difficult to peel, although I admit that cutting them into a fine dice will take up some of your time.

Vegetarian Aubergine Burgers with Poached Eggs & a Paprika-Garlic Dressing

For the burgers:

4 large, ripe aubergines
2 Tbsp (30 ml) salt, for degorging
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and very finely chopped or grated
1 cup (250 ml) fine dried breadcrumbs, plus extra for coating
1 extra-large free-range egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup (180 ml) finely grated Parmesan
the finely grated zest of a small lemon
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh chives or spring onions
2 tsp (10 ml) cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) smoked paprika [or good-quality Spanish sweet paprika]
150 g (about two 'wheels' or discs) feta cheese [use Greek feta, not the Danish variety]
salt and milled black pepper
sunflower oil, for frying
freshly poached eggs, for topping
rocket leaves, for serving

For the dressing: 
3 Tbsp (45 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, peeled and very finely grated or crushed
a pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) smoked paprika
a pinch of caster sugar
½ cup (125 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
milled black pepper

Start this dish a few hours in advance. Top and tail the aubergines and thinly pare their skins using a potato peeler.  Halve them horizontally, and then cut them into a fine, neat 5 mm dice by cutting them first into slim batons, and then cubing them (see below).

Tip the diced bits into a large colander, sprinkle the salt over them, and place a weight on top.  A plate weighed down with two or three tins from the cupboard always works for me.  Set them aside for an hour.  Now rinse off the salt under a running cold tap. Shake well, and tip the pieces onto a clean tea towel or a stack of kitchen paper.  Pat them firmly to remove any excess liquid.

Heat the oil in a large, shallow pan - a paella pan is ideal.  Add the aubergine bits and fry them over a lively heat for 8 minutes, or until they are lightly browned, stirring often to prevent them sticking. Now turn down the heat slightly and cook for another 8-10 minutes, or until the pieces are soft and silken, but not collapsed into a mush, and with not a trace of wateriness. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or two.

Scrape the contents of the frying pan into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool for 10 minutes, or until lukewarm. Stir in the breadcrumbs, egg, Parmesan, lemon zest, chives, cumin, coriander and paprika. Roughly crumble in the feta cheese, season to taste with salt and black pepper, and gently mix everything together until well combined.  The easiest way to do this is to use your hands.

Put the mixture into the fridge to firm up for an hour or two; this will also let the breadcrumbs absorb some moisture.

To make the dressing, mix together the lemon juice, garlic, salt, paprika and caster sugar in a small bowl.  When the sugar has dissolved, gradually whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with black pepper and more salt, if necessary.

Form the aubergine mixture into thick, neat patties at least 3 cm thick.  The best way to do this is to press the mixture firmly into a food ring of a suitable size. If you don't have such a gadget, make one by cutting the top and bottom off a tin of tuna. Gently push the formed patty out of the ring and pat it gently between the palms of your hand to even the surfaces. Set aside and repeat the process with the remaining aubergine mixture.

Put some dried breadcrumbs on a plate and lightly season them with salt and pepper.  Put a patty into the crumbs and roll it over, patting lightly, so it is evenly coated on all sides. Shake off any excess crumbs.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan or on a skillet.  Fry the patties, a few at a time, over a medium-high heat, until they are a lovely rich brown all over, and very hot all the way through.  Watch them like a hawk, as the crumbs burn quickly.  If your mixture came out of the fridge and was very cold, put them in the oven after browning so they are heated right through.

To serve these as burgers, sandwich them between toasted rolls and add lettuce, tomato, gherkins, cheese and all the usual burger toppings (how about this tomato relish?)

To serve them with the paprika dressing, arrange some fresh rocket leaves on each plate. Keep the patties warm in the oven while you poach the eggs.  Place two burger patties in a stack on top of the leaves. Perch a poached egg on top, and drizzle the dressing over the egg. Serve immediately.

Makes 8-10 burger patties, depending on size. 

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Friday 8 February 2013

Baby Apple & Cinnamon Phyllo Bites

These dear little apple tartlets fall into the category of Dainty Little Nibbles, and although I'm not a cupcakey sort of cook, I can't resist posting them here as an idea for a show-stopper of a Valentine's Day snack. You can fling these crunchy, tart-sweet bites together in under half an hour, using just a few ingredients, and you'll be rewarded (I hope) with murmurings of appreciation from your sweetheart; perhaps even a nuzzle on the earlobe if you're the lucky one.

