Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Grilled aubergine, lentils, chilli, herbs

We were just outside Wellington, on the edge of the desert, and the beers were still cold.

We were on our way to the Tankwa Karoo National Park. About 60km back the road had curved sharply to the left, leaving behind lush vineyards and green hills, taking us into the bleached, eternal landscape of the Karoo.

The Guinea Pig and I were elated — starting, as we were, on our second ice-cold Tafel lager. This was the stuff, being out here, in the middle of nowhere, leaving it all behind: stress, the rat race, the strain of city living — and, as it turned out, cell phone reception.

As we crested another identical hill, several gleaming 4x4s came into view, parked on the side of the road down below. There were hazy figures milling about. Approaching, we saw one was lying in the road. Another was standing waving his arms in the air for us to stop.

No one was hurt, though.

A group of generously proportioned gentlemen — faces like pot scourers, heads like anvils — had decided it would be a capital idea to pull over on the side of the road and imbibe a little ... er, what looked like Coca Cola (undoubtedly kept company by one of it’s close associates, rum or brandy).

These guys did not look drunk. They looked as though they had never been sober.

Somewhere just outside Wellington.

This is how we found ourselves surrounded by about ten large, drunk characters (salt of the earth, I’m sure), leaning on the bonnet, standing in front of the car, leering in through the open window (idiot!), insisting — sort-of amiably, sort-of not — that we get out and have a drink with them.

GP and I smiled. We mumbled things along the lines of ‘Ha ha, we’d love to but we’re late and we must be getting on. Thank you so much for the offer, though. Another time. Ha ha.’

Very, very slowly, we inched forward, smiling slit-eyed, nodding, waving, until we broke free, at which point we accelerated reassuringly. Over the hill, we promptly downed another Tafel each in silence. The Scary Men were out of sight, soon to be out of mind. Or so we thought.

‘Why are you slowing down?’

 ‘I’m not,’ says GP. There is an edge in his voice.

‘What do you mean?’

‘The car is losing power — it’s slowing down all on its own. Something’s wrong.’

Car trouble. Middle of nowhere. No cell reception.

‘We have to go back,’ says GP.

Although the prospect of having a bubble bath with Julius Malema held more appeal than turning back and passing our plastered friends again, proceeding further into the middle of nowhere was simply not an option.

So we turned around and made our way back towards Wellington. By the time the men came into view, we were not travelling faster than 20km/h, because we couldn’t.

Once again, one of them lay down in the road and they waved for us to stop. GP, bless him, simple took a little detour off the road and went right around the horizontal man. Very slowly.

There is a particular arrangement of ticks and pinched muscles your face assumes when your insides have gone goopy with fear, and even though your survival instinct has run off to hide behind a rock, somehow you know it’d be a very, very bad idea to let on that you are this close to incontinence.

Although we were careful not to make eye contact, we had time to observe one of them, propped up by a car door, lose the fight against gravity. Another appeared to be pleasuring himself matter-of-factly, glass in (other) hand. It was not outside the realm of possibility that one of them would take it into their head to rugby tackle the car, or simply hop on and provide us with the opportunity to cause offense.

The car slowed to 15km/h as we hit the incline, and dropped to 10km/h as we approached the crest. I had visions of the engine cutting, of the heart-stopping moment when the car would begin to roll back down towards the Scary Men.

By the time we got over the hill, my body was so rigid it could have been used to open crates.

We even managed to crest another hill before the engine finally died. At least we were out of sight.

Four hours later — after a kind couple of geologists happened past and towed us to the nearest patch of cell reception, and we were able to call for roadside assistance — we were back in Cape Town. We had a few laughs about the whole experience, about how our long-anticipated weekend in the wilds of Tankwa had nearly turned into Deliverance in the desert.

We laughed. But I will never forget it.

That night I made this dish. And we liked it very much, because it is comforting. And when you’ve been a little traumatised, you want reassuring food.

It has all the qualities I most desire in a recipe. Although I am a certifiable cookbook addict, I very rarely cook the actual recipes in any of the ones I own, because I don’t want to have to source za’atar or enoki mushrooms or kohlrabi on my way home from work in the evenings. I want to stop at Woolies or Pick n Pay and get everything I need in one go. Of course I get a bit more adventurous, usually on weekends, but it’s dishes like the one you see above that I adore — they get me excited, because it is their simplicity that makes them so brilliant.

Well, don’t take my word for it.

Grilled aubergine with lentils, chilli, herbs
Serves 2 as a main and 4 as a side dish

2 medium aubergines
1 cup black/brown lentils (green is fine too), rinsed
1 large handful each coriander and flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 red chilly, seeds removed and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
50g chevin (soft goats cheese)
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1. Slice the aubergines length ways into 2cm slices and spread out in a baking tray (they should not overlap). Sprinkle with salt and black pepper, drizzle with olive oil and work the mixture into the aubergine slices with your fingers so they are evenly coated.
2. Grill the aubergines until golden and cooked through (I put my oven on the highest setting and then place the aubergines at the bottom of the oven so they cook through without burning).
3. In the meantime, cook the lentils. Place the lentils in a saucepan with two cups water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer until the lentils are tender but still firm, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool. (I usually just whack the lentils into a sieve and run cold water over them — they don’t have to be cold, they just shouldn’t be hot as the heat kills the taste of the herbs.)
4. In a bowl combine the lemon juice, zest, garlic, chilli, herbs and the olive oil, then stir into the warm lentils. Cut the aubergine slices into quarters and gently fold them into the lentils, taking care not to mash them up.
5. Transfer to a serving dish, top with crumbled goats cheese and serve. (Yes, I took these pictures before I realised I’d left out the goat cheese!)


  1. A scrumptious, colorful and healthy dish! That combo is terrific.



  2. Horrifying story! Scrumptious looking food...

  3. I love your story. Nothing like a little trauma to make food taste extra good.

  4. Edge of seat reading my friend :) Glad you made it home safe 'n sound...., nothing like some serious taste & comfort food after an experience like that eh :)

  5. Hell, that looks good. Delicious food, great pix and accomplished writing, as always.

  6. This is hilarious! I love your writing and I felt as though I were there! So funny. And what yummy looking food too!

  7. Excellent post! Those half drunk men sound creepy. Definitely bookmarking this for weeknight cooking - always a mission after a long day at work, right?

  8. MMMMMMMM,..what a delightful & colourful lentils & aubergine salad!!

    It looks so appetizing!! I just moved my blog to wordpress.com / Come over @ my blog & check me out! You may want to update your RSS though!

  9. Oh my god Robyn! What a terrifying story! You are very lucky and your devoted readers are lucky that nothing happened to you. Phew! I would have promptly headed to the bar up the street and had french fries for dinner but you managed to cook up something tasty and healthy. I'm not a big eggplant (aubergine) fan but I actually do like it when sliced thin and baked at high heat. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Good grief!! That's hilarious! Scary, but hilarious! I can almost hear the banjos... The dish looks heavenly though - my kind of comfort food. Nothing like a near-death experience to sharpen the appetite. ;o)

  11. That certainly was an experience for the memory book. At least it all ended well and your were able to enjoy this wonderful dish. Your photo is terrific and the aubergine and lentil combo sounds delicious. Have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  12. Beautifully put. I have all the ingredients for a version of this recipe at home but no hope of such a great story to go with it.

  13. I sensed the uncertainty, the whispers of fear....This looks fitting for trauma-relief. And more. I'm glad things turned out fine