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The evolution of a recipe

A lot of my life is spent thinking about food. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Inspiration strikes me in many forms and in many places. This particular recipe was dreamed-up predominantly as I drove south down the M11, from Newmarket to London. But it could quite as easily have been whilst I was in the bath, or on the tube, or on the phone to my Ma. Of course, the lightning-strike of inspiration is just the beginning: there's an entire process of development, refinement, testing, and refining again. This is the story of how one of my recipes evolved; how something that vaguely resembled moussaka went to Milan and was given an Italian make-over.

The starting point

There's always a spark: an ingredient, a technique, a flavour; something to try, develop, or experience. There might be intrigue, boredom, or craving, too. It begins somewhere.

The catalyst for this was two glossy, firm-fleshed, deep purple aubergines out of my vegetable box. I love aubergine: I love its aesthetic, I love its meaty texture, I love its versatility, and being my father's daughter, I love how easy they are to grow. But I didn't want to use these aubergines for anything that I've made before: meatballs, or stuffed aubergine, or lasagne, or moussaka. I wanted to try something elegant, dare I say it, refined.

This meant making the aubergine the focus of the meal, both in flavour and vision. No mincing it up and no shoving it in a dish and dousing it in sauce. But slicing it and arranging it on a plate? That could work.

One of my palate's favourite ways of enjoying aubergine is battered and fried. My arteries aren't so convinced, but I don't do it often. Battering and frying aubergine isn't quite as outlandish as it sounds and certainly hasn't come out of a Glasgow chippy. I learned to do it in Italy, but I've had it in Japanese restaurants, and I've been told it is pretty standard fare in the Balkans. In this instance, it would be perfect.

The complement

Aubergine and lamb is a match made in culinary heaven. Their flavours and textures complement each other perfectly and in whatever elegant dish I was concocting in my brain, lamb was what I needed. My initial thought was to marinate strips of lamb, grill them, and then place them on top of the discs of aubergine. However, I also wanted to ensure that the meat was as melting and tender as it could possibly be. A good marinade will help, but by slow-roasting or braising the meat until it falls apart: that would guarantee the texture I wanted.

The vegetarian option screamed 'cheese' at me. It needed a fresh tasting, soft-textured variety. I didn't want to use halloumi, as much as I love it, and something such as brie or camembert would be too strong. So decided on a soft goats' cheese.

It was beginning to come together.

And next

I don't just have a mind's eye; I have a mind's palate, too. I find it easy to imagine what different flavours and textures will taste or feel like in my mouth. (It was only recently that I realised not everyone enjoys this.) And I knew that the combination of fried aubergine and lamb or cheese would be too heavy without an accompaniment; there needed to be something fresh in there, too. Slices of tomato automatically popped into my brain, but I didn't want anything quite that obvious. Tomato, tomato, tomato, red; tomato, tomato, red, red; tomato, red, red, red. I'd get there, eventually.

Some consultation

It's very rare I come up with a recipe and don't talk about with someone at some stage. In this instance, I had two pressing questions and I called on a few people—including my grandmother, fuzzy and blue, and TheLady—whose food I particularly admire, for some advice.

  1. What herb to accompany the lamb? Instinct said oregano, but I was toying with thyme, too. What did anyone else think?
  2. Which fresh vegetable? I wasn't happy with the idea of tomato, but were there any better ideas out there?

True to form, my consultants provided me with some superb advice. Either oregano or thyme would work, but why not add some mint, too? And whilst TheLady was responding to my email, and suggested roasted red peppers as the vegetable, I was making a cup of tea. As I opened the fridge to retrieve some milk, a red pepper was staring me in the face. Fuzzy and blue and my grandmother also reminded me of the need for something a bit sharp in the form of some lemon.

I had a working premise.

Testing

Testing a recipe always requires at least one other diner, and preferably more. So no, I'm not afraid to try out things when people are joining me for a meal. I see it as an excuse to be creative. I made this for lunch with a friend.

I slow-braised a breast of lamb in red wine, with carrots, onions, and a sprig of oregano at gas mark 2 (that's a really slow oven: about 140° Celsius, or 285° Fahrenheit) for about four hours. By then, it was falling off of the bone. It was shredded, and still warm, dressed with a smattering of olive oil, lemon juice, and a touch of fresh mint, chopped finely.

I roasted and had my dining companion skin and slice two red peppers. They need to be dressed very lightly with a dribble of olive oil, another of balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of chili. They don't need to swim in dressing, just look slick.

I sliced two aubergines into rounds about ¾cm (¼inch) thick. I sprinkled them liberally with salt and left them for at least 20 minutes to degorge their bitter juices. (Normally, I don't bother doing this. When I fry aubergine, I always do it. It helps to prevent them from absorbing horrendous quantities of oil and ensures a gloriously soft texture.) Then I made a light beer batter to coat them.

I shallow fried the battered slices of aubergine in sunflower oil and drained them on kitchen paper.

I sliced a log of Welsh goats' cheese.

Then, as quickly as I could, I began to assemble the ingredients into towers, making sure that neither the lamb nor the aubergine had gone cold. I began with aubergine, then either lamb or goats' cheese, followed by a slice or two of pepper. Season. Repeat, and complete with a slice of aubergine.

I served three towers to each diner in what was meant to be an aesthetically pleasing fashion on square plates, with a tomato salad.

Refinement

They worked. They really did. But they weren't yet perfect.

The goats' cheese was very rich. So we tried sour cream instead. That was better. Would ricotta be even better? How about ricotta with some zested lemon and some finely shredded mint mixed in to it?

And I'm really tempted to add some chopped capers to the lamb, too.

Finally?

I'm itching to try this again. I'd love it if some of you tried it, too. (I do warn you now: this is not for the faint kitchen-hearted. The fried aubergine can give you a heart attack in more ways than one.) It's always gratifying when someone confirms that your wild ideas can and do work.

Of course, recipes never work out the same twice. It doesn't matter how many times you make them and how precisely you follow the instructions, there will always be some variation. But hopefully this has shown you how what is ostensibly a pared-down moussaka recipe went to Milan fashion week.

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