This is a recipe inspired by something I read in the Honey and Co cookbook, although the recipe is entirely different. Now, I own a lot of cookbooks. I think everyone who cooks a lot does. Even among those books that you’ll never cook a recipe from, you’ll read through the good ones and feel enchanted by their beauty or pick up some tricks and techniques. However, sometimes there’s a cookbook that you just want to cook everything from. For me, that was how I felt as soon as I started reading Sarit and Itamar’s book based on their completely charming, utterly delightful and on the street I live on restaurant. Everytime G and I go to their restaurant and sit in the overly crowded room that is somehow still peaceful, drink the incredible ice teas (my favourite is the saffron one but G is all about the orange blossom), talk to the wonderfully kind hosts, and eat the remarkable food we feel completely fulfilled. Unfortunately, often too fulfilled to have one of their amazing cakes. It’s a truly delightful place and one of my favourite restaurants in London – you must go if you’re around.
G and were there early in the new year and I had an amazing lamb dish called Lamb Siniya. So, of course, as soon as I was home I looked up the recipe in my new Christmas gift from my mother-in-law. Only one problem; G doesn’t like lamb. I also thought, delicious as it was, that I would have preferred something other than the cauliflower. Before I knew it I was cooking something completely different – full of mushrooms, aubergine, and beef. Since then I’ve made it four times and the year is barely three weeks old. It’s delicious, easy, can largely be done ahead, and needs nothing more than a light red wine vinegar, mint and tomato salad on the side. It tastes light whilst being comforting and filling. All in all, I can be safe in the knowledge that I’ll make it again and again – thank you Honey and Co!
At the base of the comforting warmth of this dish is a spice mix called baharat. Baharat simply means spices, and the particular configuration of spices varies greatly from region to region in the Middle East. It’s always peppery and warm from lots of black pepper, but can contain a wide variety of spices, including cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, paprika, and cayenne pepper among others. I buy a pre-mixed baharat spice blend most of the time, but if you want to make your own my favourite recipe is, you guessed it, from Honey and Co. Baharat spice adds a hint of exoticism alongside the kind of warmth I find very enticing – it’s the kind of warmth which comes from spices rather than chilli. I’m not great with chilli heat. I’m not someone who has to have it mild, but by the same token I don’t get a kick from something burning my mouth and I actively don’t like tastes to linger. I like clean, layered flavours that wash over one another or build to a crescendo much more than a bright shining flavour that shouts to be heard and then echoes around, getting in the way of the next bite. By contrast, pepper spice and some chillies found in south american food have a heat which comes at the end of a taste and then goes away. It sits further back in the throat and warms, rather than at the lips and biting. Baharat isn’t “spicy”, so it won’t cause any trouble for people who “don’t like spice”, but it is heavily spiced, that’s to say is complex and has a slight tingle. Frankly, it’s delicious.
As well as the spicing, I really wanted to bring out the meaty flavour of the beef and the soft sweetness of aubergine. There are a couple of small things you can do to really amp up the meatiness in such a dish. The first is to properly brown your mince. When you first add the mince to the pan, it will start to give an almost bubbly noise as the water coming out of the meat evaporates. This takes a huge amount of energy and lowers the temperature of your pan, limiting it to boiling temperature (100 celsius). Browning doesn’t happen until around 140 celcius. That means you have to drive off the excess moisture first and then cook for a few more minutes until well browned.
Secondly, your meat needs to be seasoned properly. Salt enhances our ability to detect certain flavours – as an experiment, check out this broccoli soup recipe, it really exemplifies the raw power of salt to even change the perceived texture of food. Thirdly, let’s drop some umami bombs. Umami is a taste – like salty, sweet, bitter, and sour – and it is really the taste of savouriness. Some foods are super rich in umami, like parmesan or star anise. Here, I’m going to use two of my favourites; shiitake mushrooms and Worcestershire sauce. By really browning the shiitake mushrooms you get intense little bursts of savoury which amp up the meatiness. A few drops of Worcestershire sauce just push it over the edge.
