After a snap poll of Standard Issue staffers, we came to the conclusion everyone has a signature dish they’re willing to brag about. Oh yeah. Helen Walmsley-Johnson knows how to ‘cassoulet’ an eggplant.
Name: Helen Walmsley-Johnson
I Make the Best… Aubergine ‘cassoulet’.
Fuller dish description: Not a proper cassoulet at all because it doesn’t contain meat or take hours to cook, but it has the same unctuous tummy-filling deliciousness. Silky aubergines in a rich tomato, onion, garlic and bean stew beneath a crispy herb and breadcrumb topping.
When did you first make it? Only last year, but it was so good it quickly became a regular supper item.
When did you realise it was the best? (and who has certified it as such?) While it was in the oven and the lovely herby, garlicky, tomatoey smell reached my nose – the taste lived up to the promise. The Tattooed Daughter is my sternest judge and quickly tells me if my love for, and experimental cookery of, aubergines transcends good taste or poses a health hazard.
How often do you make it? Every 7-10 days. It sits very happily in the fridge and warms up without complaint – a glorious depth of flavour develops while it’s doing that.
Have you ever tasted anyone else’s version of this, which had you worried? The basis is a Nigel Slater recipe and his original version is as delicious as you would expect. I’ve tried it with dried haricot beans and soaking and whatnot but if I’m in the middle of something creative I often forget that bit (and everything else) so I tailored it to suit what’s in the cupboard and I only have to remember to buy aubergines.
Is this the only thing you make well? I’m a self-taught cook and mildly addicted to aubergines. One legendary family supper is The Aubergine Thing – a less pretentious melanzane parmigiana. It doesn’t have a recipe, it just sort of happens. I make an epic Fridge Clearout with whatever’s left at the end of the week and a splendid salmon coulibiac for smarter suppers.
I’m good on soups, chilli, curry, casseroles and roasts and I love to bake. I didn’t cook much while I was in London so it’s a joy to discover I haven’t forgotten how (although last autumn I did make a soup so disgusting even I couldn’t eat it).
As much garlic as you like
A tin of chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
Thyme (fresh if you have it)
Rosemary (fresh if you have it)
2 tins of beans (cannellini, haricot or whatever you’ve got)
200mls vegetable stock
120g white bread crumbs
Wash the aubergines and take off the stalk, then slice in half lengthways and then in half again. Put a good splash of olive oil into a deep heavy-based casserole, put on the heat and fry the aubergines until they’re soft and brown on the cut side. Remove from pan and set aside.
Peel the onions, chop roughly and cook them in the same pan for a good 10-15 mins until soft and golden. You mustn’t rush this bit – onions cooked slowly are delicious. Peel, thinly slice the garlic and add to the onion as it cooks.
Set oven at 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
When you’re happy with the onions, add the tomatoes, bay leaves and either 4 sprigs of thyme and 3 of rosemary if fresh or the equivalent in dried herbs (a teaspoon-ish). Add a good dollop of tomato puree and cook for 5 minutes.
Rinse and drain the beans and add into the pan with the browned aubergines. Season well and add the stock. Partially cover the pan and simmer for a good 10 minutes
While it’s doing that you can make your breadcrumbs and mix in some thyme leaves. Take the casserole off the heat and scatter the herby breadcrumbs over the top then shake over enough olive oil to lightly saturate them.
Bake for 25/30 minutes until the crust has gone all crispy and the cassoulet is bubbling up around the edges.
Serves 4 – 6.
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Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear