No, I am not referring to the broccoli – I am talking about the Italian region, Calabria. The other day I borrowed a beautiful cookbook on Jewish cooking all around the world. The book (this is the UK edition – I have it in German) is laced with beautiful pictures by Peter Cassidy and contains sad and interesting stories. The numerous recipes come literally from all corners of the world. Actually the sweets looked like you could die for them, but I am trying to lose weight, so no cakes, for a while (sad, sad world, I know). So I leafed and leafed drooling over the sweets and trying to ignore them at the same time, until I found a stew that looked a bit unfortunate, because it had no picture. The recipe background sounded interesting. Originally from Syria, the family moved to the UK. The story behind the recipe is a funny one: a mother in law trying to sneak some aubergines into the food prepared for her daughter’s husband, who did not like them. Apparently if you peel the aubergines and cook the stew long enough, you are not able to tell what is in it anymore.
Well, this detail was not exactly what gets me over excited. I would never ever try to disguise a poor aubergine, though I had my share of cooking for picky eaters. Anyway, the stew also called for optional gooseberries to make it sweet-sour. I was intrigued by the idea, which sounded like a UK inspired touch, and resolved to buy some gooseberries and give it a try. Alas, there are no more gooseberries at the farmer’s market. But! At the moment German markets are covered with blue damsons. In Italy they are quite sweet, while here they always have a distinctive sour note and are very flavourful. I suspect you should use them for baking and not for eating as they are, but no cakes here, than you very much. So I replaced the gooseberries with the prunes. I also kept the aubergine peel, of course! And cut down heavily on the cooking time.
While I was cooking my hungry taster was buzzing around the kitchen, claiming I must be using some magical spice because the house smelled ‘spicy in a good way’. When he finally tasted the dish, he said ‘I’ve already eaten this’. He grew up in Calabria and he swears it must be a Calabrese recipe. And indeed if you look at ingredients and preparation method, this is exactly the kind of dish you’d find, apart from the fruit addition: despite of its spicy smells, the dish tastes rich but not spicy at all to an Italian palate (we are no big spice lovers on average), full of Mediterranean flavoured vegetables and with the meat softened and brought together by the addition of lemon juice, not at all uncommon in southern Italy, where tough meat and lemons are a common combination.
I was also reflecting on how new world vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes have conquered the world. They are to be found in even the smallest shop, everywhere. So many of our recipes rely on them.
This is a good one.
Láchma bi má’ala
serves four, keeps well
1 large onion
1 tablespoon oil
400 g beef meat, cut into very small dice or ground
1 tin canned tomatoes
juice of 1 lemon and a half
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ground chilli pepper
1 large aubergine, cut in very small dice
1 large courgette
200 gr prunes
1 kg potatoes (I used floury ones)
Slice the onion and saute in olive oil. If using non ground meat, cut the meat into 0.5cm by 0.5 cm dice.
Add the meat to the onion, brown it on all sides. Add canned tomatoes, about half a glass of water, sugar, lemon juice, chilli, salt and pepper. Let cook for ten minutes, stirring now and again. Meanwhile cut aubergine, courgette and prunes in small dice, a little bigger than the meat. Add them to the meat and tomato sauce and let cook for a further ten minutes. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. In the meanwhile peel the potatoes, cut them into 1 cm thick slices, and line the bottom of an oven dish with them.
Taste the stew – it should taste of lemon, and be aromatic, but not hot. Adjust seasoning and lemon juice if needed. Arrange it on top of the potato slices, cover with aluminium (or, if you have a casserole dish, use it with its lid) and bake for about an hour. The potato slices should be soft. Take care that the top stew does not get too dry, adding a little water in case.
Serve very hot or warm.