Two phrases are scrawled through the pages of my journals, wedged between recipes, sketches and ramblings. Strive for simplicity. Strive for muscle. Written in confident, looping letters, these are big ideas which haunt me in the small, quiet hours of the morning. As though the action of tracing the letters over and over will allow them to seep into daily life. But the art of reduction is as elusive as it is desirable. ‘Strive for muscle’ is a phrase borrowed from Francine Du Plessix Gray, found when rifling one holiday among the pages of The Writing Life. Wrangling words, dancing with language – the ‘muscle’ or strength, simplicity if you will, of which Gray speaks is worth striving for. An idea linguistically stripped back to its essence, one that inevitably spills into other areas of thinking. Simplicity. Muscle. Both require courage.
Harmony and mindfulness. Lately these have taken a grip on my thinking, edging, as we are, toward the introspective darker days of winter. It’s all too easy to be swept up by the confusion of bells and whistles in the kitchen; to be seduced by long lists of the exotic, the obscure. Time to step back. Time to breathe.
Simplicity in the kitchen is about developing intuition and confidence. Listening to the language your ingredients are speaking. How else will they shine? It’s about taking pleasure in small things, like running your fingers through the verdant pots of parsley, beads of water showering your good shoes in the process. Or sipping green tea in the afternoon and watching chickpeas slowly, very slowly, swell in a dish of cold, clear water. Simplicity is washing the dishes by hand because the dishwasher is, sadly, far too complicated. And simplicity is having the courage to place a bowl of homemade smoky eggplant puree on the table with some buttery, slow-cooked chickpeas and happily call it Dinner.
Drifting back, nose first, to the musky fug of chickpeas and bay quietly simmering in the oven, I know instantly what is needed. A bowl of herbal, fresh, flavour-lifting persillade to cut through that richness. Simple. Muscular. We ate in contented silence and both agreed it a meal fit for company. Hunks of crusty bread, or soft fresh pita, optional.
Simplicity is persillade. Parsley, from the garden if you’re lucky, washed and carefully dried, pine nuts from the pantry and a clove, maybe two, of garlic. The zest of a lemon sometimes goes in depending on the sort of lift a dish needs, but essentially this is an intuitive thing. A very worthy, but vastly different, substitute for parmesan cheese.
Palmful of pine nuts
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2-3 large handfuls of parsley leaves, washed and well dried
Toast the pine nuts to a pale shade of gold in a heavy based frying pan. Cool on a plate. Chop the garlic roughly, then chop everything together, running your knife back and forth, over and over, until it’s all quite fine.
Smoky eggplant puree
Not quite the classic Babaganoush, this is adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s simple, delicious recipe. Her suggestion to serve with a separate bowl of sour cream into which you have stirred some finely chopped fresh ginger and another, smaller, bowl of sliced hot green chillies is Highly Recommended.
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 lemons, juiced
Tahini, to taste
Preheat the oven to 180 C.
Trim and quarter the eggplants lengthways. Nestle them in a single layer in a large baking dish and drizzle with a little olive oil, just enough to lubricate the pan. Roast, turning once, for 40-45 minutes, until the wedges are cooked all the way though. Cool, then peel away and discard the skins. Place the softened eggplant flesh in a colander and press down with the back of a spoon to expel as much liquid as possible.
Puree the eggplant with the garlic, a little salt, the lemon juice and a tablespoon, to begin with, of tahini. Whiz to a puree, adding a little more tahini if you like. Serve topped with a thread of extra
virgin olive oil.
Photographed while watching Oscar play football, I'm rather sorry to say, badly.