I have a ridiculous number of cookbooks, magazines, recipes ripped from newspapers and magazines, and downloaded from the internet. It can make choosing what to eat more of a problem, not less, so when I’m stuck for inspiration I have a few strategies: I might pick a book or magazine at random, and just cook anything and everything that sounds delicious. Or I might go into the larder and pick out an overlooked, forgotten-about ingredient and find recipes to use it with.
This last strategy came into play this week, when I found a pot of dried barberries lurking, doing nothing. It was a good move, I made two absolutely divine dishes with them, which went together perfectly: this, which I found in an old Jamie magazine, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s saffron rice with barberries, pistachio and mixed herbs.
Barberries are tiny, sweet-and-sour Iranian berries that add a real hit of intensity to Middle Eastern dishes. You can get them online, and from Middle Eastern grocers, where you will also find dried limes (also well worth seeking out for the dark, rich depth they supply). If you can’t find barberries, use currants soaked in a little lemon juice instead, or dried sour cherries also make a great substitute.
RECIPE serves 4
a pinch of saffron threads
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil , plus extra for frying
1 tablespoon tomato purée
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground or fresh turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 x 400 g tin of chopped tomatoes
250 g yellow split peas
3 dried limes
1 large aubergine
10 g unsalted butter
100 g dried barberries
Grind the saffron threads to a powder with a mortar and pestle, transfer to a small bowl and pour over 2 tablespoons of hot water. Set aside.
We are not big fans of saffron, some people just aren’t. If this also applies to you then consider finely grating a couple of centimetres of fresh turmeric root (now very widely available from larger supermarket chains) and soaking in a couple of tablespoons of hot water. The flavour is heady and aromatic, it makes a perfect substitute wherever you are called upon to use saffron.
Peel and finely dice the onion.
In a large frying pan, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil over a low heat. After 10 minutes, add the tomato purée, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, ½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, chopped tomatoes and split peas.
Pour in about 500ml of water and simmer everything over a low heat for 45 minutes or until the split peas are soft.
Spear the dried limes on a metal skewer, then add to the pan and cook, covered, for another 15 minutes. Once the cooking time is up, add the saffron water (or turmeric water) and stir through thoroughly. Season, remove the skewer from the limes and leave them in the stew.
Meanwhile, halve one large aubergine lengthways, then slice each half again lengthways into three equal spears. Salt generously and then let sit for 30 minutes before patting them dry. This step makes a huge difference: aubergines used to be salted to remove bitterness, but this is now largely unnecessary; what salting them does do is to draw out excess water, so that when they are fried they don’t soak up oil like a sponge.
Heat some oil (to cover the bottom) in a pan. Fry the aubergine over a medium heat – in batches of 2 or 3 spears if necessary – until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper.
In a small pan over a medium heat, melt the butter and gently fry the barberries until softened.
To serve, place one fried aubergine spear on top of each portion of yellow split peas, with Yotam Ottolenghi’s saffron rice with barberries, pistachio and mixed herbs on the side and barberries scattered on top.