For the aubergine, I want to create a soft pillowy layer of intensely savoury fried eggplant rounds at the top. This sounds simple, but the internet is quite fiercely divided on the topic of whether aubergines should be pre-salted. The honest answer is for some varietals of aubergine it’s absolutely essential to remove bitterness and for others (the majority of commercially grown aubergines nowadays) it’s not. However, even if it’s not removing bitterness, it will still reduce the amount of oil the aubergine absorbs and make sure it’s seasoned throughout. Therefore, I’m firmly in the “it’s worth it” camp. They take about 45-60 minutes to dry brine when layered between sheets of paper towel, but I tend to leave them for as long as it takes to do the rest of the prep and brown the mushrooms so I don’t actually lose any time in the cooking process. After a quick fry in a little olive oil they’re ready to go.
However, I guess it’s the crust that’s the most unusual part of this dish. That I’ve lifted straight from the magicians at Honey and Co, and haven’t yet changed because I simply haven’t needed to. It’s completely delightful and I think would go well on lots of different dishes. I can imagine a creamy spiced chicken base that feels like a middle eastern chicken pot pie, or comforting lamb shanks braised with fruit. I’m even interested to see what happens if I substitue the tahini for, say, pistachio butter, the yoghurt for buttermilk,
and add a bit of sugar. That on top of some stewed apricots sounds pretty divine to me…
- 300g shiitake mushrooms diced into 1cm cubes
- 4 banana shallots finely diced
- 600g beef mince
- 2-3 tablespoons of baharat spice mix (I like 3 but some might prefer 2)
- 12 cherry tomatoes finely diced
- 1-2 aubergine sliced into 1 cm thick rounds (depending on the size of the aubergine you might need two to cover your pan in one layer)
- 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
- 300g tahini
- 300g natural yoghurt
- 3 eggs
- Juice of 1-2 lemons
- Splash of water (if necessary)
- Handful of toasted pinenuts and finely chopped parsley to top
- Place the sliced aubergine on some kitchen towel and sprinkle both sides generously with salt. Place another slice of kitchen roll on top and leave for 45-60 minutes or as long as it takes to prep the vegetables and cook the mushrooms.
- Place a heavy bottomed oven proof pan on a medium-high heat The pan should be a couple of inches high at least but not a saucepan. Heat some olive oil and add the diced mushrooms to the pan with some salt. Cook until deeply browned all over, approximately 15 minutes. If the pan needs a little more oil at any point then add it. Remove the mushrooms and place aside
- Fry the aubergine slices for a few minutes each side until golden brown but not burnt. They will require a decent quantity of oil but only add enough to ensure it doesn’t stick and colours well. Remove to paper towel to drain and blot the surfaces.
- Sweat the shallots until translucent but not coloured, increase the heat to high and add the mince. Break the mince up with a wooden spoon, season it well and cook until the meat starts to brown. This will take around 5-10 minutes. Add the baharat spice and cook for a further minute.
- Add the tomatoes and mushrooms and cook for a further couple of minutes or until the tomatoes have softened. Add the Worcestershire sauce and stir to combine. Turn off the heat. Lay the aubergines on top of the mince in one even layer. At this stage, the mixture can be cooled and placed in the fridge for a few days until needed
- Mix together the tahini, yoghurt and eggs until fully combined. Add the lemon juice, season with salt and pepper. taste and adjust the lemon juice up if necessary. Add enough water (will only be a couple of tablespoons) to make it the consistency of thick but runny yoghurt. It should slide off the spoon but still be thick and glossy. Cover the meat mixture fully with the tahini crust.
- Add to an oven preheated to 180 degrees until completely golden brown, approximately 15 minutes. Sprinkle toasted pinenuts and parsley on the top and serve. I like to accompany it with a very light cherry tomato salad with mint and redwine vinegar, it really helps to cut the richness.
TimedEating tips and tricks for cooking ahead:
- All the prep can be done in advance. Remember don’t bring a knife to a fire fight.
- Split the recipe into individual processes, some of which can be done ahead if necessary
- The aubergines and mushrooms can be cooked a couple of days in advance of cooking the meat mixture if necessary
- The meat mixture covered with aubergines can be stored for a couple of days before topping and baking
- In fact, the meat mixture can be stored covered with the tahini topping for a few days before serving
- Toast the pinenuts before your guests arrive, they will last very happily for a few hours
- The meat mixture without the tahini crust can be frozen and reheated without much loss. Unfortunately both the aubergines and the tahini crust do not freeze well.
- I sometimes make extra of the meat mixture, freeze and then defrost it whilst preparing the aubergines and tahini crust
- The meat mxiture makes an excellent pasta sauce, especially for a pasta bake
- This dish reheats very well and is actually nice cold