Last Saturday was my final day as a chef in a museum. My residency consisted of four days working in the museum proper and one day at home when we arranged to have a group of twenty, including my great friend Arabella Boxer, visit my kitchen the way they would an artist’s studio for them to see where I work and for me to explain how I write and test my recipes, the equipment I use, the books I refer to and the ingredients I need. I enjoyed showing them around and explaining how I work in the space I had created for that purpose. And I hope they enjoyed their visit despite the lack of chairs for everyone but really the most exciting time of my residency was the time I spent in the museum. I loved arranging my ingredients and utensils in the room where Lord Leighton worked and seeing the juxtaposition of my domestic elements with Lord Leighton’s art.
I had chosen pickling for one of my sessions there because I didn’t need any special equipment — there are hardly any kitchen facilities at Leighton House but this may be changing soon — and whatever prep I needed to do like boiling the aubergines, I did at home. The bowls of vegetables, the bottles of vinegar and oil and the glass jars looked gorgeous on the wooden table lit by the sun (it was an unusually gorgeous day) streaming through Leighton’s large studio window. Oddly enough it was the only session that was not very popular. I had fewer people than in the previous sessions but it didn’t matter really. I had my lovely young intern helping me and enjoying the experience and those who came were very charming and totally interested.
I showed them how the Lebanese, Syrians, Moroccans, Turks and Iranians pickle various vegetables including boiled aubergines preserved in three different ways: Iranian style filled with herbs and preserved in cider vinegar flavoured with coriander and nigella seeds, Syrian style stuffed with crushed walnuts, garlic and peppers and preserved in olive oil and Lebanese style filled with crushed garlic and peppers and preserved in a mixture of vinegar and water.
The first jar from the left has Turkish pickles: cabbage, carrots, celery, quince, courgettes and peppers neatly layered and covered with malt vinegar and salt ( 2 tablespoons sea salt to each 1 litre vinegar). The cucumbers in the jar next to the Turkish pickles are Lebanese, preserved in a brine made up of one third white wine vinegar to two thirds water (2 tablespoons sea salt to 1 litre brine). The next jar is Moroccan preserved lemons (cut in quarters without detaching them then each half and spread with 1 heaping teaspoon salt before being packed tightly in the jar; they will release a fair amount of juice and you don’t need to worry about them not being completely covered — they are ready to use in four weeks). And finally, the last jar is one of my favourite pickles, turnips preserved in the same brine as the cucumbers but with a few pieces of raw beetroot added to give them a lovely pink colour — beware, most commercial pickled turnips are coloured artificially!!!
And here is a recipe for the Iranian pickled aubergines which I have adapted from one in Margaret Shaida’s Legendary Cuisine of Persia. It is rather unusual and totally delicious but you need to buy small aubergines. I got mine at Zeina but you will find them at any other Middle Eastern shop. Just make sure they are firm and smooth ie. very fresh. It is only after boiling or steaming that they are allowed to look old and shrivelled!
250 g parsley, most of the stalk discarded, chopped finely
250 g coriander, most of the stalk discarded, chopped finely
4 tsps dried mint
4 tsps dried basil
10 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsps salt (for the filling) & 6 tsps salt (to sprinkle on the aubergines)
4 small green peppers
2 tsps nigells seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
500 ml cider vinegar
Remove the peel & stalk from the aubergines.
Steam until soft (I boiled mine because that is how we prepare them in Lebanon but it is better to steam them). Press the excess liquid by putting them in a colander and placing a weighted bowl over them. Let drain for 24 hours then spread on kitchen paper – this will stop them from spoiling quickly.
Put the chopped and dried herbs in a bowl. Add the crushed garlic and 2 teaspoons salt and mix well.
Slit the aubergines open lengthwise making sure you don’t cut them in half and fill each with some of the herb mixture. Close and wipe clean and stand or lay in the pickling jar. When you have done one layer, sprinkle with some of the remaining salt, nigella and coriander seeds. Lay two peppers then repeat to make another layer and another not forgetting to sprinkle with salt, nigella and coriander seeds as well as the remaining peppers. Pack the jar then pour the cider vinegar over the aubergines to cover completely. Add any remaining salt. Close tightly and gently shake back and forth to distribute the salt.