Smoked eggplant with salted cheese and mint
I’ve always liked a kitchen to be a little improvised. Even the commercial kitchen I work in at Longsong in Melbourne doesn’t have an oven. The only heat source is coals. The restriction is what allows for creativity. Otherwise you’re just coming up with crazy ways to combine flavours, which is boring.
A friend of mine asked me to cook at a wine festival he put on in Tasmania. He wanted me to come down and cook a pig, which I thought would be no problem. I turned up with two 44-gallon drums and a pile of wood. The adaptability you get playing with heights and using bricks to work out temperatures means you’re constantly in touch with what you’re cooking.
In the house I’m renting, I don’t like the oven. I’ve set up some bricks and am cooking pretty much entirely outside. That’s my party trick at the moment. At work, I use compressed charcoal, which is hard to find ethical supply lines on. I like to use mallee root and red gum, which is fairly heavily regulated, and burns slowly.
If you go to the trouble of lighting a fire, there are three heat sources to consider: directly above, to grill; underneath, to bake; and the periphery for smoking or whatever.
I will build a kitchen, and then try to find out how to use it, which is backwards and satisfying. For steaming, I will look at Mexican techniques to keep using the coals, wrapping food in corn husks. You become very adaptive in using fats to protect food.
This eggplant is a pretty classic Middle Eastern dish, similar to a baba ganoush. The eggplant picks up and holds the flavour of the smoke, while the skin protects it. This technique ends up both smoking and steaming the eggplant. Be sure to prick the skin first, otherwise the eggplant will explode in your face.
- 1 eggplant
- 140g shallots, finely sliced
- 300ml unflavoured oil for frying
- 5g fenugreek seeds
- 50g pumpkin seeds
- 30ml lemon juice
- ½ bunch mint
- 50g salted cheese (shanklish)
- Prick the eggplant using a skewer several times before placing it on a wire rack over coals. Use quite a direct heat. (If a coal set-up isn’t possible then place the eggplant directly over an open flame.) Char all sides until the eggplant begins to collapse slightly, then allow to rest on a plate. Do not refrigerate.
- To fry the shallots, place them in hot oil and agitate with a fork to separate the slices. Once they start to turn golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain.
- For the dressing, retain 150ml of the frying oil. Grind the fenugreek and pumpkin seeds using a mortar and pestle and place into a pot with the oil. Cook on a medium heat for about four minutes before removing from the stove. Once the oil is cool, add the lemon juice.
- To assemble, very gently remove the skin from the eggplant, working down from the stem. Place the eggplant on a plate and season generously with salt. Add the dressing, top with the torn mint leaves, then the fried shallots, and sprinkle the shanklish to finish.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "Blocks, rocks and two smoking barrels".
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