Regular readers will know that I’ve been writing a PhD for a long time. Like, 8 years long. Maybe 9? I can’t bring myself to work it out. Now that I’m on the home straight it means a lot of time spent in the house, at my desk, working on something which doesn’t earn me any money and probably never will. It is of such little value to me right now that I have a joke with a pal about the uses we can find for my thesis in its physical form. Could it crush a cardamom pod, for example? I’m confident it could obliterate a grape but I wouldn’t trust it to hammer a nail.

The reason I’m telling you this is that the lack of a) time and b) money mean I’m trying to cook more thriftily. The other day I even retrieved the dusty basket at the top of the spice cupboard and found a big bag of split black lentils, and we all know that one of the best things to make with lentils is dhal.

The whole urad dal need to soak overnight, which is why the split kind is handy. They take half an hour to soak and then an hour to simmer (this would be even faster with a pressure cooker but I couldn’t be bothered getting it out). I also found some aubergines in the fridge and a lovely thing to do with dhal is blacken aubergines as if making baba ganoush, then add the flesh to the lentils. It’s more faff but makes the dhal really smoky and creamy.

This is one of the best bowls of lentils I’ve ever made, so I’ve stashed some in the freezer for future me to find. You should know that the garnishes are very important – do not underestimate the combined efforts of chillies fried in butter + cold creamy yoghurt.

Smoky Aubergine and Black Lentil Dhal Recipe

This is quite a large amount of lentils, so make sure you have a saucepan that can hold them before you begin. The dhal will serve 6 easily with flatbread, naan, chapattis etc.

2 aubergines (the larger they are, the smokier the dhal)
500g split black lentils (urad dhal)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
A few cloves
A large pinch of mace
Seeds from 5 cardamom pods
10 curry leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 litre stock
Sliced red and green chillies, to garnish
Natural yoghurt
Vegetable or groundnut oil, for cooking (yes you could use ghee but I finish this with butter, so it’s up to you)

Cover the split lentils with cold water and set aside to soak for half an hour.

Place the aubergines directly on a low flame on the hob and let them blacken, turning occasionally until they’re black all over and starting to burst and collapse. If you don’t have a gas hob, you can do this under a grill. Set aside to cool a bit, then scrape out the flesh and chop it.

Grind the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, mace and cardamom to a powder in a coffee/spice grinder or pestle and mortar.

Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable/groundnut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the curry leaves and cinnamon stick. Cook for a few mins, stirring.

Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook, stirring to prevent them burning. When they’re golden, add the spices and cook for a couple of minutes more, stirring so they don’t catch.

Add the lentils and stock and give everything a good stir. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 hour, or until the lentils are tender but still have a bite. Season with salt.

I like my dhal a bit creamy, so I blended half the lentils at this point. It’s up to you. You can also add a little water for a looser consistency.

Add the chopped aubergine and check again for seasoning.

Melt a large chunk of butter and gently sizzle the sliced chillies in it. Drizzle this on top of each bowl of dhal along with a spoonful of yoghurt and some chopped coriander.

I first tasted sabich in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. I’d become so obsessed with the idea of tasting one, in fact, I made a point of seeking out as many as possible, managing just three. That number looks a bit more impressive when you consider that I went on a mad dash around the city in the few hours I should’ve spent packing for the airport, and I was eating sabich right up until I buckled into my seat.
The sandwich starts with a soft, round proper Israeli pita, not those cardboard slippers we get in the supermarkets, which is warmed (not toasted), and split for filling. Inside you’ll find sliced potato, hard-boiled egg, fried aubergine, pickles, salads and sauces, including amba. That’s a sweet and tart sauce consisting of mangoes and spices and it basically makes the sandwich.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to make one, and I think part of it was the fear of cooking from increasingly distant memories. The amba is sweet, sharp and vaguely musty, and the zhoug a lightning bolt of green, all zippy herbs and chilli heat.

