Vaguely inspired by falafel, these combine all my favorite flavors from Middle Eastern mezze: smoky, burnt aubergine, earthy chickpeas, bitter walnuts, and creamy feta. Jewel-like sour cherries are a surprising but wonderful addition, peppering the mixture with a little sweetness and harmonizing all the other flavors. These are a nod to my love of dried fruit in the savory dishes of Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. You could even use fresh cherries in season, although dried ones will have a slightly richer flavor. Dried cranberries or chopped dried apricots will work in place of dried cherries if you prefer.
For the burgers
70g dried sour cherries
1 tablespoon rapeseed or olive oil, plus extra for frying
1 red onion, very finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon sumac
¼ teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
50g fresh breadcrumbs
400g can of chickpeas, drained well
20g flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
120g feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
plain flour, for dusting
pitta, flatbreads, or burger buns, to serve
little gem lettuce leaves, to serve
freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
1 garlic clove, crushed
juice of ½ lemon, plus extra to taste if necessary
180g full-fat plain yogurt
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra to taste if necessary
Heat the grill to high. Line an oven tray with foil and lay the aubergines on top. Place them under the grill and cook for about 30–45 minutes, turning occasionally, until the skins are blackened and the flesh inside is completely soft to the point of a knife. Remove the aubergines from the grill, pierce the skins to let the steam out, and leave to cool.
While the aubergines are cooking, put the sour cherries in a small bowl and cover with hot (but not boiling) water. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6.
Place the walnuts on a small baking tray and cook in the oven for 10 minutes, until toasted, then set aside to cool.
Once the aubergines are cool, scoop out the flesh (discard the skin) and place the flesh in a colander over the sink or a bowl to drain while you carry on preparing everything else.
Heat the 1 tablespoon of rapeseed or olive oil in a small frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, for about 5–10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the spices and breadcrumbs and cook for a final 1 minute, then set aside to cool.
While everything cools, make the sauce. Simply whisk all the sauce ingredients together. Season to taste – add more salt or lemon juice if you think it necessary.
Drain the cherries and pat them dry with kitchen paper.
Put the onion mixture, aubergine flesh, drained cherries, toasted walnuts, chickpeas, parsley, feta, pomegranate molasses, and sea salt in a food processor with a good grinding of black pepper. Pulse a couple of times so the ingredients mingle, but do not over-mix – you don’t want to turn it into a purée, more of a chunky mixture with individual ingredients still visible.
Spoon the mixture into a large bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour to make the burgers easier to shape.
Dust a plate with a thin layer of plain flour. Using your hands, shape the aubergine mixture into 8 small patties (each about 7.5cm in diameter) and dust them with flour on each side.
Heat a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and add a couple of tablespoons of rapeseed or olive oil. Once the oil and pan are hot, fry the burgers for about 4–5 minutes on each side, until crispy and fragrant. You may need to do this in batches – if so, keep the cooked burgers warm in a low oven while you cook the rest.
Serve the burgers piled into flatbreads, pitta breads or burger buns, with a couple of crunchy little gem leaves and a good dollop of the garlic and tahini sauce. A tomato and red onion salad is also nice on the side.
Grilled harissa chicken
When I asked my friend Patrick to test this recipe, he reported back that grating a cucumber ‘is an activity not seemly to perform insight of any observers’! I promise it’s the only unseemly thing you’ll be required to do in the preparation of this vibrant dish. I love the contrast in both texture and temperature between spicy, sizzling meat, warm grains and thick, cold yogurt made extra refreshing with grated cucumber and fresh mint.
Peaches are a particular favorite of mine in summer salads, brightening up whatever you want to throw them in and providing a welcome burst of silky sweetness alongside the charred meat and cooling cucumber. You could also try using apricots or plums. This recipe lends itself well to barbecue season, but just use the grill or a griddle pan if you want to make it all year round. If you have vegetarian or vegan guests, the peach bulgur wheat also works excellently with some slices of grilled halloumi, some crumbled feta or some sliced smoked tofu, and it is surprisingly good with grilled or smoked mackerel, too. If you can’t find harissa, you can substitute for a teaspoon of chilli powder or chipotle paste.
Grilled harissa chicken Ingredients
For the chicken
1 tablespoon harissa
½ teaspoon sea salt flakes
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
finely grated zest of ½ lemon and 1 tablespoon juice
a generous pinch of chili flakes
300ml full-fat plain or Greek yogurt
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons rapeseed or olive oil
8 skin-on, boneless, or bone-in chicken thighs
For the yogurt
1 cucumber, roughly grated
1 teaspoon salt
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300ml thick, full-fat plain or Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves, plus extra to garnish
For the griddled peach bulgur wheat
200g bulgur wheat
juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves
3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil, plus extra for griddling the peaches
3 peaches, stoned and cut into roughly 1cm slices
The Cooking Process
First, marinate the chicken. Mix together all the ingredients except the chicken in a non-reactive mixing bowl. Stab the chicken thighs all over with a metal skewer or cocktail stick, then add them to the marinade and coat thoroughly. Cover with cling film and refrigerate, preferably overnight but for a few hours is fine.
When you’re ready to cook, prepare your barbecue (wait for the flames to die down, until you have glowing coals) or heat your grill to medium. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and place them on the barbecue or under the grill. Cook for about 15 minutes, until the skin is starting to become golden, then turn them over. Brush them with any remaining marinade and cook for another 15 minutes or so, until the skin is crispy and the juices run clear. (Bear in mind that if you’re using thighs on their bone, they will take a bit longer than boneless versions.
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Meanwhile, start the yoghurt. Put the grated cucumber in a colander and toss it with the salt. Suspend the colander in a bowl and leave the cucumber to drip through for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then squeeze out as much remaining water from the cucumber flesh as you can. Set aside.
Put the bulgur wheat in a large bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover by about 2.5cm. Put a plate over the bowl and leave the wheat for 15 minutes, then transfer the grains to a sieve and drain off any remaining water. Fluff up the bulgur wheat with a fork. Add the lemon juice and zest, along with the salt and pepper, and the spring onions, herbs and olive oil. Toss well.
Get a griddle pan hot, then brush it lightly with a little olive oil. Griddle the peach slices for about 2–3 minutes on each side, until tender and slightly charred, then stir them through the bulgur. You could also do this on the barbecue, but use a clean grill (or wash the one you used for the chicken).
To finish the yoghurt, mix the drained cucumber with the Greek yogurt, mint, and some seasoning.
Serve the chicken with the bulgur and a generous dollop of cucumber yogurt alongside. A green or avocado salad is also a nice addition.