The Mother-in-Law has been away for sometime now. It’s strange to not hear the gentle rumble of her feet pitter-pattering in the bathroom above the kitchen, causing the chandelier to jingle-jangle like a gigantic sparkly wind chime. Some may regard this sort of illumination in the cook’s room as “naff chichi” (to quote an ex-Sister-in-Law) but this handsome antique was rescued by The Mother-in-Law some years ago when the local synagogue almost threw it on the heap in favour of a more humble-looking and, well, less Mother-in-Lawish design. I’m glad of its delivery – I’ve yet to chop an onion under an object as utterly beguiling in its twinkliness. I just pray that the weight of it all doesn’t beg the bath to collapse through the ceiling and deliver me my final serving.
The next best thing to cooking in the lambency of the chandelier is cooking outdoors, in the drawing light of the sun setting over The Mother-in-Law’s garden. Our little barbecue is perched up on the decking, next to the shed, looking out upon the sea of vegetables that are still treading water given the ongoing storm of slugs, caterpillars, shade, and trampling feet of youth battering at their green bows. It really is quite, quite lovely up here.
A few years ago, The Husband and I did some work with the brilliant Sam and Sam Clark from the rather delicious and acclaimed restaurant, Moro, and they introduced us to the wonderful Spanish dish, Escalivada.
Escalivada (or escalibada as it is said in its native Catalonia), is a smoky dish made typically from charred aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and onions. The dish’s name comes from the Catalan verb ‘escalivar‘, meaning ‘to cook in ashes’ (there go those great Spaniards again with their snazzy verbs for wild cooking.) It is served as a tapas dish, as a topping for coca (see below), or atop grilled meat or fish. It can also be accompanied by anchovies, as I like to do, which add a wonderful saliferous edge. The ‘little fishes’ are not unpopular with my children either, who continue to have an appetite for both salt and small gill-bearing creatures.
Like many Catalonians, the Clarks make their escalivada outside on glowing coals, which makes excellent use of an otherwise wasted part of the barbecue, when you’d ordinarily be waiting for the flames to die back so you can cook your protein on the white bits (not a culinary term?). You can also cook it indoors, on a gas flame or under the grill, as My Hero (Claudia Roden) does. Of course, she too has her own version, based on the Catalonian and Valencian ‘coca de recapte‘. Coca is a type of Catalan pizza whilst ‘de recapte‘ means ‘what you have in the cupboard’, which sort of only works if your larder is a Mediterranean one; otherwise it’s Marmite on toast.
What I like best of all about this recipe – discounting its simplicity – is that it can turn even the most hardline, non-vegetable-eating carnivore (little brother, you know who you are) into a rapturous legume-lover. And once you have tasted the sweetness and joy that is escalivada, you will be barbecuing veg all summer long.
Serves 6 as a starter or side dish
3 peppers (a selection is fine – I use 2 red romano peppers and 1 green bell pepper)
2 small red onions or banana shallots
1 bulb of garlic (new season ideally)
4 tomatoes or a couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes
10 salted anchovies
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar (red wine vinegar would also do fine)
Fresh coriander and parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and black pepper to season
If using a barbecue, set it alight, and once there’s a burning flame place all the veg on the rack above the flame. Turn the vegetables every now and then, until they are charred and soft all over – this may mean that smaller or softer vegetables are removed before larger, firmer ones.
(If using an oven indoors, place all the veggies on a rack under your grill and cook in much the same way as you would with a barbecue, turning every now and then. Soften those that are still firm but charred in tray with some olive oil in a preheated oven. You can also char the vegetables on a naked gas flame or an AGA stove top.)
Once your vegetables are charred, leave until they are cool enough to handle. Then peel the blackened skin off the aubergines, peppers, garlic and onions, and discard along with any stalks and seeds from within the peppers.
Then, either with your hands or with a pair of clean scissors, tear/cut the flesh of the veggies into a bowl, adding the tomatoes whole and the fresh herbs.
Next chop up the anchovies and toss them into the mix, along with the oil and vinegar. Season to taste.
Serve warm. Eat outdoors.
Hint: You could use escalivada as a yummy pizza topping, eat it with some fresh pitta, or use as a pasta sauce with a handful of Manzanilla olives and some soft goats cheese or feta.