I hosted my monthly book club this past Sunday night and, as it’s the host’s duty to provides some nosh, I spent a couple days prior scouring my cookbooks for ideas. It’s a very forgiving group of gals so there was no real pressure except what I imposed upon myself, but I still wanted to make something delicious and impressive.
The book du mois was “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese (an AWESOME read). Now, when I host the group, I sorta like to theme my snacks and appetizers around the book in some way. However, this story took place mostly in Ethiopia. Not being very familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, although I have eaten it a time or two, I was at a loss. To turn up the heat even more, one of the book club members has actually lived in Africa in Tanzania, so I knew she would have some idea whether the food actually tasted authentic or not.
After much deliberation, I finally decided I would make a lamb tagine, which is a meat or vegetable stew with dried fruit, olives and preserved lemons. Granted, this is really considered a North African dish more than Ethiopian, but I figured just being on the same continent would earn me some credibility. Technically, tagines takes their name from the domed clay cooking vessel they’re prepared in. The closest thing I had was a crock pot. C’est la vie.
The recipe came to me from my old trusty electronic files. Several years ago on a trip to Ireland, I happened to catch an episode of a BBC show called “Two Hairy Bikers.” (You think I’m joking. See for yourself — www.hairybikers.com.) This is a travel/cooking show that follows these two hirsute gentlemen around on their motorcycles to foreign lands where they introduce viewers to the regional cuisine. I had flagged a recipe for something called “Sultan’s Delight” that was sort of like what I had in mind, although upon closer examination, it was actually a Turkish dish. Dang. Can’t win for losing. At this point, my time for waffling was running out and I decided it would have to do.
As it turned out, the stew was darn tasty. Not all that different from a good beef stew, but the lamb gave it a richer, gamier flavor and the seasonings were more distinctive with cinnamon, cumin and allspice. I took a few liberties, as I usually do with recipes like this, and threw some chickpeas and chopped figs into the mix. They proved good additions, but as the figs cooked down and disintegrated, the seeds gave the whole dish a slightly grainy texture that I could have done without. The flavor, though, was delicious.
On the side, the Hairy Bikers served their stew with creamed eggplant (or aubergines, if you want to explore your British side). And who am I to argue with the wisdom of a Hairy Biker?
I don’t know about you, but I’d eat an old shoe if it’s topped with cream and some cheese. This dish is really just roasted eggplant that’s been peeled, smushed and stirred into a béchamel sauce. I threw mine into a small Corning Ware casserole dish, topped it with breadcrumbs, browned it under the broiler and served it with crunchy pita chips as a warm dip. Yummy. One of my friends (the one who’d lived in Africa!) liked it so much, she said she could have sucked it up through a straw. I’d say I can safely chalk that up as a win!