When I moved to Ireland for a year in 1997, I had one cookbook with me. It was an impulse purchase I had made about two weeks before leaving, and although I hadn't intended to sacrifice any of my precious luggage allowance to something as frivolous as a cookbook, this particular one seemed to hold me under a spell. It was Kitty Morse's North Africa: The Vegetarian Table, the first full-price hardback I'd ever bought, cookbooks in those days representing a major financial investment for a starving college student. Although I had amassed quite a collection of cookbooks at home over the years - most of them slim limited-focus volumes I'd found on the bargain table with titles like Philadelphia Cream Cheese Classic Recipes, The Taming of Tofu, or Brownies: Over One Hundred Scrumptious Recipes for More Kinds Than You Ever Dreamed Of* - none of them were close enough to my heart to consider stashing in my bags when I traversed continents. This one, however, was different.
It was a beautiful book of coffee-table quality, with luscious photographs and glossy, elegant print. I kept it on my bedside table in my bleak Trinity College dorm room, and often picked it up to look at the pictures of gilded platters overflowing with jeweled couscous and honeyed tagines. They transported me away from the incessant rain pounding outside my window and took me to sunny places where the scent of woodfires and spices drifted lazily on the breeze, and where vegetarian cooking was exciting and exotic (and didn't necessarily involve sprouted wheat and soy protein). In addition, whereas all the cookbooks I'd acquired up to that point were just about recipes and exploring slightly different ways to use familiar ingredients, this one was as much about people, culture and geography as it was about food. The only problem was that I had never managed to actually cook anything from it. Despite the fact that I drooled over every recipe and laid out dinner plans in my head that included a feast of luscious North African delicacies, the logistics of the recipes intimidated me - these dishes, as much as I wanted to eat them, were outside my comfort zone and I didn't even know where to go to find the more exotic ingredients they called for. I was also, I think, secretly afraid of being disappointed, of realizing that this beautiful, mysterious food was not that spectacular after all. Whatever the reason, the book lay there, dog-eared from reading but unused in the kitchen.
About this time I also started dating a guy I had met in Dublin. He had a wonderful Irish accent, but apart from that I can't quite recall what the attraction was. It certainly wasn't culinary - this guy had been raised on his mother's lumpy potatoes and boiled beef and tended to eye anything that hadn't been mashed, boiled or deep-fried with no small amount of skepticism. I didn't realize how deep our differences ran, however, until the night I convinced him to accompany me to a newly-opened Indonesian restaurant. Despite the fact that I found the flavors incredibly Westernized, it took all of two bites of an elaborate rijstafel for him to decide that this alien food had no place in his stomach, and all of another minute for him to remind me that I had offered to treat him to this expensive mistake. It was a lesson learned, and should have clued me in to our long-term potential. Instead it took another couple of months of greasy, tasteless meals together before the end came, and even so it was he who dropped the bomb on me, telling me he had decided to get back together with an ex-girlfriend (who was probably as happy eating fish and chips every night as he was).
Needless to say, I was heartbroken, and I moped around for days until a strange idea for redemption took shape. Out of spite as much as hunger I decided to prepare an elaborate meal I knew he would have hated - the kind of exotic, spicy, opulent food I had been denied while dating him, and I would invite all the friends I could find to share it with me. And of course it would be North African - after all, it was the only cookbook I had. I scoured the city high and low for ethnic food shops and finally found everything I needed; I set a date and invited everyone to my tiny university kitchen to share in my first nervous foray into this unknown cuisine. Luckily, I needn't have worried - the dinner was a huge hit. From the syrupy pumpkin and prune tagine, to the assortment of hot and cold vegetable mezze to the brimming pot of fragrant couscous, everything I made was spectacular. The undisputed star of the evening, however, was something unexpected - it was a Tunisian specialty called a makhouda d'aubergine, a thick, spicy frittata oozing sweetly stewed onions, peppers and eggplant, chunky cubes of gruyère cheese and a wonderfully aromatic spice blend of cinnamon, pepper and rose petals. It was heavenly - and has been each and every one of the dozens of times I've made it since.
Years later, my memory of that particular guy is rather hazy; the memory of that meal, however, is still crystal-clear. And to be honest, I'm much happier having the makhouda around instead of him.
*I kid you not.
Source: Kitty Morse's North Africa: The Vegetarian Table
Notes: Serve this as a side dish with sweet or savory tagines, or as a light main course with a fresh green salad. Tunisians also apparently love to stick slices of it inside crusty bread spread with a little harissa and eat it as a sandwich.
1 large eggplant
salt for sprinkling
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deribbed and diced
8 large eggs
a handful (about 1/2 cup packed) chopped fresh parsley or coriander/cilantro leaves, or a mixture (I use coriander)
4 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz (225g) gruyère cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup (50g) dried bread crumbs
1 teaspoon bharat (Tunisian spice blend; you can substitute 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon rosewater)
about 3/4 teaspoon fine salt
harissa (North African hot pepper paste) or cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)
Peel and cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch dice. Sprinkle generously with salt and place the cubes in a colander to drain for about 20 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil and cook the eggplant, onion, and pepper, stirring occasionally until golden and soft, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer this mixture to a colander to drain off as much of the oil as possible.
In a medium bowl, mix the eggs and add the herbs, garlic, cheese and bread crumbs. Add the eggplant mixture. Season with the bharat, salt, and a small spoonful of the optional harissa or cayenne pepper.
Grease a 2-quart soufflé dish. Pour the egg mixture into the dish and bake in the middle of the oven until golden brown and puffed in the center, 40-45 minutes (a knife inserted into the center should come out clean). Let cool for 10 minutes before unmolding onto a serving platter (you can also just leave it in the dish). Cut into wedges or squares to serve. Serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges on the side.