I’d love to go back to Tel Aviv one day, a thrilling city with incredible food. These sandwiches are a glimmer of that sun-soaked city on a freezing afternoon in South London, and for now, that’ll do me just fine. For now.

Sabich Recipe

Makes 6 pitas with leftover amba and zhoug (a very good thing)

For the amba

Amba is a sweet and sour mango sauce which probably arrived in Israel with the Iraqi Jews and is a common topping on sabich and falafel. It really makes this sandwich.

2 unripe (green) mangoes (you should have no trouble finding these in the supermarket…), peeled and diced
5 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
1 heaped teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large pinch turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon vegetable or groundnut oil, for frying

In a small saucepan, gently heat the sugar with the lemon juice and vinegar, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the mango pieces along with 200ml water and simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the pieces are very soft (you will blend the sauce). In a separate, small frying pan or saucepan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the garlic and cook very briefly, stirring, for 30 seconds or so. Add the turmeric, cumin, fenugreek and some salt and mix well. Transfer to a blender and whizz until smooth. Set aside to cool.

For the zhoug

Zhoug is a Yemenite chilli sauce which is fantastic with pretty much everything, including grilled meat and fish.

Large bunch of coriander and stalks
Slightly smaller bunch of parsley and stalks
5-10 green chillies (depending on their heat and your tolerance)
8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Juice of 1 lemon
2 large pinches of salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

In a pestle and mortar, crush the cumin and caraway seeds. Add the salt and crush the garlic too. Transfer to a food processer with the herbs, lemon juice and chillies and blend to a paste. Add the oil and blend again. Check for seasoning.

For the sandwiches

1 aubergine
3 potatoes
6 small, round, soft pita
3 eggs
1/2 small white cabbage, finely shredded
1 carrot, grated or cut into very fine strips
1/2 red onion, finely sliced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Vegetable or groundnut oil, for frying

First, cook the aubergines by cutting into 1 cm slices, then frying in oil. I used a cast iron skillet for this, with oil to a depth of 1cm. Remove the slices when they are golden on each side and rest on kitchen paper.

Cook the potatoes in salted water. Drain, cool a bit and slice.

Cook the eggs by covering them with cold water. As soon as they start to boil, time them for 5-6 minutes (small-large), then transfer to a bowl of cold water. Peel and cut in half or slice.

Make a salad by mixing the cabbage, carrot, onion, olive oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper.

To assemble the sandwiches

Warm the pittas, but don’t toast them – they should be soft and pliable. Cut the top off and stuff with the ingredients and sauces. Direct into mouth.


Lamb and Date Meatballs in a Frazzled Aubergine Sauce.

When shiny aubergines are placed over a naked flame, their skins blacken and they collapse inward on themselves with a steamy sigh. Once cooled and split, the inside is gloriously smoky; a total transformation. It is this creamy flesh that blends into dips such as baba ghanoush, but I like to use it as a base for a sauce.

The meatballs are made with lamb, dates and warming spices like cumin and chilli. I’ve nicked a trick from the Italians too and mixed in some breadcrumbs soaked in milk – just a little – so they become light and extremely easy to eat. A swirl of yoghurt and a few pomegranate seeds make this dish pretty. Serve with couscous or bread to absorb the luxurious sauce.

Lamb and Date Meatballs in Frazzled Aubergine Sauce

500g minced lamb
4 dates, pitted and finely chopped
1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 heaped teaspoon hot chilli flakes, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried mint
1 thick slice white bread
Milk (about 4 tablespoons)

For the sauce

4 aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 400g regular tin chopped tomatoes
2 black cardamom
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 cinnamon stick
300ml vegetable stock

Vegetable oil, for frying

Pierce the aubergines in several places with a fork, then place directly on the gas ring of the hob, turning occasionally, until black and shrivelled all over. Alternatively, grill them to the same effect.

Remove the crusts from the slice of bread and break into rough pieces. Place in a small bowl with enough milk to mash to a paste.

In a small frying pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds over a low heat, stirring frequently, until they start to smell fragrant. Take care not to burn them. Grind them in a spice grinder or crush them in a pestle and mortar.

