Take a dip into September
It’s September, but I’m pretty sure there are still a few picnic days left. My new flat is tiny and we often decamp to the park next door to eat, so pretty much every meal has become a kind of picnic of late.
For me, the ideal light lunch or picnic must include meze, full of strong Middle Eastern flavours. Tabbouleh is a favourite of mine and a standard on the meze table. Below is a pretty classic version, but do feel free to experiment; I always do, adding raw chopped green beans or cauliflower to pep it up. It’s a perfect picnic salad too as it benefits from being made in advance, unlike a standard green salad that can come out of its container looking a little worse for wear.
Moroccan egg and potato sandwiches might sound a little eccentric, but they are delicious. One of my favourite street foods, they also hold up well over time so they’ll still be in tip-top condition if you make them a few hours in advance.
I always include an aubergine dip, occasionally adding crushed walnuts, chilli or herbs; this one, baba ghanoush, is the simplest and the best. It’s important to cook the aubergine until it’s really black; there’s almost nothing worse than undercooked aubergine – it doesn’t even approach the heights of wonderful, soft, luxurious baba ghanoush if the aubergine is lumpy. I tend to pick up a bit of that Middle Eastern bread that looks like focaccia in my local Middle Eastern shop and take a sample of this glorious paste whenever I can.
A picnic becomes a feast if you’ve made a cake, and my simple cake has an exotic twist to it that makes it a perfect end to this Middle Eastern experience.
Serves four as a dip 3 large aubergines 1 garlic clove 2 heaped tbsp of tahini paste Juice of 2-3 lemons ½ tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted and crushed ½ bunch of parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped, plus extra to garnish A good pinch of sweet paprika 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle A small pinch of cayenne, to garnish
Turn your electric or gas hob onto high, or heat up a griddle pan or barbecue. Stab the aubergine a couple of times with a fork, then place them directly over the heat. Roast them for 10 minutes, turning them frequently, until the outside is uniformly charred. Wrap them tightly in a couple of layers of tinfoil and return them to the direct heat (or place in a hot oven) for 20-30 minutes (depending on size of aubergine and heat source) until you can feel that the aubergine is very soft and collapsed.
Very carefully remove the aubergine from the hot foil, place on a board and scrape out the pulp; place in a bowl to cool.
Crush the garlic clove with a little salt, then place in a food processor or blender along with the aubergine pulp, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, parsley, paprika and olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper, then blend to a purée. Taste and adjust the salt and lemon if you think it needs it. Transfer to a bowl or picnic container, sprinkle over the cayenne, a few parsley leaves and a good drizzle of oil. To get the best flavour out of herbs slice them, as opposed to chopping them. Just roll them into a tight cigar and use your sharpest knife — don’t be tempted to chuck them into the food processor as it bruises them.
Serves four to six 100g/3½oz medium bulgar wheat, rinsed under cold water, then soaked for 20 minutes in warm water 2 large tomatoes 1 large bunch of parsley, washed, ½ the stalks finely chopped, leaves finely sliced 1 small bunch of mint, washed, leaves picked and finely sliced 1 small cucumber or ½ a large cucumber, finely chopped ¼ red onion, finely chopped Seeds from ½ pomegranate ½ tbsp pomegranate molasses Juice of 1-2 lemons, to taste 2 tbsp olive oil
Check that the bulgar grains are soft enough to eat — if not, return them to warm water for another 10 minutes. Drain the bulgar and place in a clean tea towel to ring out any excess water. Transfer to a bowl.
Finely chop the tomatoes and add the flesh and juices to the bulgar (this helps to soften the bulgar and imparts flavour). Season well with salt and pepper and stir well.
Add the remaining ingredients and combine well. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. This is a very simple but delicious salad. You can find purslane in Greek, Cypriot and Middle Eastern shops but it would work well with lots of different herbs
Serves four to six 1 bunch of purslane ¼ garlic clove 250g/9oz Greek yogurt Cayenne, to garnish Olive oil, to garnish
Gently nip the tender top portions of the purslane, then pick the leaves from the rest of the tough stem. Wash thoroughly.
In a pestle and mortar, crush the garlic with a pinch of salt until you have a thick paste, then stir it through the yogurt. Add a dash of water to loosen the yogurt a little and add a little more salt if needed.
Place the purslane leaves in a shallow bowl or picnic container and pour over the yogurt. Sprinkle over a little cayenne and drizzle over a little oil before serving.
Makes four 400g/14oz floury potatoes 4 medium eggs 2 handfuls of green olives, de-stoned and roughly chopped A small handful of coriander leaves 4 large pitta bread/flatbread 1 tsp cumin seeds, bashed with 1 tsp sea salt Extra-virgin olive oil
Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft, adding the eggs to the pan for the last six minutes (ideally, you want them soft boiled, not runny). Peel the potatoes and eggs, then roughly chop together and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the olives and tear in the coriander leaves.
Heat the pitta breads in a warm oven and split open. Spoon in the egg mixture, sprinkle with the cumin and salt, and drizzle generously with olive oil. Fold up the sides of the pitta and serve.
Serves eight to 10 20 fresh green cardamom pods 125g/4½oz butter