Baby Apple & Cinnamon Phyllo Tartlets
These sweet, crunchy little nibbes are so easy to make.

These are easy to make, and the only fiddly bit is tying lengths of raffia around the pastry.  This is manageable if you have nimble fingers, but I suggest you summon an extra set of hands. If you don't have any raffia (I buy this in bundles once a year, from a packaging shop), use lengths of fine kitchen string instead.

Baby Apple & Cinnamon Phyllo Tartlets
Use a sharp-edged cookie cutter to make the phyllo circles.
The idea for this recipe came when I was thinking of something to make with left-over pastry.  I was busy testing a recipe for phyllo-wrapped rainbow trout, but it was a disaster because I packed the parcels with a topping of herbed butter so lavish that the pies came out of the oven looking as though they were soggily floating on a golden lake of oil. I ate them anyway, of course.

I found two tins of baby apples in the back of the cupboard, quickly stamped out some pastry circles and 25 minutes later these tartlets were ready. Baby apples are available in tins from good delis and other speciality suppliers.

Ronde de Bordeaux Figs.png
Beautiful little Ronde de Bordeaux figs.
I am itching to try this with the tiny purple Ronde de Bordeaux figs I bought at Woolies this week, and my plan is to make sweet-savoury bites using slivers of the simply outstanding (and I mean faintingly good) Kilimanjaro goats' cheese that won the 2012 Woolworths Cheesemaker's Challenge. But more about that soon.

I recommend you use, for this recipe, an unfrozen roll of phyllo pastry, which - as far as I know - is stocked only by Woolies.  The frozen variety available in other supermarkets is good, but the sheets do tend to stick together and then rip when you pull them apart, which is an annoyance when you're in a hurry.

If you'd like to add some extra crunch, sprinkle some very finely chopped nuts - toasted almonds, say - between the layers of phyllo.  And, if you're watching your calories, use a can of good olive-oil spray to apply a fine mist over the pastry sheets. This won't be as delicious as melted butter, but it will do, and I promise the tartlets won't taste of olives.

I haven't given you exact quantities for sugar, cinnamon and butter here - this is up to you.  But go easy on the softened butter. Cinnamon is also best used in whispers.

If this recipe appeals to you, here are some more phyllo-pastry finger foods you can make in a jiffy:

Baby Apple & Cinnamon Phyllo Tartlets 

2 tins baby apples, drained of their syrup
6 sheets phyllo pastry, fresh if possible, or thawed overnight in the fridge if frozen
caster sugar
a little cinnamon
unsalted butter, softened
toasted flaked almonds, or other nuts of your choice, very finely chopped
icing sugar, for dusting

Heat your oven to 170º C, fan on, or 180 ºC, fan off.  Unroll the phyllo pastry and remove one sheet.  Place this on a large board or your kitchen counter. Cover the remaining sheets with a slightly damp tea towel to prevent them from drying out.

Melt a few tablespoons of butter in the microwave, or on the stove, and brush a thin film all over the top of the pastry sheet.  Lightly dust the sheet with caster sugar and a suggestion of cinnamon. If you are using finely chopped nuts, sprinkle them over top.

Place another sheet of phyllo on top of the first one, and repeat the steps with this and the third sheet of pastry.  Now, using a sharp cookie cutter and some firm pressure, stamp right through all three layers to cut out as many neat circles as you can fit into the stack of pastry. The size of the cookie cutter depends on how large the baby apples are, and you will need one that is large enough to allow the pastry circles to come up to about two-thirds of the way up the apples' girth once wrapped (see picture, above).  If you don't have a cookie cutter of the right size, use the rim of a large drinking glass, and cut around the circumference with the tip of a very sharp knife.

Smear a thin layer of  softened butter over each disc (this will help it stick), place a baby apple in the centre, and gentle press the pastry around the base to form a nest.  Tie a short length of split raffia around the midline of the apple and secure with a knot. The easiest way to do this is to hold the apple by its base, put the raffia in position, and ask someone else to tie a knot or dainty bow. Trim the ends of the raffia and place the apple tartlets upright on a sheet lined with baking paper.