In a large bowl combine the minced lamb, bread paste, ground cumin and coriander, chilli flakes, chopped dates and mint. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well; really , really well. Get in there with your hands and knead the mixture almost like a bread dough. Make sure the dates are well distributed. Roll into walnut sized balls. Set aside on a plate.

Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in the Le Creuset, and fry the meatballs in batches, 4 or 5 at a time, until golden brown all over. Set each batch aside while you cook the next.

To make the sauce, scrape the flesh from inside the aubergines, leaving behind the blackened skin. Chop roughly. Fry the onion until , cardamom pods and cinnamon stick until the onions are soft and beginning to colour. Scrape up the lovely meaty residues from the pan as you do this. Add the aubergines and garlic. Turn up the heat a little and Cook for about five minutes more stirring.

Add the tomatoes, pomegranate molasses and stock. Put lid on and cook for 45 mins to an hour on low heat. Taste and season. For a thicker sauce, remove the lid towards the end of cooking time to reduce it. Add back the meatballs to heat through.

Scatter with pomegranate seeds and coriander to serve.

Lamb Shanks with Figs and Pomegranate Molasses

When I saw some lamb shanks going cheap, I snapped them up then scuttled away fast before anyone remembered to make me pay through the nose for them. I’m a bit in love with the flavour of lamb cooked with sweet dried fruits, especially for a long roast or braise; this time I decided on a mixture of squidgy semi-dried figs and pomegranate molasses. I added a quantity of sliced onions described in my scrappy notes as ‘a shitload’, which cooked down to a caramelised base; the figs plumped and leached their sticky treasure while the pom molasses licked everything it touched with that magical, Arabian Nights perfume.

A scotch bonnet was pinpricked to gently seep heat, riding the bubbling sauce for a good 3 hours until the meat was flopping off the bone in great silky lobes; it was all I could do to get them onto the plate in one piece.

We ate it with a pomegranate and cucumber salsa because we’d eaten rather a lot already that day (the perils of recipe writing: I’d done a dhal for AoL and a quiche for the new Lurpak Christmas site) but it would be lovely with something stodgy to soak up that sauce; rice, mash or even a chunk of Middle Eastern style bread.

Lamb Shanks Braised with Figs and Pomegranate Molasses

(serves 2, although you could divide up the meat and serve 4, with sides, if you have big shanks)

2 lamb shanks
Flour, for dusting the shanks
2 large onions, sliced into half moons
4 cloves garlic, peeled
400ml stock
1 scotch bonnet
6 semi-dried figs (the squidgy, ‘ready to eat’ ones)
4 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon honey

Fresh pomegranate seeds to garnish (optional); some chopped coriander would also be nice, now I think about it.

Preheat the oven to 150C.

Cover a plate with flour and season it with salt and pepper. Roll the lamb shanks around in the flour until they are completely covered. In a large, oven proof casserole dish, heat a little oil and brown the lamb shanks well, all over.

Set the shanks aside and add the onions into the hot fat in the pan. Keep cooking and stirring until they start to colour. Add the stock, scraping around the bottom of the pan to get all the good caramelised bits to loosen then turn off the heat and add all the other ingredients plus some salt and pepper. You can cut open a few of the figs to encourage them to give forth their contents.

Put a lid on the pan and cook for about 2-3 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone. You can then take the lid off an reduce the sauce if you want but I was too hungry so I just drizzled a bit over and chowed on down.

Aubergine and Lamb Pide

I’ve got a new oven. This is brilliant for 2 reasons. Firstly, it’s all clean and shiny; I mean, how often does your oven look clean and shiny on the inside? Not very often I think you’ll find. Not if you’re a slovenly layabout like me anyway. Second, my old oven was, quite frankly, a piece of shit. It had no numbers on the temperature dial and no symbols for the oven settings and it cooked unevenly so that everything had to be turned around halfway through or it would burn on one side – not exactly ideal.

