Baby Gem Lettuce with Burnt Aubergine Yoghurt, Smacked Cucumber and Shatta
This works well either as a stand-alone starter or as part of a spread or side. It’s lovely with some hot smoked salmon or trout. ‘Smacked’ cucumbers sounds a bit dramatic but, really, it’s just a way of bruising them so as to allow all the flavour to seep through to the flesh. Thanks to Ottolenghi chef Calvin Von Niebel for this salad.
Getting ahead: Make all the elements well in advance, here, if you like: up to a day for the cucumber and the aubergine yoghurt, and the shatta needs to be made in advance, so you’ll be all set here.
Playing around: Some crumbled feta on top works very well, and if you don’t have the Urfa chilli flakes, just use a pinch of black nigella seeds or some black sesame seeds.
|5–6||baby gem lettuces (500g), bases trimmed|
|1½ tbsp||shatta (red or green) (see page 73 of Falastin) or rose harissa, as an alternative|
|½ tsp||urfa chilli flakes (or a small pinch of nigella seeds or black sesame seeds, as an alternative)|
|salt and black pepper|
|For the aubergine yoghurt:|
|2||large aubergines (500g)|
|½||garlic clove, roughly chopped|
|1½ tbsp||lemon juice|
|1½ tbsp||tahini (25g)|
|For the smacked cucumber:|
|1||regular English (i.e. not a small Lebanese) cucumber, peeled, sliced in half lengthways and watery seeds removed (180g)|
|25g||parsley, roughly chopped|
|25g||mint leaves, roughly chopped|
|½||a garlic clove, roughly chopped|
There are two ways to chargrill the aubergines: on an open flame on the stove top, or in a chargrill pan on an induction hob followed by 10 minutes in a hot oven.
The more you char your aubergines, the smokier the flesh. Unless you don’t mind your whole house smelling of burnt aubergines, ventilation is key. Open the windows, open the door, put on the ventilator! We char our aubergines in one of two ways. The first, if you have a gas flame on an open stove top (as opposed to an induction hob) is to put one aubergine over each gas ring, switch the flame on high and leave it there for 15–20 minutes, turning halfway through with long tongs so that all sides get charred. The advantage of doing this is that it is a really quick and very effective way of getting the flesh smoky. The disadvantage is that it can cause a bit of a mess on your stove top if the aubergines leak once they’ve been turned and their skin gets pierced. This mess can either be cleaned up with a bit of elbow grease or minimised in the first place if you cover your stove top with aluminium foil. Make holes in the foil for the gas rings to pop through and then proceed. If you have an induction hob you’ll need to heat up a chargrill pan until it is very hot – sit it on a high heat for at least 5 minutes, until smoking – then add the aubergines directly to the pan. Pierce them a few times with a sharp knife before doing so. This method takes longer than the open-flame option – around 35 or 40 minutes, again turning throughout with long tongs so that all sides get charred – but you will get the same result. At the end of the 40 minutes, transfer the aubergines to a foil-lined tray and place in a hot oven (220C) for a final 10 minutes. Once charred (whether on a gas ring or hob), place the aubergines in a colander. Once cool enough to handle, slit them open to scoop out the flesh and place in a clean colander. The scooped-out flesh should weigh about 160g. Don’t worry if some of the charred skin sticks to the flesh: this all adds to the smoky flavour. Set aside for an hour or so (or overnight), over a bowl, to drain. You’re then all set for the smokiest of all smoky spreads, soups and salsas.
Once drained, place the aubergine in the bowl of a food processor along with the yoghurt, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and ½ teaspoon of salt. Blitz for about a minute, until completely smooth, then set aside until needed.
Prepare the cucumber by placing each half on a chopping board, cut side facing down. Using the flat side of a large knife, lightly ‘smack’ them until bruised but still holding their shape. Cut the cucumber into roughly 1cm dice and set aside.
Clean the food processor, then add the parsley, mint, garlic, olive oil and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Blitz for about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides a couple of times if you need to, to form a smooth paste, then add to the cucumber. Set aside for at least 20 minutes (and up to a day in advance if kept in the fridge) for the flavours to infuse.
Slice each head of baby gem lengthways to make 8 long thin wedges (per lettuce). When ready to assemble, arrange the lettuce on a round platter, overlapping the outer and inner circle to look like the petals of a flower. Lightly sprinkle the wedges with salt and a grind of black pepper, then splatter over the aubergine yoghurt. Spoon over the cucumber, drizzle with the shatta, sprinkle over the chilli flakes and serve.