Now repeat the process with the second tin of apples and the remaining three sheets of phyllo.

Generously sprinkle some extra caster sugar over the tops of the apple and gently fan out the phyllo-pastry 'ruff' on each tartlet.  Bake for 8-12 minutes, in the middle of the oven, or until the phyllo is crisp and golden, the sugar melted and the apples hot.  Watch the tartlets closely for signs that the pastry is darkening too quickly, and turn the baking sheet once or twice if your oven has known hot spots.

Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar (and a blob of cream, if you fancy that). You can snip off the raffia binding before you serve them, using a pair of fine-tipped scissors, or - if you've been patient enough to tie a small bow on each tartlet - you can remind your guests to remove the string themselves before they pop the the tartlets into their mouths.

If left to cool completely on a wire rack, these will happily retain their crunch for an hour or two, depending on humidity.

Makes about 24 apple tartlets. 

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Monday 4 February 2013

Creamed Curried Mushrooms on Toast

Mushrooms, even bog-standard supermarket buttons, have a delicate taste, so it may seem illogical to pair them with warm and assertive spices.   But if you use your spices with a light hand, and allow the forest-floor flavours of the mushrooms to shine gently in the background, you will be amazed at how good lightly curried (and very creamy) mushrooms can be. This dish makes a lovely mid-week meal, and is very good for breakfast.

Creamed Curried Mushrooms

This dish is inspired by a curried mushroom soup my late mother-in-law Audrey Rayner used to make; the recipe came from a fine book called The Old Cape Farmstall Cookbook (by Judy Badenhorst and others).

I pored over this  book when I was learning to cook in my twenties, but of course someone has nicked my copy, so I can't give you the original recipe. I do miss it, because it is such an honest cookbook, and one refreshingly of its time. In the early 1980s, the Old Cape Farm Stall in Constantia was a genuine farm shop with no foodier-than-thou pretensions, selling tubs of wondrous home-made things you just didn't see on supermarket shelves - exotic veggies, newfangled hummous, brilliant chicken-liver and snoek pâté and warm wholewheat loaves. No picnic at Kalk Bay or Cecilia Forest or Llandudno was considered complete without a trip to the Old Cape Farm Stall to stock up.

Creamed Curried Mushrooms
But back to the mushrooms. You can make an okay version by frying the mushrooms, tossing in a teaspoon or two of mild curry powder and stirring in some cream, but it is best with a more subtle blend of very fresh spices.  I always use Rajah medium-strength curry powder because it has a generic taste that reminds me of the curries of my childhood.  A good Spanish paprika makes all the difference - the stuff you buy in bottles at the supermarket is a puny substitute. I am a devotee of La Dalia sweet Pimentón de la Vera, which you can buy in tins at good delis and specialist suppliers.

This is excellent with crisp toast, and very nice too wrapped  in warmed naan breads.

If you like the idea of curried mushrooms, try my piquant mushrooms: Devilled Mushrooms on Toast, Downton Abbey, and devilish old recipes

Creamed Curried Mushrooms on Toast

1 kg (4 punnets) portebellini and button mushrooms, or mushrooms of your choice
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tsp (10 ml) mustard seeds
8 dried curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
½ tsp (2.5 ml) cumin
½ tsp (2.5 ml) coriander powder
½  tsp (2.5 ml) good, fresh paprika
1 tsp (5 ml) medium-strength curry powder
½ cup (125 ml) cream
lemon juice, to taste
fresh coriander or flat-leaf parsley, to garnish

Wipe the mushrooms and cut them in half if they are very large. Heat the oil in a large pot and add the mustard seeds and curry leaves. When the seeds begin to crackle, add all the mushrooms and cook, over a medium-high heat, for about 10 minutes, or until the juices are running freely and the mushrooms are soft. Add the grated garlic and cook for another minute, and then add the spices and cream. Let the mushrooms bubble for a few more minutes. When the liquid has reduced and thickened slightly, the mushrooms are ready.

Add a squeeze of lemon juice (just enough to give the dish a pleasant zing), dust with a whisper of paprika and serve immediately on hot toast, with a shower of chopped coriander or parsley.

Serves 4 as a meal; 6 as a snack. 

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