So, I cooked pide in my swanky new oven; I made nice, evenly cooked pide and I knew exactly what temperature I was cooking them at by means of the lovely little digital display (imagine my panic when I saw the temp dial had no numbers around the outside). That’s 15 minutes at 220C, in case you’re wondering.

Pide are rather similar to lahmacun* and are apparently sold on every street corner in their homeland. I topped mine with aubergine (which I blackened on the gas hob before scooping out the smoky flesh); lamb, minced; spices like coriander, cumin and cinnamon; onion, garlic and a little tomato. At one point I was feeling particularly rock and roll and recklessly squeezed in some incredible  Le Phare du Cap Bon harissa (from The Good Fork – they have some great stuff, like sardine spread, which is impossible to stop eating). Very spicy indeed. You could also use the fiery red pepper paste found in Middle Eastern shops or failing that just a decent amount of chopped red chilli.

I garnished the finished pide with diced Persian pickles (dill pickles would make a nice substitute), a sprinkle of lemon juice and some parsley. These things are essential for distracting from the richness of the lamb. The dough is a piece of piddle too. Well, it is if you have an electric mixer, anyway. It was thin, yet soft – extremely easy to demolish.

The end result is a bit like a banana shaped pizza. A delicious, meat-smeared boat of soft, spicy flatbread. Very evenly cooked.

*If you like the look of this, you’ll probably also like the look of my similar, Peckham Pizza.

Smoky Aubergine and Lamb Pide

(makes 4)

For the topping:

1 large-ish aubergine
250g minced lamb
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Pinch ground cinnamon
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tomatoes
A squeeze of tomato puree
2 red chillies (or a squeeze of very good quality, hot harissa)

To garnish:

Chopped pickled cucumbers, chopped parsley and lemon juice

Place the aubergine on the ring of a gas hob on a low heat (or under the grill), turning often, until completely blackened and collapsed. I think the hob gets a more smoky flavour but it sure as hell makes a mess. Once cool enough, scrape out the flesh, taking care to avoid any pieces of black skin. Finely chop the flesh. Set aside and discard the skins.

Skin the tomatoes by scoring a cross in the bottom and covering with boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain, peel away the skin and chop finely. Toast the cumin and coriander seeds in a dry pan over a low heat, moving them around; when they start to smell fragrant, tip them into a pestle and mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder.

Sauté the onions in a little oil and when soft, add the chilli and garlic and continue cooking for 30 seconds or so, stirring. Add the spices and stir again for another 30 seconds. Add the lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a spoon, until it is all brown and cooked through. Add the tomatoes and aubergine flesh and cook for about 10-15 minutes, until any excess liquid has cooked out. Taste and season with salt and pepper. The topping is now ready so allow it to cool.

For the dough:

For the dough I used a recipe I found online which I now can’t locate for the life of me. If it’s your recipe, I’m sorry! I’ll reproduce it here anyway.

1 x 7g sachet fast action dried yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
150ml warm water
300g plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
2.5 tablespoons olive oil + more for brushing

Mix the yeast and sugar with the warm water. You want warm water, not hot, as it will kill the yeast. Leave it to one side to activate. When it’s ready (in about 5 minutes), it should be very frothy on top. If not, your water wasn’t warm enough or it was too hot – start again.

Sift the flour and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer or large mixing bowl. Add the yeast mixture and oil. If using a mixer, set it on low speed for 10 minutes until you have a smooth, elastic dough. If mixing my hand, you’re going to have to knead it until you have the same result.

Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Let it rise for about half an hour, or until doubled in size. Knock back the dough then cut into 4 pieces. Roll each piece out into a rectangle with tapered ends (much easier than it sounds – they don’t need to be neat at all).

Preheat the oven to 220C

Put each rectangle onto a baking tray lined with baking paper and then smear the topping over each, spreading it evenly. Fold up the sides of each pide and crimp at the ends. Brush the edges with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes. Brush the crust with olive oil once more when cooked. Sprinkle with the garnish and serve.