Lick your arm, then bite.” I remember being taught this by a Greek friend when I was about 10: to lick a salt-streaked forearm, then to take a bite of watermelon, enjoying how salty and sweet got on, before flinging ourselves in the sea, using the melon skin as a sort of float.
Years later, I watched my tiny son alternate between his arm and an ice-cream lolly with a chocolate veneer (called a cremino), untroubled by any sand that got between them. Then, last week, while I moaned about spending more time in too small a space, that we wouldn’t get to Sicily or to Dorset this summer, my son was busy swirling salt into his bath, tightening his snorkelling mask and checking the freezer for cremino.
So, taking a lesson from my now eight-year-old, I have been salting my bath water and enjoying the crack as the veneer of chocolate on a cremino shatters. I have also been cooking some dishes as a form of travel, and not tripping myself up with the sabotaging: “But it doesn’t taste the same if you don’t have five kilos of just-picked tomatoes or a pint of Dorset cream.” Of course it doesn’t, and so we adjust; we swirl salt in the bath.
While I have called it sweet-and-sour aubergine, this week’s recipe owes everything to Sicilian caponata, with the addition of cooked chickpeas. While this is not traditional, the little ram heads seem entirely at home with the cubes of fried aubergine and moons of celery, all of them happy to be sharing a coat of sweet-and-sour sauce. I have not included the capers, olives, pines nuts or currants that are integral to so many versions of caponata, but you may well decide to add them – do so according to your taste; this is a laidback recipe.
Couscous with sweet and sour aubergine and chickpeas
Slice the red onions into new moons (so tip to root, as opposed to round the girth). If you want to make the couscous yourself from semolina and water, there are several excellent videos on the internet, and the Sicilian journalist and food writer Ada Parisi describes the process usefully on her exceptional blog.
2 celery sticks
2 red onions, peeled and sliced
200ml peeled, crushed tomatoes (fresh or tinned)
1 pinch red chilli flakes
500g cooked chickpeas
Cut the aubergine into 2cm cubes and cook in one of two ways. The first is to toss them in a few tablespoons of olive oil, spread on a baking tray and bake until golden and wrinkled. Alternatively, deep-fry in an oil of your choice until deep golden, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and drain.
Parboil the celery in salted boiling water until just tender, drain and slice thickly.
Put four tablespoons of olive oil, the sliced onion and a pinch of salt in a large frying pan over a medium-low flame, and cook gently until soft and translucent – about 10 minutes.
Stir in the celery, add the tomato and a pinch of red chilli flakes, then let it bubble in lively way for five minutes, before adding the chickpeas and leaving it all to bubble a bit more. Add one heaped tablespoon of sugar, three of red-wine vinegar and a pinch of salt, stir, taste and adjust the seasoning, and cook for five minutes more.
Add the cooked aubergine, stir gently, then turn off the heat and leave to sit for at least an hour, so the flavours mingle. At the end of resting, if you need to adjust the sweet and sour, heat a half-and-half sugar-and-vinegar solution in a small pan until the sugar melts, and add that to the aubergine and chickpeas to taste.
Fifteen minutes before you want to eat, put the couscous in a bowl, add a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of olive oil, pour over 450ml boiling water, stir, then leave to sit, covered with a cloth, for 10 minutes. Fluff up the couscous, turn into a wide dish, sweep a crater in the middle and tip in the aubergine and chickpeas.