In Oxford you know that autumn is approaching when it is time for St Giles Fair. The two main roads that merge on the North side of the city centre are closed and an old-fashioned funfair springs up overnight, causing traffic chaos for three whole days. Colleges, offices, shops, pubs and museums all suddenly find their main entrance opening out onto the back of a fun house or zero gravity ride and on good years a big wheel offers sneaky peeks into college quadrangles and secret gardens. St Giles Fair also brings with it three unmistakable smells: diesel, candyfloss, and the irresistible waft of frying onions from the fair’s numerous burger vans.
Fresh from the fair and armed with my local, seasonal but mainly just very cute aubergine (see picture), I knew I wanted to pair it with some of those sweet, slow-cooked onions and a really rich (and dare I say) autumnal tomato sauce. The final recipe is a little more time consuming than most of my cooking but griddling the courgette and aubergine and slow cooking the onions is what makes this dish. Lightly brushing the aubergine (eggplant) and courgette (zucchini) with olive oil and griddling until they have golden criss-cross markings on them brings out their flavour in much the same way as slow cooking does for the onions, without letting the aubergine act as too much of a giant olive oil sponge. Speaking of the aubergine, these italian heirloom types have a sweet and creamy flesh with no hint of bitterness to need salting away.
I totted it up quickly on my notepad and a serving of this recipe easily provides three fruit and veg portions. I’ve teamed the vegetables up with quinoa because it has a pleasant nutty flavour and is a healthy choice in carbohydrate terms but I don’t really believe in any of that individual ‘superfood’ business; if you don’t fancy quinoa just substitute it for another wholegrain like brown rice, bulgur or barley. For the curious there is some detailed information on the GI News site from Sydney University about the interaction between wholegrain goodness and glycaemic index.
You know it only just occurred to me that all this quinoa we’ve suddenly started eating has to be coming from somewhere and sure enough when I checked the brand I bought last is imported from Bolivia. Do we grow quinoa in the UK? Yes we do apparently, as a tall dense cover crop for game birds to hide in! I wonder if that is starting to change.
Recipe for Aubergine, courgette and tomato stew with quinoa and feta
1 large aubergine
1 large onion, halved then sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed then chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)
Half teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon honey
600g canned chopped tomatoes
Salt and pepper
For the quinoa
200g quinoa, dry weight (about a cup), rinsed
3 spring onions, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Trim the ends from the courgette and aubergine and slice the vegetables longways into thick slices. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook the veg in batches on a griddle pan (or grill) until nicely marked and nearly cooked through. Set aside to cool.
Put a pan of water on to boil for the quinoa.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a deep frying pan (one that has a lid for later). Add the onion and cook gently for fifteen minutes until soft and golden. Add the chopped garlic and dried oregano and cook for another five minutes, taking care not to burn the onions.
Add the tomatoes and honey into the pan with the onions, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. When the water comes to the boil put the quinoa on to cook, following the packet instructions.
Chop the aubergine and courgette into dice.
When the 20 minutes are up for the tomato and onion sauce add the diced courgette and aubergine. Replace the lid and simmer for a further ten minutes. Taste and add seasoning if required (remember that the feta will add extra saltiness).
When the quinoa is cooked drain and toss with the cinnamon, pine nuts and spring onion. Stir through the mint literally just before you dish up to stop it going black.
Serve the tomato, aubergine and courgette sauce alongside the quinoa and sprinkle with crumbled feta.